5 of Chicago’s Coolest Food Couples

Chicago restaurants: Danielle and Thai Dang of HaiSous and Cà Phê Dá

The restaurant business is grueling. Whether working front or back of the house, the job means hours on your feet and service with a smile in a high-energy, high-anxiety environment. Getting along with your fellow workers is a necessity, as the best staffs must work seamlessly as a team to achieve greatness in the kitchen and at the table.

But how one gets from “Let’s hang out after work” to “Let’s get married” and “Let’s put all our eggs in one basket and open a restaurant together” is a story that begs to be told. Navigating the acmes and pitfalls of running a restaurant — the financial and personal burdens, the big personalities involved (both guests and staff), the ebb and flow of business — and juggling home and work life can be hard on a marriage, unless the relationship is rock solid. We talk to five well-known Chicago restaurant couples who are making it all work. One tip: Form a mutual admiration society and always be supportive of each other.

Danielle and Thai Dang, HaiSous and Cà Phê Dá

HaiSous and Cà Phê Dá, 1800 S. Carpenter St., Chicago, 312-702-1303

It’s been an eventful 10 years for Danielle and Thai Dang, who’ve been together since they met through work friends in Washington, D.C. They moved to Chicago when Thai took a job with Laurent Gras at the late, lamented L20, then worked together at The Elysian Hotel before opening Embeya in the West Loop with another couple. Danielle was beverage director, Thai the executive chef, and the other couple ran the front of the house. In case you’ve been living under a rock, suffice it to say that this didn’t end well; embezzlement of funds, the FBI’s Most Wanted List, and a protracted legal action brought a sad end to the exquisite restaurant that featured Thai’s modern take on Asian cuisine. But once the extensive smoke cleared, the Dangs went on to open two fresh and exciting Vietnamese spots in 2017: HaiSous and the fast casual Cà Phê Dá.

“Looking back, I sometimes don’t know how we made it through,” says Danielle. “But we did it together and it made us stronger.” Working together at HaiSous finds lovely synergy in matching up Danielle’s thoughtful beverage programs and pairings to Thai’s sophisticated cuisine. The public and critics alike seem to agree, as they were named a 2017 Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand restaurant and a 2018 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best New Restaurant. The once-deserted corner is now pulsing with life as foodies from around Chicago descend on the Dangs’ Pilsen hot spots.

Theirs is a culinary partnership built on respect for each other’s aspirations and a genuine recognition of each other as equals, no competition allowed. When the restaurant is closed on Sunday nights, they’ll choose a special dining destination — sometimes several — or cook at home and watch a movie.

Not every couple is cut out to survive this demanding business, but the Dangs know not to sweat the small stuff. “Every day is an emergency in a restaurant. There are so many moving parts that stress can take a toll on your soul and in turn can take a toll on your relationship,” says Danielle. “Take time to reflect on your achievements together even if they are small. It’s so easy to just continue the daily grind in a restaurant. Don’t forget to pick up your head and reflect upon the things that are working.”

What do you value/respect most about your partner?

Danielle: I admire Thai’s resilience that stems from childhood after his family survived war in Vietnam and refugee camps in the Philippines before settling in America. He and the rest of his 10 brothers and sisters learned how to live, work, and thrive here in America. These adversities became his strength later in life. Thai is a hard worker, creative, kind, generous, and the best, most supportive husband I could ever ask for. It makes me a better person, business owner, and boss.

Thai: I respect Danielle because she throws down with every turn we make together and she doesn’t stop until she too is the best. She stood by me when I fell hard in business and my partners robbed us of everything we had. I respect my partner and wife professionally and personally. I respect her for her sacrifice, work ethic, and overall talent. I never could have rebuilt my life again if it wasn’t for her will to help me, if it wasn’t for her talent to be the architect and designer of our restaurant and cafe. Our mutual respect is deep rooted and imperative to good partnership.

Jennifer Jones Enyart and Brian Enyart, Dos Urban Cantina

Dos Urban Cantina, 2829 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, 773-661-6452

Chicago restaurants: Jennifer Jones Enyart and Brian Enyart of Dos Urban Cantina
Jennifer Jones Enyart and Brian Enyart, Dos Urban Cantina

By anyone’s standards, Jennifer and Brian Enyart are a power couple. They met cute in 2009 when Brian was chef de cuisine at Rick Bayless’ Topolobampo and Jennifer was applying for the plum job of pastry chef, which she won handily after interviewing with Brian. There, they fell in love with a contemporary vision of Mexican cuisine — and each other. In 2015, they left the Bayless nest and opened Dos Urban Cantina in the Logan Square neighborhood to great acclaim: Chicago magazine placed them in the Top Five of “Best New Restaurants,” and the Michelin Guide deemed their particular vision of the tastes and flavors of Mexico worthy of a 2017 Bib Gourmand. Jennifer’s innovative hand with desserts won her a nod as a 2018 Semifinalist for the James Beard Award Outstanding Pastry Chef, while the Chicago Tribune made her 2017 Pastry Chef of the Year.

