Written by Christina Markarian & Kaeli Wells Photos by Malik Walker
Courtland and Monica Miller with their daughter, Debra
At Main Kitchen Cafe, the doors opened for us and the sweet smell of French toast and coffee lingered in the restaurant. Debra Flanagan gave us a warm greeting and led us to a big room with a wooden table, something that would most likely be found in an old country style home or in your grandparent’s house. The room leaves anybody in awe not only for its beauty, but because the atmosphere makes patrons feel like they’re a part of a family about to have a home cooked meal with the ones they love. Main Kitchen Cafe has been open for three years this April and offers American cuisine to the community of Granda Hills, where the owners also reside. At the table, the owners Courtland and Monica Miller told their story about how they met and how they came to open up their cafe.
How did you guys meet? M: We were friends first actually, for two years. We worked together at Staples Center and were part of the team that opened the venue. We got into a big argument one night and ended up not talking for like a month. During a Christmas party, I was at one bar with coworkers and he was at another bar across the street and all my friends said, “Hey, Courtland is over there!” and then... I was going to go over there and he was going to come over here...we crossed the street and we still didn’t talk to each other. Later that night, I called him and said, “Come over, let’s talk.” That is how we started dating. We started as just friends, and here we are today! Together for fourteen years now.
What made you want to start your own restaurant? C: My wife and I have been in the food and beverage business for a long time probably around forty years combined, and we both worked for big corporate food and beverage management companies. We decided to quit our jobs and open up a catering business and start looking for a location. The location behind us here is the one we originally found, but it turned out that it wasn't available because somebody was on it first. It was only half that side and you do not have the infrastructure that we could easily plan and turn it into a restaurant or a catering kitchen because it was all kitchen and we realized let us kick the door, take the wall down, and build a counter and put some tables in. It kind of happened quickly like that.
"I worked with Chef Boudreaux at Wolfgang Puck. He once told me, 'Excellence all the time.' I’ve kind of taken that to heart, excellence all the time! It is something that he instilled in me and I really value it. I think you have to look at it like that, always at your best.”
How important was it to you to open up the restaurant as a family rather than a solo dream? C: The main reason was because we never really saw each other. When we both worked corporate, we both had different schedules. 14 hour days, and I am getting up at 5 am, my wife is coming home at 2 am, and we miss each other, you know, Debra is in school and we’re missing a lot of it because we have been working with these companies for so long. So that was really the main thing that pushed us to do a family business and made realize that ‘okay we can do it together, we can make our own decisions, we both know what we are doing, so why not?’ Essentially, trying to build an empire. M: It was a dream for both of us. He had a restaurant before, a pizzeria in Santa Clarita, 2008 to 2010. That was a bad time when we had to close that, and he’s always had passion for the business. He’s had different jobs but he wasn’t always that happy. So, we looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it, let us do a catering company!” I said, “I am gonna quit my job and I am gonna do this!” And I looked at him and said, “We are gonna build an empire!”
How would you describe the food at Main Kitchen Cafe? C: Everything on our menu is a twist. We like trying to take a typically classical dish and add our own spin on it. My wife’s Tia grows peppers in her backyard in Orange County and her last name is Rodriguez. We named the dish after them because their peppers go into the salsa which goes into the dish. We are a scratch kitchen. We make everything ourselves! Personally, I think my favorite thing to do is roasting meats like pork butts, steak, tenderloins and stuff like that. Low and slow cooking. DEBRA (daughter): Anything with carbs like rice, and you can never go wrong with pasta. On the menu there’s a dish we call the French Toast which is one of my favorite meals to make. I love to see people eat it because people are always so surprised when their French Toast arrives. It comes with bananas, macadamia nuts, bourbon, bacon, brown sugar with caramel on top. A heart attack on a plate.
Are there any obstacles you had to overcome to make this dream a reality? If so, what were they? C: When we opened this place we thought in 6 months the staff will be trained, the machines would be working, and it will be running itself, giving us the opportunity to move on. The desired 6 months took a year and a half before we could finally say, 'Okay, let us step away for a little bit.' We got people that can support Debra when she is managing over here when we are not. We have friends that own restaurants in Venice and Santa Monica that have trouble, but it is harder for us because there is not a lot of chefs out here in the valley. It is not really an obstacle, but like my wife says, “letting go, being able to count on people, and knowing everything is going to be okay” causes for stress. M: It took us about a year and a half to actually take a day off.
