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Chef Antonia Lofaso is cooking up a storm. Not only is she mom to 15-year-old Xea, she's also the executive chef and owner of both Black Market and Scopa Italian Roots in California, author of "The Busy Mom's Cookbook" and she's an expert insider in the second season of CNBC's "Restaurant Startup" (catch the season finale on March 17!). Wow, right? And the best part? She's doing what she loves and knows there's still so much she wants to try.
Lofaso grew up in an Italian family where cooking was ubiquitous.
"I always make this joke, but the cable man would come over to fix something and my mom would be like, 'Did you make him a sandwich?'" the chef recalls. "That was the way you showed your appreciation for someone. That was the way that you showed love to someone. You made them a meal. So, food was second nature to everything I did."
This upbringing contributed to her lifelong passion for cooking and food. After waiting tables and being a host in college, Lofaso fell in love with the restaurant industry. Now, known for her role in "Top Chef," she has gone from TV personality to business owner. She talks with mom.me about this journey in starting her own restaurants, being a single parent and how she makes it all work.
How did you
come up with the concept for your business and at what point did you decide to
make it a reality?
takes years. It’s not necessarily this experience where you come up with an
idea of what kind of restaurant you want to do and then all of a sudden it
happens. Being a chef takes years of starting from the bottom and working your
way up to the top. I started as a line cook when I was 23 years old. I didn’t
know who I was as a person, let alone what I wanted to say about food or what I
represented in food—I didn’t even know that was an option. The way chefs create an experience in a restaurant is the same way an artist puts emotions or thoughts or ideas about the world on a canvas. I didn’t know what that was at 23. But I knew
that I needed a solid foundation of operation and what that means: Can I be a
line cook? Can I organize myself? Can I do more than one task at a time? Do I
start to see the bigger picture? I’ve been cooking for over 20 years
professionally. It’s that kind of longevity and years of collecting that
knowledge that then gets married with “What do I want to do?”
I met my business partners four years ago, I had opened restaurants that were
good, closed restaurants that were bad, worked for other people, regurgitated
other people’s ideas on what they wanted their restaurant to be. With Scopa
Italian Roots, this was the first time I had been in a situation where the
marriage was in partnership with “What do you want to say, Antonia?” I was
really given the creative freedom.
some big decisions in your journey, including the move from Spago to Foxtail
and your time at "Top Chef." Do you have any tips for those looking to move from
secure jobs to starting their own business?
It is so
scary starting your own business. It is like the scariest and most rewarding
thing—all at the same time. I say congratulations to the person
who is willing to step out of that comfort zone of the security of their
paycheck, and the security of their 401(k), and the security of their insurance
to doing something that they truly believe in. That being said, they really
need to have that game plan and they need to understand the hard work and
organization and dedication that goes into running your own business.
Image via CNBC
How much money should someone have saved
before starting their own business?
Bastianich (one of the investors on “Restaurant Startup”) says that if you have
a lot of money and you want to go into the restaurant business, you might as
well burn it in the middle of the street because at least you’ll stay warm with
the fire. Every time I hear him say that I’m like, God, it’s so true! I would
always suggest that you don’t put all of your own money into it and you get a
couple of different partners to share the costs and equity. You don’t want to put
your savings or your financial retirement in jeopardy.
Was there a moment when you wanted to give
up but pushed on through anyway?
opened my first restaurant in Los Angeles, it was with a company that
railroaded over everything that I knew to be true in the restaurant industry. I
was contracted to open the venue and I was trying to do my best to get it open.
Everything that I know was wrong in the restaurant industry happened in this
I look at it
now and I’m like, oh, I could have really spoken up, I could have walked away
from the project, I could have done this. But in that moment I was still
finding my voice and figuring myself out. It was an epic failure. I mean, I
shouldn’t say "epic failure" because there are still people who love that place, and I appreciate that, but it was the worst
experience of my life.
really give me any freedom to create. I was second-guessing myself and a
nervous wreck the entire time. There was no mentorship, there was no support,
and then it failed and we all wondered why it failed when that’s where it was
going to begin with. I was so brokenhearted because at the end of the day, the
failure is never on the restaurant or the people behind it, pushing or
dictating how the chef moves, it’s the chef. After that, I became a personal
chef for two years.
