How can you maintain a work-life balance when you work with your spouse—and only with your spouse? If you’re like Bruno and Christie Chemel, you can’t. But that’s okay. In fact, it helps.
The owners of Baumé in Palo Alto, California, are the sole full-time employees at the restaurant. Bruno is the chef, prep cook, dishwasher and wine buyer. Christie is the host, server, accountant, occasional prep cook and even in-house laundry service. The only other employee is their teenage son, who helps out when he isn’t in school. Baumé entered the MICHELIN Guide San Francisco selection in 2011 with one star and obtained a second the following year, which it has kept ever since. “Each contemporary dish is refined, balanced and demonstrates an enormous attention to detail,” state MICHELIN’s anonymous troop of inspectors of the cuisine. “The kitchen focuses on seasonal ingredients and coaxing flavor to profound levels.”
The restaurant is clearly succeeding. And so are Bruno and Christie. While other relationships might crumble under the weight of such pressure, theirs seems to thrive.
Baumé did not start as a family affair. “It was more that the universe pushed us to do it,” Bruno says. “It’s not that we decided, okay, tomorrow it will be the two of us. It just ended up being that way.” Bruno is a perfectionist; a talented chef who is unwilling to compromise. He likes his mis-en-place just so and his kitchen impeccably clean. He likes his dishes washed in a certain way. “It’s very hard to find people that understand what I want,” he says. “That doesn’t mean people are bad, I’m not trying to say I’m the best or whatever, but I like to work in a certain detailed way.”
By 2015, the last chef at Baumé had left for New York and the dishwasher (Bruno’s brother-in-law) had also moved on. Bruno completely took over the kitchen and Christie ran the front-of-house by herself. But they were not quite alone in their endeavor. The couple’s son, who was just 11 years old at the time, insisted on helping. “People always ask, ‘Is it really true it’s just the two of you?’ And I say, ‘It’s two and a half,’” says Christie.
“And they say, ‘what?’ And I say, ‘Yep, he’s cooking in the back with Bruno.’” Today, their son, who will be 15 this summer, remains fiercely dedicated to cooking and becoming a professional chef like his father.
The secret to the couple’s success comes down to organization, dedication and knowing what they can handle. When the restaurant first opened there were 12 tables. Today, there are just four—well, technically five, although one is primarily reserved for regulars with last-minute reservation requests. They are open four days a week for dinner—Wednesday through Saturday—and serve lunch on Friday. When the restaurant is closed, the couple still works. Even on Sunday, which Christie says is their “resting day,” she does the laundry for the restaurant. On Monday, Christie takes care of the accounting and paperwork while Bruno visits his producers’ farms (it’s the most time apart they have all week). On Tuesday the two do prep work in the kitchen—making stocks and purees, washing the vegetables. On Wednesday they head to the restaurant to get ready for service, Bruno in the back deboning squab or making fish broth, Christie in the front, preparing the dining room. Eventually one of them leaves to get “the kid” from school, and the family gets to work preparing two-star dining experiences for their guests.
“We don’t have a work mode or an off mode,” Bruno says. “We’re basically always on. Because even when I’m taking a shower or going to the gym, I’m always thinking of the restaurant. It’s our living. But that was always one of my down sides—I am too serious most of the time. That’s probably why I don’t have many friends.” Christie laughs. “That’s just the way I am,” says Bruno.
“We’re normal people who do normal stuff at home,” says Christie. Their son, she maintains, still acts like a normal kid—except for the nights spent working in restaurant serving this level of cuisine, of course. “He’s a regular teenager, always on the computer,” Christie says. The family makes time for vacations every year, trading off visiting Bruno’s home country of France with trips to Southern California. But eating out is a rarity. “I don’t mean to be pretentious,” Bruno says. “But at home it’s faster, it’s better.” There are a few exceptions, though, including Bruno’s training ground, Guy Savoy in Paris.
If they were to do it all again, would they do it the same way, just the two of them? “Yes,” Bruno says. “Definitely.” Because as busy as they are, consumed by the restaurant, they are still happier than they ever were before. “I don’t feel any stress any more,” Bruno says. “Now, I sleep well.”
Photos by Bob McClenahan.