It was opening night at Bistro on Main in Manchester and executive chef Ben Dubow had an unsettling thought. As he looked back at the stations of his kitchen — his line — he realized, “There wasn’t a single person who had worked a hot line before.”
Every restaurant opening Dubow had previously been involved with had been stressful and chaotic. Still, this was different. Run by Manchester Area Conference of Churches (MACC Charities), the restaurant was designed to help break cycles of poverty through transitional employment and work-readiness training. A place that would celebrate the best of kitchen culture, while reforming its worst aspects. For instance, instead of working for tips, each employee, both in the front and back of the house, would receive $15 an hour regardless of whether the restaurant was busy or not.
Beyond its social mission, the restaurant had to be fantastic. A place where top-of-the-line casual French cuisine could be enjoyed alongside wine and cocktails.
“If you’re a charity first, restaurant second, you’d get people to come once or twice because it’s interesting,” Dubow says. Bistro on Main needed to accomplish something more. But as order tickets started to roll into the kitchen for the first time on Nov. 8, 2017, the magnitude of the ambition sunk in. “Nobody opens a restaurant this way,” Dubow realized.
A native of Wilton, and the middle child of seven, Dubow got his first job flipping burgers at age 12 on Martha’s Vineyard. Despite his lifelong passion for food, as an adult Dubow became a preacher. He worked as a minister for 12 years, before deciding to switch from the church to the kitchen. He graduated from the now-closed Connecticut Culinary Institute, then worked as a line cook at Burtons Grill, first in South Windsor and later in Massachusetts. During that time, he worked his way up to sous chef, then executive chef.
But he hadn’t left the world of ministry behind, not entirely.
As a pastor, he had served on the board of MACC Charities and was even president for a time. “I really fell in love with what MACC does,” he says, adding that he became close with the charity’s executive director, Beth Stafford.
About four years ago, he took a job as the chef at MACC’s soup kitchen in Manchester. The soup kitchen “was very traditional, a lot of frozen food, a lot out of cans, cafeteria lines, prison trays, that kind of thing,” he says. He moved it to family-style dining and added scratch cooking, using farm-to-table ingredients. “The idea was that wholesome food prepared and served with love would bestow dignity and invite hope.”
Over time, Dubow, now 44, thought that rather than staffing the soup kitchen with volunteers, they should start training some of the clients so they could get kitchen jobs. The program was successful but limited. “What we quickly realized was that without some life skills teaching and some more hands-on mentoring, as well as some real-life experience, it wasn’t going to work,” he says. “So we started a catering company to give some more hands-on experience. That was successful and it went well, but again we realized that’s not the same as working a line on a Saturday night.”
The ambition for the project grew to a full-scale restaurant, and the location where Bistro on Main now sits was purchased. Stafford, executive director and CEO of MACC Charities, says it was clear Dubow was the perfect person for the job. “Bistro on Main is the intersection where all of chef Ben’s passions gather to create, inspire hope and build community.”
To start the restaurant, Dubow recruited sous chef Michelle Driscoll and Mary Quinn as bar and front of house manager. Quinn says Dubow has a different leadership style than bosses she’s had at other restaurants. “He won’t necessarily give you an outright answer. He always directs you into, what’s the problem? How can we fix it? And how can you learn from it? I think that’s part of the pastor in him, to allow people to understand themselves and how to problem-solve.”
In addition, the restaurant recruited a mix of part-time employees who applied off the street and graduates of the MACC chefs culinary job training program, who may have had prison stints or been homeless prior to taking the job. Regardless of how someone ended up at the restaurant, the focus was on the future.
“It doesn’t matter what your story’s been,” Dubow says. “It’s where it’s going. We want to give people the freedom to rewrite their stories and write better stories with better endings.”
As the restaurant’s first orders began to file into the kitchen a year ago, the intensity increased, but Dubow and his staff got through it. “People stepped up; they made it happen,” Dubow recalls of the harrowing evening. After that night, things began to settle down, and word spread that not only was this a nice concept for a restaurant, it was a great restaurant. There were glowing write-ups in the Hartford Courant and this magazine, and it was recognized in multiple categories in this year’s Experts’ Picks. Even the normally barbed reviews posted on Yelp have been overwhelmingly positive.
Almost a year to the day after that first night, in the bar section of the restaurant, during the calm before the storm of an early Friday night, Dubow says, “Our goal was to hopefully become a destination restaurant, and I feel like we’ve done that.”
Perhaps most impressively, they’ve done it while throwing out some aspects of the traditional restaurant rulebook, proving that you can have a successful restaurant while amplifying the positive aspects of the industry.
“I love this industry for a lot of reasons,” Dubow says. “You spend more time with folks in the kitchen and the restaurant than you do your own family. It’s intense, it’s like going to battle. Every Saturday night it’s like survive and advance. So you get your scars together.” He adds, “It’s also a meritocracy. At the end of the day, nobody cares if you have a couple convictions or what your story is, as long as you can get it done on the line, you’re good. So it’s a place of second chances.”
But Dubow, who now works part-time as a pastor at Riverfront Family Church in Hartford, acknowledges kitchens can sometimes be a harsh environment. “It’s a place where historically there’s been a lot of vulgarity and often sexual harassment, a plague of overworking people, and it can be verbally abusive. I think chefs struggle with depression.”
He consciously works to fight those trends. “Our managers work about 45 or 50 hours, which is pretty reasonable. We’re really intentional about that.” He says part of enforcing that is leading by example and taking time off when he needs it. “I don’t apologize for it. It’s hard to take a week vacation but I can take a half-day off. I can have the discipline of getting out of here and trusting my staff.”
On Facebook, Dubow regularly shares articles providing financial or emotional advice to people working in the industry. During the summer, he hosts a weekly barbecue at his house in Hartford where he invites his staff and anyone else who wishes to come. But he stresses that his kitchen and Bistro on Main is not all hand holding and singing songs. “You have to create a healthy environment, but it doesn’t mean it can’t get intense. It doesn’t mean we don’t yell or use profanity here and there. It is the real world and stuff has to get done, and on a busy Saturday night, yes that stuff happens. But then we circle around and we touch base, and we know it’s not personal.”
Tyler Martin, a 20-year-old line cook at Bistro on Main and graduate of the training program, says of Dubow, “Chef means ‘chief’ in French and I would describe him as the chief in the kitchen. He’s a voice if you need one. He doesn’t do everything for you, so it makes it easy to learn, but you know he’s there if you need him.”
Sandra Swensson, a sauté cook and graduate, recalls that when her mother died, Dubow helped her by setting up platters to be delivered to the memorial service. “He’s a good guy professionally and outside of work,” she says.
Dubow is proud of the food offered at the restaurant but he’s even prouder of the people who make it. Looking down the line of his kitchen today, he sees many of the same people he saw a year ago, but now “they’re working their station, doing their mise en place, working tickets, yelling ‘yes chef,’ helping each other through the weeds.” He adds, “You know what? They’ve become line cooks.”