Thursday, December 2News That Matters

Chef transplants are bringing new flavor to suburbs and smaller cities and towns

Denver (CNN) — Each Sunday morning, right at 10 a.m., Carolyn Nugent and Alen Ramos sit in their townhouse and watch their phones light up with email after email from strangers eager to get their hands on their much-talked about apple fritters, Berliner donuts and rye bagels.

“It went from taking us a week to sell out or still have a couple things, to selling out in 25 minutes,” says Ramos.

The secret is out: the married couple’s Ulster Street Pastry pop-up bakery is serving up some of Colorado’s best baked goods right out of their front door in Denver. The baked goods have become so popular that the couple, whose high-profile culinary jobs in Chicago came to a standstill with the pandemic, are soon opening a bakeshop in the Denver suburb of Parker, Colorado.

This time last year, the pastry chef duo sat in their Chicago apartment wondering what to do next. The pandemic had shut down restaurants. They had lost their paychecks. They had to make a decision.

“Our situation in Chicago during Covid was completely unsustainable,” explains Nugent, the former executive pastry and culinary director for Chicago’s Hogsalt restaurant group. “And this was after the two of us had the highest-paying, most comfortable jobs in our career history. And then, poof, gone!”

The couple is among a growing number of culinary stars who have transplanted their talents from America’s big cities to suburbs and smaller cities and towns because of the Covid-19 crisis.

“It makes no sense now to live in huge cities,” Nugent says. “People’s priorities have shifted in all professions. Hospitality was always a ‘sure thing,’ until now.”

Moving is nothing new for Nugent and Ramos, Hogsalt’s former executive pastry and bakery director. They’ve worked together in six Michelin three-star restaurants and lived in Los Angeles, Paris, Spain and San Francisco, to name just a few stops. But this next stop would be different.

In August, they packed up their pastry pans and Pyrex glassware and moved to Colorado to be close to Ramos’ family in Parker, a suburb with no Michelin-starred restaurants and no highly acclaimed chefs, whose residents had no idea that two of the country’s most accomplished pastry chefs were moving in.

Pastry chefs Carolyn Nugent and Alen Ramos started a pop-up bakery in their townhouse in Denver, Colorado. They are opening a bakeshop in the Denver suburb of Parker.

Pastry chefs Carolyn Nugent and Alen Ramos started a pop-up bakery in their townhouse in Denver, Colorado. They are opening a bakeshop in the Denver suburb of Parker.

Jeremy Harlan/CNN

‘What are we going to do?’

Six years ago, Mellisa and David Root planted themselves in Portland, Oregon, hoping to start a small restaurant empire. In March of 2016, they opened their first restaurant, The Hairy Lobster.

“They say you if you can make it past year five, you’re going to start actually making some money,” says Mellisa, who herself has worked as a pastry chef in highly acclaimed restaurant kitchens. “We had just started our fifth year; things were going really well for us… and then Covid hit.”

In spring of 2020, with rent due, no PPP loan to help with payroll and no significant revenue coming into the restaurant, they were forced to close their restaurant of four years.

“You cannot argue with the balance sheet and the books because they tell you the reality. But it still breaks my heart,” says Mellisa.

Mellisa and David Root closed their restaurant, The Hairy Lobster in Portland, Oregon, in the spring of 2020. David has since accepted a job as an executive chef in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Mellisa and David Root closed their restaurant, The Hairy Lobster in Portland, Oregon, in the spring of 2020. David has since accepted a job as an executive chef in Breckenridge, Colorado.

Mellisa Root

According to the National Restaurant Association, The Hairy Lobster is one of roughly 110,000 US restaurants that had closed permanently or long-term by the end of last year.

The couple’s dream of staying in the Northwest was uprooted.

“We no longer have a restaurant, what are we going to do?,” Mellisa recalls thinking. “We ended up putting our stuff in storage, visiting with family for months, and figured out what was going to be the next step because what we had envisioned for ourselves for the next 10 years was suddenly gone.”

