Food News

How Gemma Boss Allison Yoder Keeps Things Cool at One of Dallas' Hottest Restaurants

For some, the restaurant business is a passion that grew from their days as a pre-schooler, cooking alongside mom. The business was in their blood before they knew it, shaping their views on food, work and the world. For others, though, the calling to the nonstop insanity that is working in a restaurant -- or worse, owning your own -- comes much later.

For Allison Yoder, front-of-house manager and co-owner of Gemma, a passion for the restaurant industry came out of necessity. As a struggling opera singer in New York City, Yoder stood behind bars and service stations at some of the country's best restaurants, often alongside her husband, who now works as Gemma's executive chef.

Yoder's unusual mix of experience in classical music and the restaurant business has clearly worked to her benefit. Gemma was a smash in Dallas this year, packed full most days, often well after 11 p.m. I sat down to talk to the front-of-house virtuoso about the whirlwind ride that has been Gemma's first year, working in harmony with her husband, and their big plans for 2015 at the city's unanimously-acclaimed best new restaurant.

2014 was huge for Gemma, especially by the end of the year. Best New Restaurant fromThe Dallas Morning News and D Magazine, and a packed restaurant every single night. Be honest: Did you see it coming? You had to know you were killing it. I don't know if I saw it coming, I never think about those things to be honest. My husband and I do this together and we're so crazy busy. We have kids, and we really care about being busy. We want people in the seats in the restaurant. We've been doing extremely well and we're proud of that. It's amazing to still be busy every day for a year. That's what makes us happy. We're also really proud of our repeat guests, we have a lot of regulars at Gemma now. The awards are just great recognition for us and what we've done.

Gemma has brought a lot of craziness to your lives, no doubt, but that's no easy feat. You've moved to a new city this year, you're raising twins, and you've got a busy, brand-new restaurant. Was 2014 as insane as it sounded? It's been a blur. I feel like I crashed about ten or eleven months in. After going 110% for months and not knowing anyone in this city was really intense. We didn't know anyone in the industry or where to find help. But we were so busy, and maybe that was a blessing in disguise. We just had to keep our heads down and hope for the best. It was a completely crazy year and we've handled it well, but I definitely crashed.

One of our regulars said to me that we had probably just been living on adrenaline for the last year, and we were. That's what we had to do to keep going. It's been a crazy amazing run, but we do have a lot of experience. Both of us have been in the business for over 20 years, and we had to trust that. We had to trust that we could do it and do it well.

Do you feel like Gemma has settled into a groove? It's not just constant chaos anymore? Absolutely. That was sort of our plan when we first opened the restaurant. Training, training, training our staff was really important to us. We can't be here 24 hours every day, especially with our kids, so we knew we had to have a great staff. We spent a lot of time training our staff so that they know exactly what we're trying to do.

We invested a lot of time in building a staff that we're able to trust with Gemma when we can't be here. I feel like I was never at that level before. In the past, I was always general manager of the restaurants I was working at, so I was in charge of everything. That's still mostly true here, I'm still here all the time, but I can take off on a Wednesday for my kid's birthday. That's been amazing.

How long did it take to get to that point? I'm not sure that you ever honestly feel that you get there. Probably around seven months after our opening I started to feel like we were settling in. In the first six months, you never know how things are going to shake out. You don't know how your staff is going to end up or how people are going to work together. We still have most of our staff from day one, especially in the kitchen. Our crew has been together for a long time now, and once we figured out exactly who we were, we started to attract staff that fit in at Gemma. Everything fits really well right now. We're feeling pretty good.

Do you think you got lucky in that respect? Every chef in Dallas complains about how difficult it is to staff restaurants. Why are servers so drawn to a place like Gemma? I agree that it is really difficult to find staff here, but we came from Napa, and it was more difficult there. Everyone thinks it's the culinary epicenter of the world, but it's also very expensive to live there. To get kitchen staff or line cooks or servers was next to impossible because who could afford to live there? We've always come from a background that relied on training our staff.