“Our culinary partnership works because we respect each other’s talent, and we have a similar taste and vision,” says Brian of their working relationship. But relishing and nurturing their personal relationship is also a priority. Time off means kicking their feet up, taking in a movie, checking out other restaurants, or cooking at home and hanging out with their “low-maintenance” cat. “We spend our weekends together,” says Brian. “We spend most of our time together; it feels strange when we are apart, honestly.”

The Enyarts’ experience has been a great one, but their advice for other pairs who are considering taking the plunge into restaurant ownership — which rings true for any project a couple might take on together — is that working together so closely will be a test of your relationship. “Be sure this is the journey you want to take with each other,” says Brian. “Give it everything you have, and love each other well.”

What do you value/respect most about your partner?

Jennifer: Brian is such a natural leader — that is something I was initially amazed by. He has a genuine character and sense of humor that people are drawn to. He is loyal and has a lot of integrity. Those are just a few characteristics I love about him.

Brian: I value Jennifer’s deep love for people and wanting to create a special experience for guests and staff. I respect her ability to do anything that’s needed, from being a James Beard-nominated pastry chef to bookkeeper to host.

Nicole and John Manion, El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina

El Che Bar, 845 W. Washington Blvd., Chicago, 312-265-1130; La Sirena Clandestina, 954 W. Fulton Market, Chicago, 312-226-5300

Chicago restaurants: Nicole and John Manion of El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina
Nicole and John Manion, El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina

Nicole and John Manion knew each other from industry events, but their love story really began about six years ago, when they were at the post-wedding festivities of mutual friends. Nicole, suffused with liquid courage, pitched him her latest restaurant idea; they clicked and have been together since. Currently, they work together at the West Loop’s El Che Bar and La Sirena Clandestina, where John is executive chef and Nicole is director of operations.

John, who lived in Brazil as a child, has awakened Chicago’s taste buds to the glories of South American food. At his first restaurant, La Sirena Clandestina, the menu skews Brazilian; at El Che Bar, which the Manions opened together in 2016, Argentine cuisine is the template for deliciousness. Both spots have won plaudits from the local press, La Sirena with the 2015 Jean Banchet Award for Best Neighborhood Restaurant, and three stars from the Chicago Tribune for El Che Bar. In addition, Manion was named a Master of the Flame in the Trib’s 2017 Critic’s Choice Dining Awards.

Division of labor is key to their collaboration. “Nicole has better instincts than me when it comes to the hospitality business, and I’m smart enough to recognize this,” says John. “That is to say, we complement each other beautifully and play to each other’s strengths.” Nicole feels that John has taught her the virtue of patience, to know when the time is right for action. One of the joint projects on their horizon is starting a family. For now, Tina the Wonderdog, age 2, is enough.

The Manions have learned from experience that honest communication becomes even more important in a relationship when you work together all day. “Never let things fester,” says John. “Respect each other’s lanes. Trust one another.”

“He’s 100 percent right,” agrees Nicole. “One night we came home from work angry, not seeing eye to eye. We cracked a bottle of rosé and I said, ‘Divorce isn’t an option, we have to learn to work together, and if we can’t, I will find a new job. We love each other too much to let work get in the way.’ That night, we had one of the most honest conversations as co-workers and as husband and wife. After that conversation, we have been the strongest team.”

What do you value/respect most about your partner?

Nicole: I value his talent. John is a phenomenal cook, and I have always been a huge fan of his texture and flavor combinations. The first time he cooked for my parents, I was sold. I love his calm attitude in the kitchen and as a leader. I love the respect he has for his staff; he treats everyone like family. Also, he’s very smart, witty, and funny … very funny.

John: I value her hard work, her dedication, her compassion and determination. I’ve learned that Nicole is a hospitality savant; she just gets it, so I trust her completely.

