Life after closing: When the chef-proprietor goes job-hunting

April 19, 2010


Former Va Pensiero chef/owner Jeff Muldrow

It's been exactly two weeks since Va Pensiero closed its doors for good, after 22 years in business. The closing came as a surprise to many, who thought the venerable Italian restaurant in a quiet Evanston neighborhood would be able to withstand the economic downturn. It had always been one of the places Northwestern students could count on, especially when their parents came to visit, providing a modicum of "fine dining" after countless nights of ramen and pizza. Ten years ago, Jeff Muldrow bought the business, after he had been the chef there the previous three years.

"The decision had been a long-time coming," said Muldrow. "I had been debating it for about a month. Our lease was up, our equipment was very old, so we knew a big investment had to be made. We weren't doing the numbers. I couldn't see taking out another big loan."

The closing affects about 30 people, all of whom Muldrow considers family. But over the past two weeks - as he sorts through the legal minutiae with the lawyers, Muldrow is embarking on a quest few of his colleagues with his level of experience are equipped to deal with: job hunting.

"I called headhunters I've worked with in the the past, then I started looking online," said Muldrow. "I've had Facebook, but I've never really been active, so I decided to get serious about it. I got out of the 'heys' and started to look for something. Then I started putting out feelers and requests, contacting everybody I could think of. I got‚ a lot of emails back; an amazing amount from people who were surprised the place was closing."

The exercise has been an education for Muldrow, but also serves as a lesson for other chef/restaurateurs. He's had to learn how to figure out a way to translate his expertise into an attractive résumé. Typically, the salesmen, consultants and advisors he comes in contact with work as liasons between big companies. "They would say 'I don't know if you're interested, but I've heard about this opportunity,' and my response was, absolutely," said Muldrow. "One friend - a regular - owns a marketing/consulting company. He introduced me to a bakery that no one has ever heard of. ‚hey sell to big companies, so he introduced me to them, because they need someone to introduce new products, and that seems really interesting to me."

Muldrow has been on a handful of job interviews, and he says things look promising. "I've worked 20 years in the kitchen, it's what I love to do and what I know how to do, but the idea of spending more time at home and having a different set of challenges appeals to me as well," he says optimistically. "l'd like to have a new adventure. I'm not closed to going back to the kitchen, but at the same time, I'd like to know what's out there."

His outlook remains positive, despite an economy that has been, at the very least, a painful test for people in the restaurant industry. Muldrow realizes this whole experience is a learning process, but he sounds open to the hurdles ahead of him. His demeanor is almost sanguine. ‚ A decade ago, he was the young entrepreneur. Today, he's the seasoned vet, dispensing sage advice from the frontlines.

"I would say don't burn any bridges. Talk to everybody, because you never know who's gonna have a line on a job. You [Executive Chefs] have a lot of responsibilites - budgeting, forecasting, managing, hiring, firing - you have skills already. That kind of job can translate into a lot of different jobs."