It was 11 o’clock on a dreary January day when I noticed a set of small blue and red lights on the floor of Bleu Restaurant and Lounge. With a whirring sound the lights lifted off the floor of the restaurant and buzzed around the corner, disappearing into the kitchen. J.R. Schoenfeld followed the device around the corner with a remote control in hand and a smile on his face, laughing with and yelling to Reed, one of Bleu’s chefs, “It’s responsive. But it turns so fast.”
And that was how I met the owner and driving force behind some of the area’s most successful gourmet restaurants. It quickly became clear that he was a man very much in love with what he does every day, and determined to have a good time doing it.
Scene: It’s nice of you to meet us, J.R. You own Bleu, Chives Restaurant and Rie?
JR: [I own] Rie and Chives, Door County. And I have a little bakery called the breadbank that bakes all the bread and pastries for every location; we sell Luna coffee. It’s a neat little shop. My purpose wasn’t to kill it as a coffee shop; I just needed a place to bake everything, and then we’re open to the public.
Scene: You’ve opened a number of restaurants in the area and they all seem to be doing pretty well. What’s your recipe for success?
JR: It’s more the fact I’m passionate about what I do. I’m not trying to kill it with money, but I’m trying to create an opportunity for my employees, [people] that I’ve had for a long time and want to continue to have. And [I want to] create opportunity for them to have the same success as me; you know, some day, give them the restaurants, sell them the restaurants, whatever. I wouldn’t say I’m employee owned, but there is opportunity for everyone in my company to have a life. You know what I mean, a career.
Scene: They’re not just a fry cook or a waitress.
JR: Exactly. The people that I hire? This is what they do. We have people that are part-timers or going to school. But really it’s a career for everyone here. And that’s really important because it’s hard to find that in the restaurant industry. You know the restaurant industry is an industry that is one of the steps in the path to what they want to do. But we hope to hire the the people that this [itself] is their path to what they are going to do.
Scene: I worked at Bouchee about five years ago, and we had a lot of people who had a bachelor’s degree in the Culinary Arts. About how many people do you employ that have gone to college for this?
JR: A lot, I mean a lot. Kitchen-wise almost anyone who’s worked for me has gone through culinary school or culinary boot camp, which is the same thing. They’ve worked in various places. They’ve worked under chefs and gained their knowledge. Culinary-wise a degree isn’t as important as other places. It gives you the tools to learn. As long as an individual takes those same steps as a culinary person that has gone to school they can get the same knowledge. And most of the people who have worked for me are like that.
The guys that run my kitchen, some of them went to culinary school, some haven’t. Almost anyone that runs my kitchen has worked with me for five to eight years. So they’ve gone through my culinary school.
JR: Exactly, [you can learn] through paid apprenticeship programs, or working for an individual where you are working more for the knowledge than you are for money. You know usually the guys that aren’t successful in this industry are the ones that get out of school and look for a money job right away. And then they hit a wall.
It’s probably just like your industry. The guys that sell out and go and work corporate and write a brochure and do things like that hit a dead end. You know they hit that 30-40 thousand dollars a year. You burn out, you’re done. And where do you go? You don’t have any marketable trades that you’ve learned to help better your career. It’s the same way in culinary.
Scene: Sure, you’re not building on your own talents then. So, you’ve said that they work for you for five to eight years before they head your kitchen: about how many years do they need to put in before that, before they get to the point where they’d even be looking at that.
JR: It all depends on the individual. There’s guys that have been cooking for two years who have the natural ability, that can run a kitchen instantly. You can’t put a timeframe [on that], you’re built to be a cook. You are an artist as much as you are [anything else]. It’s almost a fine line. You’re a scientist, you’re an artist, you’re a manager. You’re everything and a certain individual is built for that. You either have it or you don’t. Someone with the most passion in the world can’t be a chef, even if they want to be.
Scene: If they’re burning the hard-boiled eggs you’ve got a problem.
JR: And managing, and everything. It’s just like somebody who loves art. Somebody who loves art, and is passionate about it, and is into it and it’s their life still might not be able to paint a painting. And it’s the same way if it’s a cook. So you have to find a person with a natural ability. You know, and I think that’s across the board. If you’re a bartender, a waiter; it’s not a learned thing. It’s in you to be in the hospitality industry.
