Chefs Pamela Downs and Lisa Williams have food in their blood, and that’s why they are at it again – operating a new café to showcase their culinary talents.
Downs, a 56-year-old Fort Wayne native, talks lovingly of growing up in the restaurant business at her father’s upscale bistro, Hartley’s, which she later co-owned before it closed in 2009.
Even though it’s very, very difficult and hard work, there is nothing more beautiful than a fantastic meal, she said.
Williams learned from her Italian grandmother whose wonderful garden included figs brought over from Italy and a host of other fresh delicacies.
She helped start the now-defunct Chuck & Bird’s restaurant before teaming up with Downs for their latest adventure – Honey on the Table, 2461 Hobson Road.
Even though the two have seen their restaurants rise and fall, they aren’t daunted by the challenge.
It’s a very spontaneous and exciting job. It changes every day, Williams said. We’re older and not rookies. We know we don’t have to prove anything to anybody or ourselves. We know what’s good. We don’t try to re-create the wheel every day. We like simple things with good ingredients.
She loves the everyday interaction with customers but cherishes the working relationship she has with Downs.
We’re great innovators, just bouncing ideas off each other all the time, calling each other in the car to talk about vinaigrette, Williams said.
Their relationship goes back decades – to when Downs was headed off to cooking school in the late 1980s and Williams came into Hartley’s to apply for a job. Both honed their craft in different venues but always stayed close.
Honey on the Table opened in December, and is a café and bakery that focuses on fresh bread, fine ingredients and harmonious sandwich and salads. They also do some selective catering on the side.
The restaurant is flooded with light from its many windows, accenting the bright colors of the place – even a pink kitchen. And a summer patio with fresh flowers is packing them in.
So far the two have done no advertising, taking advantage of the culinary following they have built in the city.
Williams said the partners tweaked the hours so that they are closed at 4 p.m. and have plenty of time for family.
It’s doable for us, she said, noting the biggest lesson she has learned from working in other restaurants is to be able to change things if they aren’t working. Look at your menu regularly, adjust, make it work.
Downs, meanwhile, said she has learned to watch costs more closely – on a daily basis so issues don’t build into an unwelcome surprise.
Williams said she hopes her children stay out of the restaurant business because of the difficult work and long-term payoff.
But her passion is clear when she spins an eloquent yarn about the light sweetness of her favorite salad on the menu – the spa salad with crisp arugula, fresh melon and cucumber, parmesan shards and a hint of spiced honey.
Likewise, Downs practically salivates when talking about the café’s rustic grilled cheese sandwich – on sumptuous country-style fresh bread with three fresh cheeses.
I think you need to do things in your life that are your passion, Downs said. That’s why we are trying again. You have to take the bitter with the sweet.