We hire people with good attitudes and who want to work in the restaurant business and learn everything about it. We hire those people first, especially in the front-of-house, and we train them. We don't want a revolving door of servers, we want people to stay at Gemma. I think our current staff enjoys working here because we've cultivated a nice place to work. There's no screamers here. I worked in New York where every chef, every manager screamed at me in line-up. I'm sort of shell-shocked from that. I totally believe in discipline and keeping pressure on the staff as far as knowledge of the food, but I do that in a different way. I think that's attractive to servers.

Our back-of-house staff don't work eighteen hour shifts, and a lot of restaurants here do that. Our staff also have two days off every week, and that's important to a lot of people. We're also planning to offer benefits this year, and for a small restaurant to do that is huge. We've always wanted to do that. Stephen and I come from the restaurant world where we were servers and bartenders and never had health insurance for ten years. It was important to us to make a statement that our staff would have health insurance. It's expensive, but that's how we're going to keep staff at Gemma. There are long-term benefits to working here.

I think guests may sometimes undervalue the work done in the front of the house, but a server can take an amazing dish and make it sound terrible. How do you avoid that, especially when everyone is raving about your service? It's tough. That scares me every day, probably because that was my life in New York City. I was a server and a bartender and I would hear people say things to customers that didn't make any sense or was just wrong. That terrifies me, and that's why I'm very conscious of what our servers say. I listen.

I'm going to quote something from Danny Meyer, and he always talked about "constant, gentle pressure," and that's what I live by. If I'm here, I'm not sleeping. If I see something, I'm going to fix it. You can have all the meetings and do all the talking you want, but that doesn't work. You have to really pick up on when your servers do well and when they do things that you'd rather they avoid. We're constantly training, fixing and changing.

And maybe some people are just focused on the chef, but we don't feel that way. My husband is a chef, but he was front-of-house long before he was ever a chef. He has a general manager background in restaurant and hotels, so we just have a different mentality. We came from restaurants where the front-of-house and back-of-house were actively fighting with each other, and we didn't want that in our restaurants.

When we were at Press in Napa, we changed the whole idea of separating the front and back. If a chef screams at a server, they're not going to work for us. We need everyone to get along. If you don't get along here, please don't work here. I'm tired of drama. I'm old enough that I just can't stand it anymore. I have enough going on in my life.

What do you think creates that sometimes very adversarial relationship between kitchen staff and front-of-house staff? I can only say from my restaurant experience, but chefs always thought that servers were idiots. They treated us like idiots, and a lot probably were. A lot of the staff didn't know the food, and chefs want respect. You can see, the way that chefs are trained in hardcore restaurants, you hear a certain respect there. It's pretty amazing, but you don't really hear it in the front-of-house very much. I remember constantly feeling that way when I started managing. I would hear servers chatting behind peoples' backs and rolling their eyes, and the chefs just thought that they never understood how much work they were doing back there.

Maybe serving has changed. It used to be that working as a server in a fine-dining restaurant was a very respectable job. You could make a living. But people don't really see it that way anymore. It's like this pit-stop before you get a real job. Does that devalue the service industry? That was my job when I was in New York City. I was going to be an opera singer, so being a server was how I paid my bills. I made a lot of money being a server in New York City. But for me, it was different because I really enjoyed my work. I loved the high-energy craziness of a restaurant. It was very similar to opera in that way, just this constant evolving drama.

I think that's made finding good front-of-house staff really difficult anywhere you are. You don't see professional servers anymore, people who have been at fine French restaurants for ten or twenty years. I think that goes back into the idea that it's hard to find good help. You have people who are actors or singers or people with other passions, and they need off every Saturday or Sunday. I understand that side now, and I can be flexible. As long as when you're at Gemma, you have a great attitude and give 110%, I can handle it. It just means that I have to find a lot more people to work in my restaurant.

It's interesting to me that you come from a performance background, if only because so many people might think it is incongruous to go from something so high-brow to a blue-collar industry like the restaurant business. Are there more similarities than one would think? I had never worked harder in my life than when I was a singer. I grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, so that was the beginning of hard work for me. Getting up at 4 a.m. to milk cows was not fun. When I moved to New York to pursue a career in opera, I was working two or three jobs. I was working lunch and dinner, going to auditions in the mornings. I was going to language classes and diction classes and vocal classes, and paying for all of that out of my own pocket. As a professional.

