Go Small

Chef Jerry Regester at Rise+Roam, in which he is a part-owner. The bakery, part of the Folktale restaurant group, opened in Carmel in 2020 early in the pandemic.

Chef Jerry Regester lugs a tray from the kitchen at Carmel’s Rise+Roam to a workspace and begins chopping. Moments later he visits the restaurant’s front counter, wearing an apron and a smile that speaks of genuine satisfaction.

“It’s so nice to cook again,” he says.

Until recently, Regester helmed the kitchen at Schooners in the ritzy Monterey Plaza Hotel. Now he’s a partner in the corner spot that serves as both restaurant and bakery.

It’s a move toward something smaller and more casual – a direction that might seem unusual for a traditional career trajectory. But Regester isn’t the only one making this kind of switch.

Todd Fisher also stepped back from the limelight. For years the face of Carmel’s swanky Seventh & Dolores steakhouse, as well as other kitchens in the Folktale lineup, he now busies himself readying Seaside’s The Meatery to fully reopen. Fisher also purchased Valley Hills Deli in Carmel Valley.

“I loved my time at Folktale,” the chef says. “But man, this is fun.”

Tim Wood had the decision to downsize made for him when new management at Carmel Valley Ranch decided to change things up. He now owns Woody’s at the Airport and also uses the f-word – fun – to describe the situation.

Anecdotal reports from across the country suggest that standout chefs stepping down from fine dining destinations in favor of lower-key establishments is something of a thing. Even before the pandemic, demand was growing for chef-driven casual kitchens. A 2015 Zagat survey, for example, found that 78 percent of diners – the majority in their 20s and 30s – hoped for more scaled-down options.

But Covid certainly stirred the pot. According to Nation’s Restaurant News, over 110,000 dining establishments across the country had shut down for good or for the long haul by the end of December 2020.

The closures forced a lot of career shifts, obviously. For chefs who remained in their positions, however, downtime as diners sheltered in place may have given some the time to ponder quality of life issues.

“It’s about mental health,” Fisher explains. “No one talks about it, but we put out so much energy. You get exhausted.”

Work ethic is as much a chef’s currency as mastery of ingredients and technique. Downsizing does not change the effort it takes to keep a restaurant running. But Fisher and Wood are now owners. Regester has a stake as a partner.

“If I pull a 14-hour day now, that’s money in my bank,” Fisher says. “It’s a great feeling to work on something for yourself and your family.”

The sense of participation and achievement is part of that quality of life. Serving as executive chef over a team of other chefs and line cooks while answering to ownership can distance a chef from the rigors of the line.

“There are so many people, you just guided the ship,” Regester observes. Even though Rise+Roam is part of the Folktale operation, there are fewer cooks in the kitchen – literally and figuratively. “You are more hands on,” he adds. “That’s the fun part, making it your own.”

That was part of the appeal for Fisher, who says he had been thinking of downsizing for some time. A year ago the notion of buying the deli came up. The Meatery also came available and after a little back and forth he managed to close both deals.

Fisher compares his new role to traveling back in time. As a young chef on the line, he was tasked with breaking down beef, trussing chicken and other basics.

“For me, I like working on things, getting back to being a butcher,” he says. “At Seventh & Dolores that was no longer my role. By no means am I complaining, but there’s more to life. I want to do what I love.”

The concept of scaling back does not apply to quality. The menu at Woody’s, for instance, is studded with phrases like Harris Ranch, Swank Farms and pasture-raised – words that play in the local, seasonal, sustainable, farm-to-table mantra.

Descriptions at Rise+Roam carry a different, but equally appealing, cachet. Think San Marzano tomatoes and bufala mozzarella. And Regester is planning on additions to the menu.

“We’re going to define who we are,” he says.

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