Real Talk From a Restaurant Couple On What It Takes To Walk The Personal-Professional Line
Industry vets Caitlin and Michael Toscano opened Le Farfalle almost two years ago—here's how they're navigating the daily (weekly, forever) grind, together.
February 21, 2018 ● 7 min read
As told to Cassandra Landry | Photo by Andrew Cebulka
The best things in life are messy as hell.
And when you're a couple in the same industry, with the same dreams on the line, each step must be made with double the care and intention, lest one of you fall into the abyss.
There's give and take in every relationship, but restaurant relationships make that look a bit like child's play—striking a professional balance that doesn't make you forget what the other person looks like is a win. And if you think you might want to get into that other fun Life Stuff, like kids, and nice afternoons off, and maintaining your sanity, it takes superhuman patience and grit.
If you can hack it though, like married co-owners Caitlin and Michael Toscano do at Charleston's peaceful and lush Le Farfalle, the rewards are tenfold what you could have ever hoped. You just have to keep tunneling, until one day, you look up and you've made it.
Caitlin Toscano: We met when we were babies. I was doing a culinary externship from Johnson & Wales in Miami. I ended up in Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina, where he was finishing up an apprenticeship. I was a blonde at the time. I remember, the day that I went back to brunette, Michael was like, "Who's the new chick in garde manger?”
It was me, of course. I had been there all along.
Michael Toscano: I may have a preference for brunettes.
We were really young and shy, so we never acted on anything or flirted at work, but one time, we were picking up our drunk roommates at the same time, from the same party. We were the only two sober people in the whole place. It was really pretty natural from there. That's where the relationship took off.
She ended up getting moved to the hotline. I was lead on the station at the time, and It was this interesting situation because it was an all-couples hotline. There may have been one odd person out. We had a blast, an absolute blast working together. You hang out on your off time and then you go to work and get to do what you love, with that person.
Then it was time for me to graduate. I graduated early and it was like, I'm out of here. I wanted her to come with me. We were together and I loved her—so I took her kicking and screaming to New York City.
We put all of our belongings into a minivan and moved to New York. It was kind of one of those, "Hey, if it doesn't work out, at least we're in New York. Who cares?" Young love. Off we went!
That day is still so vivid for me because of how I nervous I was. When we get to New York, it was middle of rush hour and we go through the tunnel, Caitlin is crying. It's just insane. I'm like dodging and weaving through traffic in a place we'd never been before, trying to get to go sign a lease on a sight-unseen apartment. But we were doing it together and I was so fired up. Nothing could stop me at that point. I was so excited.
That's maybe why we clicked so well, because we were really young, but we were really driven. Failure was not an option. There was no plan B. We weren't going to go backpacking through Europe to find ourselves. This is it. We had to support ourselves.
Then, we spent 10 years in New York.
Way more than that. 15.
He was, and still is, the most passionately driven man I've ever met. He's the reason why I knew that cooking was not a career for me—because he was so, so driven. After work, he would just go home and read cookbooks, or with his spare money, go buy new cookbooks. He’s mostly self-taught. He knew everybody's names. He knew where everything was trending, all around the world. I was like, "I don't care nearly as much as he does. He's the real talent. I’ve got to find something else."
When we arrived in New York, I got a job at Craft Bar as a cook. With my spare money, I took sommelier classes, and my whole world opened up.
She got settled in and then stopped working in the kitchen and then went front of the house and she really found her calling and she started crushing it and worked for a bunch of great places.
I very quickly transitioned front of house. It took off from there: Craft, Per Se, Del Posto…I haven’t looked back, as far as cooking is concerned. I found my niche.
After we had Marley, our daughter, we were so ready to get out of New York. I was working around the clock and really thinking about what I wanted to accomplish for our future; for my career, for Caitlin’s career, because she had decided to stay home with the kids. She put her career on hold to give them the best experience.