While working sixty hours a week in a restaurant. I look back on it and wonder how I did that. It's youth. I was young and crazy, but it was awesome. It was an amazing experience, and it makes me a better restaurateur. I was juggling a thousand things, and if you can make it through that, you can do anything. Same for Stephen -- he was a pianist, and we we didn't see each other for ten years between double shifts and recitals. That staged us for what we're doing now.

Can you talk about working together in this crazy industry as a couple? How has it evolved over the years? We've worked together a long time, even previous to Gemma. When we lived in Europe, we would do recitals together, and traveling together is a real sign that you can live together. We started working together very early, and we ran Press in Napa together for six years, working eighty hours a week together. That was even before kids. We've learned how to work together, and we've never had any real issues.

When we're here, we're not a couple in some ways. It's work, and we're very serious about our jobs. We have completely opposite personalities. We have a yin-and-yang thing. People call him The Zen Chef, and when I get spastic he calms me down. It works.

Are there times when it does get touchy, though? I'm not saying that it's easy, it can be very stressful. There are benefits to it, though. We both have very high standards and that can be stressful. I can say something about his food or he'll say something about a server, and that can open up a can of worms. But that's the blessing. We're both very honest. In working with previous chefs, there was a lot of ego. As a GM, I was in charge of them and if I said anything about the food, they were just scandalized.

With Stephen, I can say something. He knows that it's not personal. He'd rather I be honest with him than send something bad out to a guest. When I'm away or my kids are sick, he understands the front of the house and can step in and handle it for me. It's nice.

Outside of your role in training and maintaining the staff at Gemma, you've also been heavily involved in cultivating the much-lauded wine list. Can you talk about your experience with wine, and what made you so interested?

I fell into it, that's really the best way to describe my introduction to wine. I never studied wine or wanted to be a sommelier, but I just had a lot of experience. Living in New York, I worked in French and Italian restaurants, which obviously care about wine. I had a general manager in one of my first jobs who was very geeky about wine, especially Rieslings, and we would talk about the wines in-depth. He was so passionate about it, so I started getting into it on my own. But I was 22 at the time, and an opera singer, so I didn't really think it was going to go anywhere.

Living in Italy really opened up my wine experience. I was drinking really great wine with food, and it became a culture for me. That's what you do in Italy, you have a glass of wine with lunch. It became a part of our lives, and that was easy because I really like drinking wine. Then, of course, being in Napa. You're surrounded by beautiful wine all the time.

When I first started there, I was the wine director for three years. It was a lot of work, running the restaurant and doing wine, but I had learned a lot. I learned a lot about winemaking while living there, and that's really shaped my ideas for the list here. The list evolved from there. Stephen and I worked together, going through every wine for three months before opening. It was not as easy as it sounded. Don't bring that up -- not the opening!

Now that the opening is well behind you, what do you hope that the new year brings for the best new restaurant in Dallas and its owners? Survival. Really, though? We want to do more at Gemma in terms of organization now that the chaos of the year is over. We're going to really dial into our restaurant even better because this business is tough. If you're not consistent in year two and three and so on, you're going to slow down. We want to go in deeper, try new things, but still stay with our philosophy. We're also going to really work with our staff more and, of course, add in more training. That's really what this year is about, and figuring out what's next.

We might do another restaurant but it might not be this year, but we don't know when that's going to be or what's going to happen. We have three or four ideas but no idea where we're going to land. We're also really focused on finding balance. Finding balance between work and family, balance in our restaurant. I worked for a year building this restaurant, and I didn't even think about myself in that time. I need to do that this year.

Those are really big goals, especially with a family. It's really hard to be a working mom and run a restaurant, right?

This is easy compared to being a mom. Going home to two almost 4-year-old boys is chaos. That's drama. It's easier being in the restaurant. I did think the business was tough and I used to complain, and now I think it's actually easy. Compared to having kids, a family, and some kind of sanity? You laugh, but it's true. Sometimes when I come into work, I feel like I can breathe. It's quiet. It really is crazy, and that's why Stephen and I are so focused on balance for ourselves. If we don't have balance, the kids don't, and the restaurant certainly doesn't.

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Amy McCarthy