Scene: Ok, sure. You can build on that, but you have to have some aptitude to begin with.
JR: Yeah. Yeah, or some natural ability.
Scene: So you credit a lot of your success to the staff that you’ve managed?
JR: I 100 percent credit all of my success to my staff. It’s just like anything. You’re only as good as your worst cook. You’re only as good as your worst waiter. And it’s very much theater. Come five o’clock the curtain comes up, we’re in front of the people and you have to perform. If you don’t perform you get a bad review. And you can only talk about it so many times. [Eventually you have to do it].
Scene: So on a completely different subject, we’ve heard that Aaron Rodgers enjoys stopping in at a couple of your places.
JR: Yeah. I think Aaron eats here: one, because he sees familiar faces, he’s comfortable. And he feels the love. One of the things that is important is every employee here feels bad if they give bad service, [every employee] protects the customer. Whether Aaron Rodgers or Joe Blow, if they have a little too much wine, we still take care of them. If they’re obnoxious, we still take care of them. If they’re a star, no matter who, if we see people walking to them, we keep them from going back there. You know we don’t treat them differently from anyone else. He gets a bill. He’s part of our crew. But he appreciates the fact that we treat him like every other customer. We don’t go above-beyond. He comes in to eat. And through the years we’ve become pretty good friends. I mean, he eats pretty much anywhere, [and] he can call me and have a table. All in all, Aaron gets special treatment but we try to treat him like a customer.
Reed: As special as it goes is if he called last minute, we’d put him in the kitchen.
JR: It’s more the fact that we give him the same service we give everybody. We try to create the same experience. If he comes in to eat, that’s what we want him to do, to have a good meal.
Scene: That sounds like a solid philosophy to work from. Now what you said earlier made me wonder; how did you get your own start?
JR: I started everywhere. I went to college in New Orleans, and I worked in restaurants throughout my college career. And I decided the business world wasn’t for me. So I started working in restaurants full time, then took off and went to culinary school.
After years of working front of the house, one summer I went to Alaska, just to find myself, and I cooked. And I really loved it. So when I came back I went to culinary school. And since then, I grasped every opportunity I could to work in different styles of food service. If you read my bio online on chive’s website, you’ll see I’ve worked from the executive sous chef from Dartmouth College running their five-star inn, to being the food and beverage director for a ski area, executive chef for a ski area, 12 outlets, cafeterias, golf courses, everything. I did the school food service, ran lambeau field, catered for the PGA, musically did all the backstage catering for Bonnaroo, Ben and Jerry’s festivals, Burning Man, Cirque du Soleil. I’ve done every kind of food service you can think of. And I’ve just kind of found myself. So this is what I do. I love every part of it. If my friend called me tomorrow and needed help with Bonnaroo I’d be down there in a second.
Scene: Sure. So do you do any of the cooking at the restaurants yourself anymore?
JR: Yeah. Like this week my son’s off and I’m`here every night. I don’t clean as much as I used to, but I do enjoy cooking and being a part of the food. I talk about food and cook food every day.
Scene: What can you tell us about Bleau specifically? It opened fairly recently.
JR: Bleu is a couple years old. My son, Nick is the chef. We work together, but it’s his food. The philosophy of the restaurant is to be as fresh as we can be, use the best ingredients, put love into the food. But his personality and creativity are the driving force for the food. Bar-wise, we have Patrick Johnson, and we try to take pride in coming up with original drinks [and] having a good liquor selection, not just having the twelve wines that are popular. We have some different labels. We try to make sure we have wine from every category. If you get [a] sweet and sour, it’s lemons limes and oranges that we squeeze. We don’t just have Angostura Bitters. We have Angostura, grapefruit, pomegranate [and] homemade bitters. For the Rye gin and tonic we make our own tonic.
So, as much love as we put into the food … we do the same thing at the bar. And the mixology program is, I’m not going to say the best, but we’re up there with the best. Because there’s some great places in town to get drinks and bars and guys that put the same love into it. But we try to do it all across the board.