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Austin’s Culinary Couples: Dynamic Duos Behind Some of the City’s Best Restaurants

Three of Austin’s powerhouse chef and restaurateur couples discuss life and love inside and out of the kitchen


Despite the age-old warnings about the perils of workplace relationships, there seems to be a recipe for success for certain chef and restaurateur couples united not only in their lives but in their culinary pursuits, including major players in the Austin’s restaurant scene.

In fact, we couldn’t help but notice dozens of the city’s most treasured restaurants are run by partners both inside and outside of the kitchen. The teams at Austin staples like Justine’s, Birdie’s, Lenoir, Intero and Fil N’ Viet are not only tied together in business, but in love. Many of these powerhouse duos have managed to channel their passion into successful foodie hotspots while cultivating a life together. These gastronomic innovators are no doubt helping to contribute to the passion that lies within the city’s unique gastronomic ecosystem.

We sat down with three powerhouse couples behind a few of these beloved Austin restaurants and discovered the unique ways in which they bring their love of food — and each other — to the table.

Margarita Kallas-Lee & Phillip Frankland Lee of Scratch Restaurants

Photo by Jess Williams

To borrow from Gen Z, Margarita Kallas-Lee and Phillip Frankland Lee are what you’d call “Booked & Busy.” The two-time Michelin-starred chefs became new parents and opened eight (!) of Scratch Restaurants’ 12 concepts last year alone. You’ve probably been on the waitlist for one of their extremely popular Austin destinations, Sushi by Scratch Restaurants, Pasta Bar & NADC Burger, and, with a new concept just opening in Montreal, there are no signs of slowing down.

Their supersonic success has been hard-earned and not without its challenges. To open a new restaurant, Phillip dedicates six weeks of complete immersion into the restaurant to ensure the most elevated experience. “When I have to go away for months at a time, I’m going away to do something that we decided together we wanted to do,” he says, acknowledging the sacrifices both he and Margarita have to make. “It’s never easy, but it’s easier when you have a shared vision.”

Photo by Weston Carls

Unlike many of the couples we spoke with, Phillip and Margarita didn’t meet in the restaurant scene. “We actually met in middle school,” Margarita explains, “We reconnected years later when Phillip, , offered advice on culinary school.” Shortly thereafter Margarita would leave NYC and return to LA, where Phillip was based. Fast forward to today; “We’re now going on half our lives of cooking together.”

Their long history isn’t the only secret to their success. They’ve found that in addition to a shared goal, clear lanes regarding decision-making help them work through things smoothly. Regarding desserts, pastries, branding, and marketing, Margarita has the final say. When it comes to menu decisions, it goes to Phillip. When larger questions come up like “Do we open another restaurant?” for Phillip, the answer is, “99% of the time very clear. Is this the right thing to do or not? And you keep it focused on whether it’s the right thing to do and not just the thing you want to do.”

Photo by Weston Carls

So where do Michelin-starred chefs go on date night? For Margarita, it’s an easy answer, “Birdie’s!” she says, laughing. “There was a time during my pregnancy I was there almost three times a week. It’s SO good.” For Phillip, he has to think about it, “There’s just so much good food here. There are so many great restaurants. For steak I’m going to J. Carver. And we love what they’re doing at Fukumoto. Their food really tastes like you’re in Japan.”

When asked what he’d say to a young couple looking to follow in their footsteps, Phillip pauses to think and then offers, “It’s the best life in the world that I wouldn’t wish upon my enemies. You have to want this more than anything else. And as a couple, If we didn’t want the same things, this wouldn’t be possible.”

Mike Diaz & Laura Sawicki of Oseyo

For Oseyo’s executive chef Mike and his culinary director (and partner) Laura, working together didn’t always come easy. “Years ago I worked at Fresa’s, and she was my boss. That didn’t go very well,” Mike laughs. Today at Oseyo, they are equals, a balance that has proven to work for both the restaurant and the couple. “This is now much more of a partnership. Working with Lynn , we both want to do right by her, and we’re working collectively together towards the same thing,” Laura adds.

Despite the challenges the first time around, it now comes as a great reprieve for their relationship to work together again. For 12 years they were ships in the night. “Our schedules were the complete opposite of one another’s for a long time. I got very used to having dinners by myself every night,” Laura recalls. “One reason working together was so exciting was the thought that we could spend more time together.”

