Jill Weber thrives in chaos. “Maintaining two careers helps me see problems in a different light, and I think [it] helps with problem-solving,” says the professional archaeologist and owner of Philly restaurants Sor Ynez and Rex at the Royal.
For Weber, uncovering the remnants of ancient civilizations led her to appreciate the wine and food of their descendants at the sites of her excavations. This appreciation grew into her first food venture, Jet Wine Bar. “While Philly had several wine bars in 2010, none of them were focused on wines of the ancient world (think Georgia, Armenia, Turkey, Lebanon), or just less typical places for wine, like Morocco and Mexico,” she says. So she decided Jet would bring the wider world of wine to Philly. “People do appreciate learning about the history of wine, and drinking wines that fall outside those that have more mainstream promotion.”
To run a restaurant is to invite chaos into your life. To run a restaurant while working in a totally different field takes a certain personality. Weber, along with Jezabel Careaga, Chloe Grigri, and Risa McKenzie, each of them prominent Philadelphia restaurateurs, all thrive on pursuing two career paths simultaneously. Their nonfood careers sustain and inform their careers in food. They lead double lives, and each life is enriched by the other. They turn chaos into order.
Weber has been working as an archaeologist, specializing in animal remains, since she started digging in Turkey and Syria in the early 1990s. She describes archaeology as “engrossing”; she can be in the field for months at a time. In contrast, “restaurant work has me pulled in 85 different directions.”
“Archaeology is all about reconstructing culture through the things people made, used, discarded, and generally left behind. So much of culture revolves around food — both in the past and in the present — and it is something of academic interest to me, but also living interest. When living in a village in Syria or Turkey, or Kurdistan, for instance, it is so clear how food informs people’s daily routines and special occasions. It is also how strangers can interact in a meaningful way. Sharing food is having a relationship,” Weber says.
“Archaeology has made me a more patient person, restaurants actually made me like people more,” Weber says, adding that there is absolute uncertainty within archaeology. “We have to base our theories on very tenuous bits of evidence, and very little is clear-cut. Decision-making is difficult because it is based on such incomplete data. I think that helps me relax in regard to the restaurant business and all of its chaos and uncontrollable factors.” Maintaining two careers helps Weber see problems in a different light.
Teaching taught me patience — a virtue I do not inherently possess — or at least how to fake it. Teaching forced me to communicate with a vast array of personalities and it taught me to lead. In the years I co-owned and operated Rittenhouse restaurant, roving food truck, and catering business Poi Dog prior to the pandemic, I continued to publish articles and teach classes tied to my own academic background. My teaching experience, honed at public universities, an Orthodox Jewish women’s college, and a Catholic university in Taiwan, helped me enormously when running my own restaurant.
Jezabel Careaga, who originally went to school for hotel management, now owns and manages two vastly different businesses: Jezabel’s, a modern Argentine bakery, restaurant, and market with offerings like empanadas and alfajores; and L’Atelier, where she makes custom furniture with local materials and eco-friendly finishes. The latter evolved from her desire to design and outfit Jezabel’s and her two roles constantly feed one another. “I enjoy the diversity of doing both. They definitely inform each [other] and the process of working with ingredients and wood is pretty similar ... with a design [in] mind for the final product.”
Careaga serves the favorite foods of her native Argentina at Jezabel’s, but also shares the woodworking memories of her youth. When she was 5, her “parent[s] were building their home and I would visit the woodshop with my dad ... I remember the strong smell of wood and my favorite thing to do was grab a handful of sawdust and put it [in] my pocket. Thirty years later, I found myself walking into NextFab ... seeing this pile of sawdust and the strong smell of wood brought me back so much joy.”
While Weber thinks of her work schedule in blocks of months, Careaga sets hers according to the days of the week, “I work at Jezabel’s four to five days a week ... Tuesday is my day for long walks in the woods to do my design-furniture thinking.” Careaga’s furniture showroom is adjacent to her bakery, but she produces her pieces at NextFab, where Evan Malone, Jill Weber’s husband, happens to be the founder.
Skill sets conducive to running bars and restaurants naturally involve communication and physicality. Chloe Grigri uses her talents in both areas as the managing partner of the Good King Tavern and Le Caveau, and as a certified barre instructor at Tuck Barre & Yoga. “I love to be on the move. I am an extremely active person. ... When the pandemic struck, I decided to make [exercise] more than a hobby and get certified to teach barre! The fitness world fosters a sense of community, too.”
While my teaching background was essential to me in leading a restaurant, for Grigri, it’s the reverse. “My experience in the restaurant industry absolutely informs my ability to effectively teach barre. As a leader in any work environment, you learn how to communicate — how to hear your own voice, how to correct yourself in a funny way, how to encourage others, how to give direction, how to listen,” Grigri says. “You learn how to read people in the restaurant business, and in a fitness class, you need to be able to meet people where they are. It’s personal; it takes intuition.”
Like Weber, Grigri aims to transport us through her restaurants. “Food and wine culture has always been integral to me and my family. My dad (and business partner) is from the South of France, and I grew up splitting my time in both places — Philly and Aix-en-Provence.” Grigri says she has had a lifelong love affair with food and wine, “and how it all brings and keeps people together,” but she has also always been drawn to “the grind” of the restaurant business. “Le Caveau opened in the fall of 2019 above [the Good King Tavern]. It is [and] was inspired by the hole-in-the-wall bar a vins you find throughout the Loire Valley and beyond. I have spent a lot of time as a passerby in these sorts of places, and I really wanted to bring that feeling to Philly.”
Risa McKenzie, owner and CEO of Hale & True Cider Co., works full time as an account manager at a firm that develops connected devices as part of the Internet of Things. “If you came to me and said, ‘I want to track where every bottle of sauce you make goes,’ my company will build the sensor and the software and I would be your main point of contact,” she says.
“I thrive when I’m busy. Before I started Hale & True, I was always doing freelance work on the side. ... So now, I work my day job nine-to-five (or six, or seven) and I work for Hale & True in the evenings and on weekends.” McKenzie’s primary career shares many of the same requirements as managing her own business. “Much of what I do as an account manager is relationship-building and client services — skills that directly translate from hospitality.”
She elaborates, “I understand what it is like to operate a business — the pressures, the challenges — and I’m able to relate [that] and strategize with my clients.”
“My husband and I got into cider specifically because of the abundance of apples in Pennsylvania and our exposure to local, craft cider that was, at the time, virtually unknown,” McKenzie says. “Once we made our first batch of cider at home, I was like, ‘This is it.’”
Weber evokes a wide range of cultures and memories through her four restaurants. With her newest, Sor Ynez, she was drawn to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century feminist, nun, writer, and composer in Mexico. “She was self-taught in Greek and Nahuatl — the language of the Aztec — and she was a huge proponent of the rights of Mexicans under the colonial thumb of Spain,” Weber says. “So, I wanted a restaurant that paid homage to indigenous ingredients of Mexico, which really lends itself to plant-based foods.”
Weber’s love of food shines through in her favorite memory from digging in Syria: “One amazing place we often visited is Qalat Saman, the ruins of a basilica built in the fifth century. That particular day we had a really wonderful picnic. One of the archaeologists was a fabulous cook and he had made tapenade and some sort of chicken salad, and of course the tomatoes and cucumbers in Syria were among the most delicious I ever ate,” she says. “We sat amid the ruins and ate our wonderful food.”