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10 Questions With Chef Antonia Lofaso

Photograph by Alex Martinez

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?

This 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?”

When 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.

You’ve made 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?

Joe 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?

When I 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 restaurant.

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.

It didn’t 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 successful?

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 started.

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?

The best 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?

My village 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.

It’s really 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?

Korean day 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 session.

Image via CNBC

Finally, take me through a day in your life.

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.

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