They’ve learned, however, that there’s a fine line when bringing home into the workplace. “We have such great open communication that we can be brutally honest with one another. But sometimes we blur that boundary of how we talk to each other, like, ‘Would you say those things to another coworker or another peer?’”

Photo by Jessica Attie

Despite the learning curves, they both agree that working together has strengthened their relationship, and their mutual respect for one another has grown as they’ve spent time at the restaurant. “Laura is an excellent chef,” Mike declares lovingly, “she helps in so many ways like leadership and thoughtfulness. She pushes the food to a higher level, and it’s been really fun to see where it goes. And I think she’d say the same about me.”

After being at the restaurant all day, they both really enjoy their nights at home. When staying in, Laura takes over as executive chef, specializing in warm comfort dishes. They mention a long list of favorite date-night-out spots, but for them, Bufalina is top of mind. “The food is so good, and we have so many friends there. A lot of crossovers between our restaurant and theirs. We know everyone!” Laura explains.

As for advice for other couples looking to jump into business together, Laura emphasizes honesty, “You have to ask yourself if the relationship is strong and if both individuals are willing to listen to one another and be flexible.” Mike leaves us with his hard and fast rule, “Don’t bring it home. Leave it at the restaurant, there’s nothing that can’t wait.”

Jam Sanitchat & Bruce Barnes of Thai Fresh

Photo by Jody Horton

Thai Fresh owners Jam and Bruce come from opposite ends of the world — Bangkok and Irving, Texas, respectively — but found love here in Austin. Jam began her start in the restaurant industry waiting tables as she completed a masters program at UT. As she prepared to leave to begin a PhD program in New Jersey, she met Hoover’s then-manager Bruce.

“There’s always a boy. Whenever someone says ‘oh I didn’t end up doing ’ I say ‘where is the boy? Who is the boy in question?’. There’s always a boy,” Jam says smiling.

After finding success sharing her skills in cooking classes, Bruce and Jam opened the door to Thai Fresh in 2008 and have since become veterans in the Austin restaurant scene, providing a warm space with fresh food and innovative experiences. Through all the changes the city has seen in the last 15 years, Thai Fresh remains a beloved favorite.

Photo by Holly Cowart

Despite its decade-plus of success, they initially had smaller dreams for Thai Fresh. They started out as a small deli with a “teaching kitchen” for Jam to expand her cooking class business. It wasn’t until customers consistently asked for their deli counter purchases to be heated and served to them that Jam and Bruce appreciated the community’s desire for a full restaurant. This (literal) overnight change was a huge leap of faith for both of them, and Bruce quickly realized he’d need to get his hands dirty. “Jam has always led the kitchen, whereas I’ve always been a front-of-the-house guy. But I tried to be as helpful as I could. I would bus tables and wash dishes. Sometimes with our one-year-old son strapped to my back!”

This all-hands-on-deck approach seems to be a consistent theme in their relationship. This isn’t to say they don’t have their specialties; Bruce excels at managing the restaurant, bills, and vendors, while Jam prefers to be behind the scenes running the kitchen and leading the vision for their brand. But when push comes to shove, they happily step into each other’s shoes. This true partnership makes for mostly smooth sailing both at home and in the restaurant, “We disagree very rarely, but every now and then, we have to have a discussion, and whoever has the best argument gets to make the decision,” concludes Bruce. “It’s very rare we have those situations because Bruce trusts my vision,” adds Jam. Jam’s latest vision led to Gati, a vegan coffee shop/ice cream parlor/bakery adjacent to the restaurant and a new location in East Austin.

Photo by Jessica Attie

As Jam and Bruce often work seven days a week, date nights are low key occasions. “We go to maybe two concerts a year. And we love trying out new breweries,” Jam reveals. Their current favorite? “Meanwhile Brewing. They have the best sour beers.”

The advice they would offer to other couples in the business: pay attention to the needs of your partner. “I think you have to be able to recognize when there is a problem and do something about it and change the dynamic,” Jam shares. “I also think a love for the business is most important. It makes it that much easier to thrive, even if there is a problem. If you love the same thing, it makes it easier to get through anything.”

MORE: Our Top 15 Favorite Restaurants for Date Night in Austin

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