Love On The Line

How Sarah Mispagel and Ben Lustbader finally happened, in their own words.

February 14, 2018 ● 4 min read

As told to Cassandra Landry | Photo courtesy of Sarah Mispagel

In the spirit of love, we'd like to point out that not all office romances are doomed, you guys.

To be fair, this love story began as a friendship, as many do. The work (and the team) always came first, and so the good times rolled through the life cycle of one essential Chicago restaurant, Nightwood, and into another, Giant.

Of course, you can only put off sheer magnetism for so long.

Sarah Mispagel, pastry chef at Sepia and Proxi: I remember meeting him very vividly because he wasn't really around for any of my interviews at Nightwood. He went to the other pastry chef tastings and was involved in the other processes, but I only met him after I'd already been offered the job. One night, he popped into the office and I'd never seen him before; he was wearing this chunky gray sweater, which I am still very fond of. I remember thinking that he was really cute.

Ben Lustbader, chef/partner at Giant: I tried to be involved with those sorts of tastings and stuff—for whatever reason, I wasn't able to be there for hers. But, she got the job, and as people and as co-workers we clicked pretty much immediately.

I can't remember what the first day working with him was like, because I was terrified. My first day was actually Valentine's Day.

I liked her and respected her from the start. There were definitely feelings, but neither of us acted on anything.

I always had a lingering thing for Ben, but our timing was always off. I'd be dating someone, he'd be dating someone. I was really nervous to do anything when we were at Nightwood, just because we were the pastry chef and the sous chef. So I was like, I'll wait to see if Ben makes a move. Ben's shyer than I am, so of course, he did not.

Once, [Chef Jason Vincent] and I worked a Lollapalooza after-party, so we got Lollapalooza passes, and we split them up among the chefs. Ben and I went the same day and had a great time. The whole time I was like, "I wonder if he's going to kiss me. I wonder if he's going to kiss me." Then he just put me in an Uber and was like, "Have a good night, that was fun." I was like, "I hate you." He was always the perfect gentleman.

I got to the point where I really valued the friendship that we did have. We hung out a lot. That kind of creates this hesitation…you don't want to be wrong and screw all that up.

But then she moved away for a while.

We had originally talked about me being on the opening team for Giant, being really in it with them. I looked at spaces, we were developing all this stuff together. But eventually, I decided to move to St. Louis for a year.

St. Louis, I decided pretty quickly, was a not a good fit for me. So I moved back and realized there were a lot of things that I would do if I wanted to live my best life and my best Chicago. I had some regret about at least not telling Ben that I had feelings for him. We'd gone to Lost Lake for tiki drinks and there were a few times that I almost did, but I never actually pulled the trigger on it.

After moving back, I didn't want to feel like I was missing out on what could be this cool life that I'd built for myself in my head.

She came back. I'm not a big believer in fate, in destiny, and all that sort of stuff, but when things align in your life and you get another opportunity to be honest with yourself and be honest with another person and have a real conversation that leads to a real relationship, it gives you that extra jolt that you need to do something about it.

It was during the World Series. It was like one of the only slow nights at Giant that's ever happened. I was working an AM prep shift, and Ben came flying down the stairs. He's like, "JV said I can leave. What are you doing?" I said I had to go home and walk the dogs, and he offered to come with me. We got the dogs, and ended up walking all around the city. I think we covered something like 10 miles, just walking from place to place.

Then he kissed me, and that was that.

I don't think I would have appreciated him the way I appreciate him now if we would have started dating when I was at Nightwood. Being older and having been through more, having been through shitty relationships, I can appreciate him in a different way than I ever thought I would. We wake up early, go work out together and have coffee. We try and find weird little pockets of our day that we can actually share with each other, so it's not just like the person that shares the apartment with you who you never see.

Lately, we've been really into making pizza on Monday nights. We've been testing out different doughs, and different ratios, and different sauces.

I trust her taste and her opinion. What she thinks is cool, I think is cool.

I took a second to appreciate this last Monday: I'm trying to make a really good pizza dough and I'm leaning on her for advice and suggestions and help, and we’re building them together, and they’re really good. But then I'll start picking at it. "I wish the dough was a little more this or this,” or whatever. Nerding out on it and being a little self-critical is part of the fun for me, and she's on that page. She understands I'm not trying to be a wet blanket.

When he comes up with an idea for a pastry, and I tell him that it's probably not going to come out the way he wants it to, it doesn't bruise his ego, because he doesn't really function that way. It's nice to feel relaxed enough to have those conversations and do that stuff with him. He recently made his own pepperoni, which he was really proud of.

I think a lot of things kitchen couples worry about is the competitive edge wearing each other down. Honestly, since we don't work together anymore, it’s fun to just experience food with him.