Up until this point, the best part of my career was getting to run Manzo [Caitlin joined Eataly's fine-dining post as opening general manager] with her. She wanted to get back to work, and the best way to do that would be to open something together.
I'm driven towards making every guest come back, towards reaching out to the community and taking care of them. I foster the relationships. I do the hiring, I do the firing, and I do all the ugly stuff that nobody else wants to do. That's my role, now, but it's also making sure that everybody's happy. I work here every day, just like Michael does. We take different shifts because we do have kids now. I work all day, and then I'm home with the kids all night. Then, he'll take the night shift in the kitchen.
There's no one I trust more. It’s like having a double: There’s one of each of us on the other side of the door, front of the house and back. I have someone I have complete trust in managing the other side. We're controlling everything in our own realms and they come together to create this whole picture. It makes things kind of ideal.
I love working service. I just love the rush of like push, push, push, for just a few hours, and then it's over.
I love all the interactions with people. I love knowing that they're going to come back and that they're going to tell other people that we're here. That's a very Charleston thing; it’s new to me, being from the north.
That being said, restaurants are a really, really hard business to be in. They're open all the time, and regulars to expect to see your face every time they walk in. It's hard to pull away from it. It's hard to have any kind of balance in your life.
Don't get me wrong, there are arguments and bickering and things that never end. We're married. You almost don't have a filter sometimes. We know everything about each other, we do everything together.
Both of us working full-time means we don't have a lot of family time. Our kids are young, they're six and four, so they require quite a bit of attention. We only opened the restaurant a year and a half ago, so they come to work with us a lot. They're growing up in the restaurant, and I do believe that they will really appreciate how much work we have done for them when they're older, how hard we worked for this life. There's a huge sense of pride that goes into that, too.
Opening restaurants is all about taking your previous experiences and making the most educated guess for the next experience. As much as there is a formula that you live by or you create, it's always forever changing depending on the location, depending on the city, depending on where you're at, who you have working for you. So it's about being fluid, being able to adjust at any moment, and seeing issues and handling them immediately. You don't have time to make mistakes for a whole year and then fix them.
You have to be in the restaurant. It's about having your eyes wide open and knowing that no project is the same.
In all honesty, we're still struggling to figure it out, because this restaurant is so brand new. If I'm really backed up at work, and I can't pick them up from school, I'll send him. He'll bring them back, and we'll just camp out in the office and have dinner together. It's nothing romantic, but it’s our normal.
Right now, I don't spend enough time with them. Not nearly as much as I'd like. If they weren't able to come to the restaurant all the time and hang out…If I had a wife that wasn't part of this, man I can't imagine how shitty of a husband I would be. The thought of failure is terrifying: you’ll fail together. But if we win together, it's unbelievable, you know? So we're all in it, together, for everything. That's an amazing feeling.
Knowing they're going to be part of this with us, that's fun. We have to push really hard right now, but it's not forever. It's nice to have industry friends going through the same thing. We're all still in that stage of working really hard to get to this dream; we all still believe that it's possible. That's what keeps us going.
When I'm across the restaurant and I see my son or my daughter playing with my employees, it's amazing. I didn't grow up in restaurants. I wanted to cook and then I went all into it. But for them, it could be second nature to have all this good food around them and be able to talk about it. To get to know how to go out to eat, be comfortable around a table, be able to order wine, be able to do all those things ... that's amazing I think.
Our kids are very…well, they're food snobs. My six-year-old son eats octopus all the time. My daughter won't eat anybody else's pasta.
Oh my gosh, she's out of her mind. She's already out of her mind.
One time, we went to eat lunch and our son was like, "They really overcooked my chicken, and this is disgusting." I said, "Just eat it!" He spit it out onto the table. I was like, "Now, this is embarrassing. You guys are the worst."
There's a specific dynamic to our relationship. The way that we think together is the identity of the restaurant. When we ultimately hit those goals that we've set for ourselves, we will have done it together.
Not many people can say that.