Kevin and Darren Malhame are co-owners of Northstar Café, Third and Hollywood, and Brassica in the greater Columbus area of Ohio, alongside Kevin’s wife Katy. We took some time to chat with them about how they got started in the restaurant business and what drives them to source fresh, sustainable ingredients.
What inspired you to get into the restaurant business?
Kevin: My fascination with food probably took root during early elementary school. My mom spent a lot of time trying to feed a house full of boys while also proving to her in-laws that she could make great Lebanese food. She was constantly experimenting and I liked to help out. At some point in time during middle school, I received hands-on lasagna lessons from a carpenter who was working on this money-pit house we moved into when I was little. It was really good lasagna.
Fast forward to college, I went to Washington University in St. Louis where I met my wife and partner Katy. We started dating our first year in college. For Valentines Day, I asked her to wear her best dress and told her that a limo would arrive to pick us up promptly at seven to take us out. I had covered the walls of my dorm with sheets, lit thirty or so candles, and made a four-course dinner with a crockpot and a hot plate. I was luck I didn’t cause a fire.
Sometime during our junior year, Katy who was a seven-year vegetarian at this point, asked for a bite of my burger and then finished it. Later, when we moved in together and started cooking a lot, it crystallized for us both that we shared a passion for food and a desire to run a restaurant that would serve food we love.
As I prepared to graduate Wash U., I knew I wanted to train in restaurants both to learn more about cooking and to learn the business. I spent some time staging during my final years in school, and then I applied to Hillstone restaurant group. Hillstone is a remarkably focused and disciplined restaurant group, and my experience there was incredibly formative.
The final phase of our pre-Northstar development was integrating the love Katy and I have for naturalism and the outdoors into our cooking. Through a series of New York Times articles, Michael Pollan provided us with the vocabulary and many of the ideas we needed to translate our wilderness values into the kitchen.
How did your first concept, Northstar Café, evolve into Third and Hollywood, then Brassica?
Kevin: Owning a restaurant, for me, wasn’t only going be about delicious food and amazing service – it’s about how our guests are feeling, how our farmers are living as a result of the purchasing decisions we want to make. I want to know that my restaurant is the sort of place it feels good to eat at frequently. So the concept of our first restaurant morphed into an everyday restaurant. It went from this more upscale experience to somewhere you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. That’s how Northstar really formed.
Darren: It’s a place where foodies can enjoy themselves and still get up from the table and have a productive day at work or energetic evening with the family. Northstar is the foundation of our business, because it is the foundation of a balanced diet. We have some guests who dine with us five days a week, sometimes two meals a day. We’re like their personal chef. To some people, it may seem like a dressed up fast food restaurant when really it’s a dressed down fine dining restaurant. It’s not immediately self-evident that we’re making our food from scratch, that we’re handling such high quality ingredients, that we’re doing something elevated.
Years later, when the opportunity came to get a hold of this great, historic building, we realized it wasn’t really right for Northstar. We thought we could do a fine dining-style restaurant. Why not? We know how to cook, and we know how to do great service. So we created Third & Hollywood as a more upscale, casual restaurant to highlight, internally, the fact that we know how to cook great food. It doesn’t matter whether it’s what people consider as fine dining, or upscale casual dining, or whether it’s everyday food at the restaurant.
Our third restaurant, Brassica, was a running joke between my brother and me for years. We called it, “the pita pit.” We loved the simplicity of a really focused menu. The best restaurants in the world don’t give you a choice of what to eat. They know what they’re about to serve every guest, and that’s how they’re able to execute it at very high level. With a focused menu restaurant like Brassica, a strong team can achieve a level of distinctively highly quality on a very consistent basis. It’s not quite easier to be perfect, but once we achieve something close to perfection, it’s easier to duplicate it dish after dish.
Brassica is modern fast food, better fast food. It’s the new wave of Fast Food that’s starting to displace the flash frozen, preservative laden, highly processed version of fast food. It’s possible, and it’s what people deserve to eat in a fast food format. We should be able to eat healthy quickly. We should be able to eat delicious quickly. We should be able to eat in a responsible way – quickly. It just makes sense as an evolution of the ideas we stand behind.
What empowers you the most about owning your restaurants?
Kevin: Making the decision to do the right thing by our guests, by our producers. It gives us the power to take control of distribution, which is really a battle that all restaurateurs who care about the food they serve fight. If we didn’t own it, we couldn’t make the decision to sometimes be less profitable in order to serve something that we are comfortable eating or are more proud of eating.
Darren: It’s not an “all or nothing” endeavor. Making purchasing decisions, you live in the reality between your absolute convictions and the reality of the world you live in, and we continue to make incremental improvements. We work very hard at that. It’s not visible to our guests, in some sense, as it’s likely most of our guests don’t know that our beef is produced the way it’s produced. But it’s still really important to us – and it tastes great – so it just makes sense. Many of our guests trust us to make those decisions on their behalf. That’s what brands are about. We’re conveying something to our guests about how they want to live their lives, and there’s a lot of trust built up there. Niman Ranch has our trust and we sort of extend that trust to our guests.
Why do you choose Niman Ranch meats?
Kevin: Because it’s a reflection of what our guests expect out of the experience at our restaurants. It’s easy to fall in love with Niman Ranch. It’s a great story – there are real people who are trying to make a living and do the right thing for the animals, for the planet, for their families, and, importantly, they’re incredibly competent at what they do. They’re the best at what they do. You can taste it. It’s remarkably consistent; it’s consistently fantastic food. We believe our guests, whether consciously or unconsciously, can taste the difference.
For both those reasons, it’s a pretty easy choice.