It sounds so romantic: Let's open a restaurant together. It'll be fun. You can cook and I can greet the guests. As Valentine's Day approaches, we talked to four Denver-area couples who have some well-seasoned restaurant — and relationship — advice.
Gene & Paula Tang
Married and in business together for 42 years. 1515 Restaurant, 1515 Market St., 303-571-0011; 1515restaurant.com
Gene Tang, 64, knew he wanted to have his own restaurant when he was 6. It helped that his parents ran a hotel in Hong Kong and took their children on around-the-world eating trips. He attended high school in Chicago and earned a master's degree in hotel and restaurant management at the University of Denver.
The single-minded restaurateur met his future wife, Paula, at a Chinese New Year party at the Lotus Room in the former VFW Post #1 on West Ninth Avenue and Speer Boulevard. Paula, 66, was born in China and raised in Taiwan, and had come to Denver to attend Metropolitan State College. They got married in 1970 and borrowed $15,000 to open their first restaurant, the Greenhouse in Greenwood Plaza. They raised two daughters while working long hours seven days a week.
"I'm the luckiest guy in the world," says Gene.
"I need a recording of that," answers Paula.
Since 1997, they have run 1515 Restaurant in LoDo, serving modern French food with a trendy twist, such as dishes featuring "molecular gastronomy" touches with dry ice and flavored foams. Gene runs the front of the house and Paula keeps the books and makes sure the glasses are polished and the tables perfectly set.
First date: Italian food and a DU Pioneers hockey game. "It was too fast for me. I couldn't follow the puck," says Paula. At dinner, "I ate so much it scared him."
Tip: "We don't talk business at home. When we want to talk business, we set up a time," says Paula.
Tom & Diane Coohill
Married and working together 18 years. Coohills, 1400 Wewatta St., 303-623-5700; coohills.com
Tom, 48, and Diane Coohill, 53, met when they both worked at a large restaurant group in Atlanta. They eloped and were married by a Salvation Army major in Jamaica. They moved to Colorado and spent three years searching for the right location and preparing to open Coohills. The French-modern restaurant with an open kitchen in an elegant LoDo dining room opened in November of 2011.
Diane runs the marketing side of Coohills while Tom works the stove. Their son, Ethan, 17, works in the restaurant, and Tom has two adult children from his first marriage.
"Our personalities at work are so different. She's more analytical. I'm carefree. That sometimes drives her crazy," says Tom.
Diane has been a vegetarian for 38 years and has recently given up dairy as well. "I can't even barely eat anything on this menu. It's crazy."
Coping: They take Sundays off and head for the hills for a trail run, snowshoeing or hiking. Diane is training for the Leadville 50-mile race in August.
Tip: "It's OK to argue. If you hold it all in, it's gonna blow eventually," says Tom. "But usually, she's right, so it doesn't bother me."
Steve Jankousky & Tom Unterwagner
Life partners for 18 years, business partners for 14. Tom's Home Cookin', 800 E. 26th Ave., 303-388-8035 ; facebook.com/pages/Toms-Home-Cookin
When Steve Jankousky, 48, and Tom Unterwagner, 47, first met, they both worked in sales/management jobs. Tom's mother has a restaurant in Atlanta with a similar comfort-food menu. They use many of her recipes at their Five Points institution that is open just for lunch.
"I thought, 'How hard can it possibly be?' " says Steve, rolling his eyes at his naivete. "It's not easy, but it's really not that hard." The guys finish each other's sentences with a wry sense of humor.
"We've got four people back there. It's like a ballet. It's cramped, it's hot, there are sharp knives," says Tom.
"Something's always burning, or yelling," adds Steve, who used to be a stage manager. "Instead of an 8 p.m. curtain, we have an 11 o'clock curtain. The music has to be just right. The food, everything has to be ready."
Tom makes the entrees and most of the sides, while Steve bakes the pies and cornbread.
"We don't take a lot of that kitchen stuff home," says Steve. And when they go out, they look for good cocktails and sophisticated food. They love to travel, planning their trips around the latest restaurants in Chicago, San Francisco, New York, Japan, France and Italy.
Advice from Tom: "Have separate duties, and avoid over-supervising the other. Own your own real estate, and be there all the time."
Steve: "If it happens in the kitchen, it stays in the kitchen. Most of the stuff that happens in a restaurant kitchen isn't worth hanging on to. If you're having a disagreement, will it matter in five years?"
Frank and Dina Berta
Married 13 years, in business 22 months. Frank's Kitchen, 2600 High St., 303-296-3838; frankskitchencolorado.com
Frank, 58, and Dina Berta, 51, met at church. "My sister was watching us, and she asked me, "would you ever go out with a white guy?' I was thinking, 'free dinner.'" Exactly a year after their first date at the Cherry Tomato in Park Hill, they were married.
"It was a little bit of a leap for me, too. I'd never dated an African-American woman, but the interesting thing is, she invited me to a Broncos party at her parents' house and I realized, other than complexion color, her parents and my parents and family are incredibly similar," says Frank.
Frank worked in residential remodeling and Dina was a reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, and later, at Nation's Restaurant News. She does not like to grocery shop or cook. "Those are two things I really like," says Frank. "I was like, 'Wow, we really are made for each other.' "
Until they opened Frank's in May 2011, they were "pretty low-key people," says Frank. The restaurant is a Whittier "neighborhood joint," specializing in burgers, sandwiches, jerk chicken and $1 tacos on Wednesday nights.
"I like to think that our relationship reflects what we want for this restaurant: for it to be a place for everybody. We've got food from all over the place — from Vietnam to Puerto Rico — and people from all walks of life."
They realized that although their families share similarities deeper than skin color, stress brought out differences. Frank grew up in a family of argumentative attorneys, while in Dina's, "nobody yelled or screamed unless somebody died. I learned I needed to speak up. We just had to talk it out," says Dina.
"I became a temperamental chef," says Frank. "I finally got to a point where I was more comfortable with the stress load."
How they manage: They pray together every morning. "He says Proverbs 31 over me and I read Psalm 1 over him," says Dina. "It's hard to be angry with someone when you are asking God to bless them."
Tip: Give each other time away from the restaurant. "It's like a baby, it constantly need to be fed, burped, changed," says Dina.
Kristen Browning-Blas: 303-954-1440, kbrowning@ denverpost.com or twitter.com/krisbb