At what point did you consider yourself
I think someone said that to me the other day. They were like, "Are you
enjoying any of this?" And I’m like, "What?" And they said, "Everything that
you have created!"
I’m still in
the zone of, "What have I created?" I don’t feel like I’m there yet. I’m still
moving and I’m still looking at all these other things that I want to do and
that I’ve seen other people do. I’m not in the end zone yet. I still have the
ball tucked under my arm and I’m still running with it. I feel like I just
started to be honest. I’ve been cooking for 20 years and I feel like I just
How do you balance your work/home life, or
is there even such a thing?
The only way
that I find balance is the constant reminder that it isn’t the quantity of time
but the quality of time. Spending four days in Mammoth with my daughter over
Valentine’s Day weekend and snowboarding with her—it’s that kind of
experience. As soon as we step into Los Angeles, I was like, "Gotta go!" But,
when we were snowboarding it was like an excursion together and we have these hilarious
fun stories to talk about, and we have us tumbling down a double black diamond
that was totally caught on her GoPro. It’s like that, the quality of time
spent together where the balance comes.
What was the best advice you ever
received? Worst advice?
advice I’ve ever received came from my father. I was very scared about opening
Scopa and a couple weeks before we opened, I was arguing with one of my
business partners. I was feeling a
little defeated, really nervous, and was second-guessing myself in a lot of things.
It was raining one morning and I was in a hoodie and crying. My daughter had
already gone to school and I came out of my room. My dad has been helping me like build my house, and after I
came out of my room he was like, "Are you OK? Did you hurt yourself? Are you
alright?" And I was like, "You know, I just don't know if I can." I was
just getting into this mode of totally feeling sorry for myself and my dad just
looked at me and said, "Stop it right now. You are not allowed to feel sorry
for yourself. You worked too hard for what you are doing for you to sit here
and mope and cry about your feelings being hurt. You know what you are supposed
to do, so just go get it done. Now go get dressed and go to work."
It takes a village for any mom, but for a
mom juggling restaurants, a cookbook and shows, it must take
a huge village. So who are your go-to people/services?
is huge! My situation is a little different because Xea’s dad passed away. I
never like to use the phrase "single mom" because there is nothing singular about
my raising Xea. My father, my mother, his mother, his father, my brother, my
friends, everyone really rallied to help me.
I do CrossFit
and people in my CrossFit community rallied to drive Xea places, coach her. I
have pages of people that stepped up to help us and help raise her.
about asking for help and keeping yourself open to that kind of love and support
because it’s out there. Family
isn’t restricted to your mother and your father and your brothers. It’s about surrounding
yourself with good people. My sous
chefs from Scopa and Black Market, my manager, my business partner—all of them
support me, like it’s a family.
What do you do to unwind and recharge?
spa! I am a big fan of Koreatown (in Los Angeles), and there are amazing Korean
day spas there that do acupuncture and acupressure. I am a big fan of Chinese
preventative medicine so once a week I see a natural doctor and I have cupping
and acupuncture done to unwind and it’s amazing! Every three weeks I will go to
the Korean day spa and have a two-hour acupressure, stretching and meditation
Image via CNBC
Finally, take me through a day in your
I wake up
about 6 a.m. and I make breakfast. I
always make Xea breakfast then I make her lunch. My mornings are getting her up, getting her ready for school
and I drive her to school. I’m always with Xea in the mornings because I
usually don’t get her after school. I drop her off and do a 9 o'clock CrossFit class. I religiously
do some kind of exercise class, whether it’s Bikram or CrossFit and that’s from
9 a.m. to 10 a.m. Then, I go home I
eat, I shower and then I usually answer emails and/or return phone calls for
like a good three hours and that goes from anywhere from like 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. I
am usually at Scopa by 3, where I will follow up on things
for the week, organize and then I run service either at Scopa or Black
Market. I’ll be at dinner service until
about 10 o'clock that night. I’m
usually in bed between 11:30 p.m. or 12 a.m. And then it starts all over again.