New opportunities, miles apart

With no real plan forward, they headed for the Rocky Mountains and Breckenridge, Colorado, where David was offered an executive chef position at Breckenridge Distillery’s restaurant.

“We are definitely nomads,” jokes Mellisa. “We’ve lived everywhere. And so we go wherever the industry takes us, or a great opportunity, or somebody who’s looking for a great pastry chef.”

This spring, a new opportunity presented itself to Mellisa 1,700 miles away in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She relocated closer to sea level in Charlottesville, Virginia, to start a new pastry program at the Farmington Country Club.

For now, the couple will live two time zones apart, with the hope of someday living in the same place again. Mellisa says wherever that place may be, it won’t be in a large city.

“If we’re starting our life all over again, and we’re this far into our life, I need to do it in an area that’s going to be affordable and have a better quality of life for us because I don’t want to die with a spoon in my hand at the stove.”

After leaving Portland, David Root became an executive chef at the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado. His wife is now working in Virginia.

After leaving Portland, David Root became an executive chef at the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado. His wife is now working in Virginia.

Jeremy Harlan/CNN

A culinary migration

Both couples’ moves symbolize what many around the industry believe is a migration of culinary talent away from big cities and into smaller communities and suburbs.

“The pandemic has given a glimpse of quality of life,” says Nugent. “[Chefs] have changed their priorities.

“It’s not about living in a big city where there’s so much pressure to fill tables and get those covers every night. Maybe it’s going home where you grew up. Maybe it’s being the big fish in a small pond and giving the people in that community something to look forward to and be proud of.”

The Roots’ former home city of Portland is seeing a shift.

“Some of the culinary pillars of this town have just elected to leave,” explains Kurt Huffman, owner of ChefStable, a group that partners with chefs to own and operate 24 assorted restaurants, bars, bakeries and event spaces in and around Portland.

“You have a population base that’s left downtowns or are not looking to go downtown. They’re moving to the suburbs,” he said.

Huffman is quick to point out, though, that the pandemic is not the only reason centers of large cities have become less desirable for chefs to own and operate eateries. He believes Covid closures, combined with civil unrest and protests in cities, have made it extremely difficult for restaurants to provide a safe and desirable location for employees and patrons.

“[Chefs] are just fed up with Portland,” says Huffman. “We are seeing a bunch of our staff move to smaller places like Bend, Oregon. Bend is going to massively benefit.”

The ChefStable group has also decided to shift its focus away from the once-burgeoning Portland downtown, in favor of suburbs such as Beaverton, Lake Oswego and Vancouver, Washington, where many of Portland’s former diners now work and live.

“We have eight new projects in the works,” explains Huffman. “All eight are out of Portland.”

Carolyn Nugent fills Berliner donuts with homemade berry jam. She and her husband plan to open a brick-and-mortar bakeshop in the suburbs this summer.

Carolyn Nugent fills Berliner donuts with homemade berry jam. She and her husband plan to open a brick-and-mortar bakeshop in the suburbs this summer.

Jeremy Harlan/CNN

Bringing Paris to Parker

While the Ulster St. pop-up bakery Nugent and Ramos opened through Colorado’s Cottage Foods Act has been attention-snatching and highly successful, their plan this summer is to open their first brick-and-mortar bakery, Poulette Bakeshop, 45 minutes south of Denver in Parker.

“We will bring our time in Paris to Parker,” says Ramos. “It is really exciting to bring that for them.”

“It has been really exciting to introduce high-quality ingredients and techniques to our new community,” adds Nugent. “We’re just really excited to be in a place where there’s a need for what we do.”

Huffman believes other chefs will see the success of peers such as Nugent, Ramos and the Roots and soon follow.

“It’s going to be awesome for the smaller towns that have been typically left out,” he says.

“You need those trailblazers, and I guarantee you there will be some young cook that follows them there and opens a cool bistro. If something is happening and popping somewhere, you hear about it, and you want to be a part of it.”