"These guys call me a workaholic, but when I want it, I am going to go get it!"
Why the name Main Kitchen Cafe? C: The main kitchen at big venues is where all the preparation is done. That is where it all kind of starts: The chefs prepare all the food that they send out to the Luxury Suites, private clubs, in-seat service, and to the concession stand. It all starts right there. M: Inside of venues like Staples Center, Angel Stadium, and the Dodger Stadium, we worked, we did the food and beverage side of it. At the stadiums, there is always a Main Kitchen, where it is like the heart and soul of the stadium, at least it is for the kitchen staff. That is where the name came from. Our heart and soul is here, this is us here, in Granada Hills.
What roles do you play in the restaurant? C: We have our primary roles. We come in at 6:30 AM, unlock the doors by 7. It is typically just my wife and I, and it gets a little busy sometimes. By 7:30 AM, she could have 7 or 8 tables, I'll try to jump around and do a some bussing or reset the counter. I do not go too far though. If I am on the line by myself and I need help; a lot of tickets flying in, and I get to the point of I can not possibly do it by myself because it is just going to take me longer. Monica will go wash her hands and jump behind the line and start plating the food that I cook so it will get to the customers faster. DEBRA: If I am driving past the restaurant, maybe going to a friends house, and I see a line out the door, I will turn back around, go inside, and see if they need any help. If they do, I will wash dishes or help my mom with lifting the heavy stuff.
What makes Main Kitchen Cafe unique? D: It is our family, it is home for us. When people come here it is like having your mom, grandma, or whoever you love, cook for you! M: That is what they say about us, like this table we are sitting at, has that family feel to it. C: There is a lot of corporate restaurants out there that people are used to, but there are not a lot of family run, like mom and pop type restaurants, in the San Fernando Valley. That is why we are popular, and it is trendy right now. I think we are good at it. A lot of the time people do not know we own the place. They just think we are the nice people that happen to work here.
"Food is a way to make people happy. I want to make people happy and you can do it in food."
Who is your biggest Inspiration that got you to where you are today? C: Number 1 is each other, we push each other. That is the beauty of being married and owning a family company. We back each other up even when we have opposing thoughts or feelings, or happen to be a little insecure about something. Second I would say my father, he’s always been great at pushing me to succeed and giving me the tools to do that. My last inspiration I would have to say is Gordon Ramsey. I know he yells a lot, but he is really smart in that his concept is simple honest food. M: After Courtland and Debra, I would say myself. I push myself a lot. I am my biggest critic. These guys call me a workaholic but I want it and I am going to go get it! My mom has always been a huge inspiration for me. She definitely pushed me when I was younger. She was one of the people that whenever I fell, she was there to pick me up but not by doing it for me; by pushing me. My last inspiration I would have to say is my former boss, Jeff Rosenthal. He believed in me and pushed me. I really wanted to be better for him. He is the reason I learned about cigars and wine. D: My parents are my inspiration. My mom would go to work and come home and she did the job well. Same thing with my dad, that is why I am in the culinary industry now. I wanted to be a vet but I turned out I wanted to do this more. I would never regret it. Food is a way to make people happy. I want to make people happy and you can do it in food.
What do you see for the future of Main Kitchen Cafe? C: We have expanded already. So I think as far as Main Kitchen is concerned, this is kinda cool, we kinda like it...it is comfortable, it is homey. I would like to have another one of these down the road, but I think for now it is working. However, we do have a couple other projects up in our pockets right now. M: We are in the beginning stages of having a general store, call it a “hipster store” with books, blankets, were gonna sell different trinkets, crafty stuff like an old mercantile with local honey and jam, cool coffee mugs with our logos on them and a lot of granada hills specific stuff, currently and historically. We are also in plan check for a wine bar called Sip55Bistro where I deal with the wine stuff and Courtland gets to play with the lunch and dinner.
Main Kitchen Cafe 17013 Chatsworth Street Granada Hills, 91344 http://www.mainkitchencafe.com