Apr 19, 2024 - News

How friendship guided Boston restaurateurs' culinary careers

Tiffani Faison, left, takes a selfie while kissing her close friend Kathy Sidell, right, on the cheek

Tiffani Faison, left, and Kathy Sidell, right. Photo courtesy of Tiffani Faison

It began with a chance meeting at Coppa, where chef Tiffani Faison introduced restaurateur Kathy Sidell to Lambrusco, the Italian sparkling red wine.

  • As their friendship grew, Sidell introduced Faison to the joys of catering to the masses, instead of to chefs.

Why it matters: The 15-year friendship between Sidell and Faison helped them thrive in an industry where women rarely call the shots.

Zoom in: Sidell has built an empire out of Saltie Girl, the seafood restaurant known for its lobster rolls and tinned fish cans.

  • Today, Faison is known for her elevated, funky takes on comfort foods: barbecue at Sweet Cheeks, "adult snacks" at the cozy bar Fool's Errand and old school Italian food at Orfano.

Flashback: The Tiffani Faison who Sidell met in 2009 was tough, creative — and enamored with the thought of launching an original, if not snobby, "Sunday restaurant."

  • At the time, Faison was working for Sidell's MET restaurant group as a line cook. She had struggled to find work as a chef after being painted as a villain in the first season of "Top Chef."
  • Sidell didn't watch the show. She saw talent and warmth in Faison as they started meeting for dim sum or drinks on weekends.

Faison left MET in less than a year after getting tapped to lead the kitchen at Rocca, a Southern Italian restaurant.

  • When it closed a year later, Sidell nudged Faison to embrace crowd-pleasing concepts and put her own twist on the staples.
  • Faison took a chance on barbecue in Boston, opening Sweet Cheeks in 2011.
  • "Had Kathy and I not met, this restaurant never would have happened," Faison said. "I would not have been open to the idea."

The big picture: The Boston restaurant scene looks more diverse in some ways than it did two decades ago — more female chefs like Erin Miller, Nia Grace and Lydia Shire have garnered attention.

  • But few restaurants are majority-women owned. Those that are have a harder time getting investors and end up pitted against one another.
  • Fewer have the kind of bond Faison and Sidell formed, professionally and personally. It's a friendship built on love, trust and sometimes brutal honesty, Sidell said.

Sidell enlisted Faison's help to open MET Bethesda in 2014. One night, they were having wine and Faison asked Sidell, "with all due respect, Kathy, why are you trying to be everything to everyone?"

  • The question was infuriating at first, then liberating, Sidell said.

In two years, MET Bethesda was dead, but Sidell had launched a new project: Saltie Girl — a New England seafood 30-seater not unlike that Sunday restaurant Faison dreamed of.

  • Saltie Girl would later expand to 300 seats, survive a pandemic and open a second location in Los Angeles.

Sidell insists that Faison helped her open up to the world, including when her son, Ben, came out in 2014.

  • "I just didn't want life to be hard for him," she said.
  • Faison, who is queer, helped her understand "the world was changing and that it was a different place." She also encouraged Ben to give his family time to adjust.
  • Ten years later, Faison is organizing the upcoming Big Queer Food Festival. Ben Sidell, now a pastry chef for Saltie Girl in Los Angeles and founder of the bakery pop-up SweetBoy, is helping with the project.

When Faison's not running her Boston restaurant group or judging dishes on "Guy's Grocery Games," she's visiting Sidell, who now spends half of her time in Los Angeles with her husband.

  • "When my tank is empty, I'm like, I gotta find my way to you," Faison told Sidell.

The bottom line: "If there's something I want people to take away from this, I would love for everyone to have a Kathy in their life."

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