Jeana Johnson and Colleen O'Hare of Acme F&B Talk Gas Station Kitchens, Pyles' Charisma
Jeana Johnson, Colleen O'Hare and Norm Grimm
If we considered all the Dallas restaurants that Jeana Johnson, Colleen O'Hare and Norm Grimm have worked in and made a connect-the-dot style map, it would be an overly complicated, yet highly impressive sketch of "six degrees of Kevin Bacon." I bet Bacon really is in there at some point. There's some interloping involved too.
Johnson and O'Hare have now settled into three restaurants on their map, which are noted with big shiny gold stars: Good 2 Go Tacos, GoodFriends and Acme F&B.
With all these irons on the fire, they recently roped in chef Norm Grimm, to help run things in the kitchen at Acme. Weathered souls, they all be. Sort of. They're actually all rather young. But, when York Street, The Green Room and Stephan Pyles are all dots on your culinary trail, you can claim any amount of wisdom you'd like.
Their map even works outside the lines a bit. After culinary school, Grimm went to work for Traci Des Jardins at Rubicon in San Francisco, then followed her to Jardiniere. A couple years later, he sold almost everything he owned and stuffed what was left in a backpack and hoofed it over to the South of France and cooked there for ten months. Upon his return, Grimm kicked around San Francisco a little bit, then went to Ohio to cook for a big events center where he met O'Hare. A few years later he talked her into moving Texas, and they worked together in Sharon Hage's kitchen at York Street.
Johnson's first job in the restaurant industry was as a waitress at Ciudad, then after a two-year reprieve in landscaping, she enrolled in culinary school at El Centro. Her first job was at Daddy Jack's, but she really wanted to be at The Green Room.
"It was my dream job and one of the reasons I moved to Dallas [from East Texas]," said Johnson. "After getting off work at Daddy Jack's, I'd walk down there and ask for a job - every Tuesday night."
Eventually she went to Standard in Deep Ellum and met Tim Byers, "I worked there for a while. Tim said he hired me because my arms were covered in burn marks. He liked that."
Nick Badovinus stepped in next and hired Johnson for a while. Then, Marc Cassel hired O'Hare to be the executive chef at The Green Room, which also worked well for Johnson.
"I finally got my job at the Green Room!" said Johnson with her arms raised in the air like the kick was good.
Then after years of standing over ovens, working every holidays and essentially being "kitchen pirates," the pair were simply worn out. But, turns out, sometimes being worn out is the best thing that can happen to you.
"We were beat up. We wanted to relax, maybe go somewhere," Johnson says. "So, we started a website to teach people how to cook. In the meantime, to make some cash we got a job at the Green Spot at White Rock Lake. We lived near it and the owner there asked us right before they opened if we'd be interested in making ready-made sandwiches."
The girls made some extra money without the late nights and weekend hours. All was well.
"Then, we heard that the owner of the Green Spot was adding a kitchen," Johnson said. "So, I stormed up there and ask 'What's the deal? What about the sandwiches?' And he says, 'Actually, I was going to ask you two if you wanted to do something in the kitchen.'"
Johnson was borderline insulted by the mere idea. Their pedigrees at this point were just a wee bit beyond a gas station kitchen, "I've worked with Stephan Pyles and Tim Byres. Colleen was a chef at Hibiscus and worked at York Street. No way. Not even a little bit. That's not us," she told him.
"Yeah, so we did it anyway," said Johnson. "Which is were Good 2 Go Taco was born. And it was amazing. Insane. It was just magical when it opened."
Exactly 365 days after they opened at the Green Spot, Johnson knew their egg had hatched. The incubation period was over and it was time to move on and Good 2 Go Taco relocated to a brick and mortar on Peavy Road. Shortly after moving in, Johnson noticed the dive bar next door was closing.
"When I saw that space was opening up," Johnson said, "I called Matt Tobin, who I already knew and told him to open a bar and I'd do the food for it. So, GoodFriend was born. Now this [Acme]." Lightning Round:
What's next? Do you have the restaurant bug? Jeana Johnson (JJ): No, it has nothing to do with collecting restaurants. One was plenty, two is great, three is amazing. What we're really focused on is connecting with as many people as we can, both customers and employees.
Was it ever a goal to have several restaurants? JJ: We sat down a long time ago and wrote down what five concepts we'd like to open. A taco place wasn't one of them, a burger place wasn't one of them, so we've still got four concepts left. (She jests.)
What's your advice for young entrepreneur chefs out there? She gets real quiet for a minute. And, OK, she tears up. And then it gets awkward because just then Colleen walks up and wonders why I made Jeana cry. Then, we all laugh because we're all sort of crying. Then, Colleen gets all business:
1. Keep at it. 2. You don't deserve anything. You're not entitled to anything. Just because you got a degree you're not entitled to a $100,000 job. 3. Work for the best people you can find. Learn about their pedigree and force them to hire you. 4. Work your ass off. Plate every single plate like your life depends on it.
How do you manage three restaurants well? It's been said no one else will ever run a place like the proprietors... JJ: That's just not the trust. It's not. If you are sort of middle-of-the-road with things, you'll raise middle-of-the-road people. Our staff knows we're very deliberate about all the things we do.
How often do you help out in the kitchen now? JJ: We'll go in and help out at Good 2 Go get out of the weeds if they need it, which they don't very often. But, we like to show them that we old ladies still go it. (They laugh.)
What chef along the way did you learn the most from? Norm (he's at the table this whole time): mine is Tracie Des Jardin and Sharon Hage. JJ: I loved working at Ciudad. They really cared about their staff. Tim [Byres] taught me how to be tough.
On other people or yourself? JJ: No, thick skinned. No-crying-in-baseball style.
I learned charisma and working the dining room from Stephan Pyles - watching him breeze through the dining room.
We've picked up snippets along the way. In terms of having a chef mentor, this sounds super cheesy, but Colleen is my chef mentor.
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