Anna and David Posey, Elske

Elske, 1350 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-733-1314

Chicago restaurants: Anna and David Posey of Elske
Anna and David Posey, Elske

It’s been a very starry beginning for Anna and David Posey of Elske. Since the restaurant’s December 2016 opening, they’ve been showered with accolades from the Michelin Guide (one star), the Chicago Tribune (three stars), Bon Appetit (#2 Best New Restaurant in America 2017), and the 2018 Jean Banchet Awards (Pastry Chef of the Year). Together, they are finalists for the 2018 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. Not a bad start for a first restaurant.

The Poseys met when David was chef de cuisine at Restaurant Row pioneer Blackbird and Anna got her start there as a pastry intern. While David stayed at Blackbird, she headed off to The Publican, so they rarely got the chance to work together. At Elske, they’re making up for that in spades.

Before the restaurant opened, they spent a lot of time talking about their relationship, and what effect the ensuing pressures of opening a restaurant might have on it. It came down to how they were going to communicate, and how they would carve out their own piece of the puzzle. “I think over the past two years we have both developed more of an understanding of each other,” says Anna. “We understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses and try to create our specific jobs around that.” Anna is more design focused, so she handles creative issues, while David is better on the business end, so he handles purchasing and invoices.

During their workweek, they are “more like business partners,” according to Anna. But on the “weekend” — Monday and Tuesday for the Poseys — they want to “hang out like normal couples do.” So they’ll head out for a bowl of Vietnamese pho on Mondays, check out new bars, or catch an art exhibit. “But we’re also good at giving each other personal space. David usually goes to the driving range or golfing with his friends. I go to figure drawing on Monday nights, or go for a long run.” Finding just the right balance between time spent together and apart is the secret sauce to a good marriage as well as a business partnership.

What do you value/respect most about your partner?

Anna: He has such a great sense of how people work. Sometimes I am too much of an idealist, and David can be very much a realist. But it’s a really good balance for me. When I get too emotional, he has a way of helping me focus my emotions and think a bit more logically. Elske wouldn’t be here without him, 100 percent.

David: Anna brings an amazing warmth to the restaurant; I feel that she is the sole reason that the restaurant has “hygge.” She also has the most amazing eye for things and really helps me make a boring plate of food really stand out and be beautiful to look at.

Karen Urie Shields and John Shields, Smyth and The Loyalist

Smyth and The Loyalist, 177 N. Ada St., Chicago, 773-913-3773

Chicago restaurants: Karen Urie Shields and John Shields of Smyth and The Loyalist
Karen Urie Shields and John Shields, Smyth and The Loyalist

Charlie Trotter knew talent when he saw it, and you can count Smyth and The Loyalist’s Karen Urie Shields and John Shields as two more up-and-coming luminaries to do their time in that demanding kitchen environment. They met there in 2003 — Karen in the pastry kitchen, John on the line — but didn’t become a couple until 2007, marrying two years later. When Trotter asked them to run the Vegas branch of his eponymous restaurant, they demurred, choosing instead to head for rural Virginia and the then-unknown Town House. Their elevated farm-to-table cuisine put them on the map, winning notice from the James Beard Awards and Food & Wine. The location was remote and the restaurant a true destination, but after several years there they were ready to move on to their own place, preferably somewhere more populous.

Now a family of four, they returned to Chicago to open two separate restaurants: the two-Michelin-starred Smyth, deemed Chicago’s Best New Restaurant at the 2018 Jean Banchet Awards; and The Loyalist, home of the “Dirty Burg,” one of Bon Appetit’s “Best Burgers in the United States,” a canny blend of ground chuck, short rib, and bacon.

The grind of work and home make downtime elusive. “We don’t relax,” insists John. “Two kids and two restaurants make that impossible.” Carving out quality time to spend with their daughters, Cicley and Lillienne, is a high priority. “We make it work through teamwork and evolved roles in the restaurant,” says John.

As for advice for other restaurant couples looking to tread the same path, he says, “Make sure it’s someone you can’t stand NOT being around at all times! You have to be partners.” That compatibility is paramount to any successful joint venture; being able to enjoy each other’s company, especially in a pressure-filled environment, is an absolute necessity. Good chemistry is impossible to manufacture, so it’s to be cherished and nurtured, like anything truly worth having.

What do you value/respect most about your partner?

Karen: No matter how late he works service, he always gets up first, packs lunches for the girls, and helps get them ready for school. The girls adore him and getting some quality time with them is important to him (even if it’s few and far between). It’s all about family.

John: I love her attention to the smallest of details and the constant drive to improve in all aspects of our life.

Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz ScaggsRick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.