The Next Generation: Tortilla Republic
By Kathleen Squires
November 22, 2013
How is this for a diverse family dynamic: Cathy Shyne, 67, is an Italian mamma who developed professional skills from a NOLA legend and a Mexican master. She partnered with her children, John Halter, 44 and Mina Azami, 38, to open two Tortilla Republics, one in West Hollywood and one in Kauai, along with the American-influenced Taste restaurants in Los Angeles. Though it might sound taxing for some families, this trio has a solid background in the food business, with each member ensconced in their own areas of expertise: Cathy is the cook; Mina excels in catering and quality control; and John looks after operations. From Los Angeles and Hawaii, mom and children shared their secrets to family harmony in big business.
Cathy Shyne: I started cooking when I was two years old with my grandmother. My grandfather was basically a farmer and my grandmother was a very strong businesswoman. And because they couldn't pay the people to work on the farm, my grandmother created this concept of feeding the workers. So they would come in the morning and she would make a huge breakfast and then she would make lunch and then she would make dinner, because if they ate really, really well, then they would have a lot of energy to work very hard. We had a wood oven outside. I remember my grandfather making wine, killing a pig for a feast. That's when my love of food and cooking began.
John Halter: Our family in Italy is all in the restaurant business now.
CS: Yes, my brother, my sister.
JH: Uncles, cousins. We have a cousin that has one of the largest bakeries in Italy. Their restaurants are in Torino and Laveno, which is at Lago Maggiore. And then the bakery is also there in Varese, which is just a little bit east of Milan. He is the largest baker of these cookies called “brutti ma buonis,” which means ugly but good.
CS: And they ship panettone all over the world.
JH: My mom's brother came to the States when she opened her first restaurant and he was here for quite some time working with her. It's always been a family thing on her side, because that's the lineage.
CS: At my first restaurant, the very powerful critic, Karen Brooks, gave me a good review. I then decided, now I'm scared…because I was a home cook without formal training or technical skills. I remember right after that I was sitting at home one night and I watched a show about Paul Prudhomme. I thought, I'd better talk to this guy because I need some help. So I wrote him a letter, telling him that I don't have technical skills, but I have a love for food. I didn't realize what a powerful man he was. But a couple days later, he called me and he invited me to his restaurant. I spent two months with him. He taught me the technical skills that I didn't have. Years later when my kids were thinking about opening a Mexican restaurant, I took the same route and got in touch with Roberto Santibañez. He taught me everything about Mexican cuisine.
Mina Azami: Obviously, my mother is a very hard-working woman and, she just showed us the value of money and how to work hard. Some of my earliest memories are making pasta at my mother’s restaurant. I'd come home from school and I'd go to the restaurant and I would make spaghetti, linguini, and fettuccine. We had a big machine from Italy that made hundreds and hundreds of pounds of pasta pretty quickly.
By the time I was in high school, I thought I wanted to be a chef, so I worked with my mom in the kitchen. She taught me how to debone chicken and make sauces. There were certain things I liked and certain things I didn't like about it. I loved cooking, but I didn’t know if I wanted to do it for a living. I loved being with people and out in front of the restaurant and meeting and greeting people. So, that’s how I found my niche. I’m more of a front-of-the house person. But what was great was she taught me knowledge of food when I worked with her that particular summer because, now, within the restaurant, if there's a consistency issue, I can call it out or contribute to fixing it.
I oversee all the restaurants and our catering department. I'm here in LA most of the time. John, our partner Morton, and my mom are in Hawaii part-time. So I hold the fort down while they're gone by going to all the locations and making sure the restaurant looks prim and proper.
JH: Well, from when I was 10 years old, I started as a busser and a dishwasher and then I was a sandwich maker. Then I worked with the pastry chef and learned how to do that. And then, because I saw my parents work so many hours, I swore I'll never ever do this kind of business.
CS: Six months later, he shows up at the restaurant again.
JH: And 26 years later, I'm still doing it. I guess when I was young and I was in high school, it just seemed awful to have to work these hours and deal with all this stress. But then as I got into it made sense and I enjoyed it because I liked the creative part of it and I liked the interaction with people and I liked the pace of the restaurant.
CS: And he didn't want to work for somebody else.
JH: Yeah. But I also liked working with the family instead of working for a huge corporation...well, I did work for Ralph Lauren, so I had already had that experience and decided I wasn't a corporate guy.
MA: And now just try and get any of us to stop talking about the business when we are all together, even if we tried. We're always looking at food magazines and books and websites. On our days off, we still talk about it, but we have tried to not talk about the technical part, employees and stuff.
CS: I am always thinking about the restaurant and about recipes. Sometimes it's really very, very difficult to separate and I have yet to learn to say what I think a lot of the time because I do want to enjoy my family, but it's very difficult. Even though we make a vow that we're not going talk about business, we always somehow end up talking about it.
JH: I have a Sunday rule where I try to disconnect from everything, so I really try. I don't read my e-mail and I try not to talk about it. But it's difficult because it's our entire lives. We do a pretty good job of it and try to talk about anything but the restaurant, but it is challenging. You do have to try to separate it at some point in time so that it doesn't become your entire life. That helps you work with others, too, to respect everybody's boundaries.
CS: I think that in order for the family to survive, whether it's a restaurant or any business, that each member should be respected for their position. And so that they can work together, but also let each member of the family work together but do their job--trust them to do their job.
JH: And I like making a group decision as opposed to deciding things on your own. So we get the benefit of multiple minds, which is great.
MA: It’s also important, I would say, to definitely set aside family time outside from work time so that you can enjoy each other away from work. Because when we are together, we have a blast. When we do our family trips--the secret is to go somewhere far where nobody lives or has a restaurant. I think that’s a good rule.