Their Well-Paying Jobs Felt Empty. So They Pivoted to Restaurant Careers

A former ER doctor, designer, realtor and salesman dish on opting for high heat, hours on their feet and the flavor of fulfillment.


Illustration showing three chefs shedding uniforms from other jobs and wearing or putting on chef uniforms and hats

Illustration by Robert Neubecker


“In barbecue lore, it takes a long time to find your balance,” says Matt Martin, 46, owner of More Than Q barbecue restaurants in Princeton, Lambertville and Easton, Pennsylvania. He cites himself as case in point. In his 20s, he sold real estate, then moved to Chicago, where he “tried to sell digital services to impersonal, impatient law firms. It was soulless. No real human interaction. As 30 approached, I got fixated on what our dad used to tell us: By that milestone, you should be in a field you’re passionate about, then you’ll succeed. I’d always loved cooking, inspired by my mom, a great cook who thrived on feeding people.” He went to culinary school, landed a job cooking for Whole Foods, and “found my calling.” When his friend Ron Spada opened More Than Q in 2013, Martin joined him, later taking over the business. “I’m having a blast,” he says. “I love being my own boss and hobnobbing with diners, whom we call our barbecue family. My sales background helps me with customer service and team management. Maybe best of all, my dad is really proud of me.”
13 Klines Court, Lambertville, 609-773-0072; 3524
Route 1 North, Princeton, 609-642-4770


Newly arrived in Ridgefield from Seoul, 15-year-old David Seo discovered that “the coolest kids in North Jersey were into design. For me, a teen with a restless mind, design was a way to focus your thoughts and talents.” Earning a degree from Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, he landed a job at a Manhattan firm. “After lessons, we’d inhale interior magazines and debate a room’s colors, textures and proportions,” Seo says. “But after five years, I hated the sheer loneliness of a project-based desk job.” Landing a gig at Manhattan’s Sushi Samba, where he learned a new craft, “felt so energizing and inspiring: being with people, masterminding beautiful, surprising dishes.” A job with the company that runs restaurants at Newark Liberty Airport led to him meeting the sushi master Ike Aikasa. In 2017, they opened Shumi in Ridgewood. “My experience with clients and contractors really helped with construction and red tape,” Seo says. “I designed the restaurants myself. I work incredibly hard, but I get to celebrate both design and sushi.”
70 E. Ridgewood Avenue, Ridgewood, 201-345-0808


“I’ve always liked taking care of people,” says Toni Charmello, executive chef of Drifthouse by David Burke in Sea Bright. “I just didn’t think it would involve dining.” Now 47, the Colonia native studied psychology at Rider, was certified as an emergency medical technician and spent four years in the Emergency Room of Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick. “I helped save lives, but the ER’s frantic pace finally proved too much,” she says. “I became a clinical information manager, or scribe, for the ER docs. It’s an essential job because the breakneck pace of emergency and critical care demands perfectly accurate record keeping.” 

She eventually became a top recruiter and trainer of scribes. “But the stress became intolerable. As a kid, I’d rather help make dinner with my mom, an excellent cook, than do homework. As an adult, cooking for myself and my husband, Joe, was always a mini-escape.” After earning a degree in 2009 from the Institute for Culinary Education in Manhattan, Charmello “trained with great chefs like Daniel Humm at 11 Madison Park in the city and Chris Albrecht at Eno Terra in Princeton.” After working for Burke, she returned to Enoterra until Burke brought her back, eventually making her top toque at Drifthouse. “Without my past experience managing teams and individuals, I’d be sunk,” she says. “My job can be grueling, but when I come home, I’m proud of the work I did with my team. Now I’d love to get a master’s in organizational psychology.”
1485 Ocean Avenue, Sea Bright, 732-530-9760


Aldo Lamberti, owner of six Italian eateries in Cherry Hill, Philadelphia and Miami, started working in his dad’s Brooklyn pizzeria at 13, soon after the family emigrated from Procida, an island off the coast of Naples. He later returned to Procida “to find my roots and my bride”—they’re now married 45 years—and did well in Italian real estate, buying and selling fixer-uppers. “The unknowns were earthquakes and the Italian lira,” he says. “But my dad needed me to help open a place in Cherry Hill. That was 1985.” 

That same year, he opened Caffe Aldo Lamberti in Cherry Hill. “What made the Caffe Lamberti work was using computers for all transactions, which people weren’t doing yet. I was able to expand to 400 seats, and Caffe Lamberti is still going strong, specializing in that-day fish, mainly from Jersey waters. It’s our flagship. I opened in Philly and later Miami, but home is Cherry Hill.”
2011 Route 70 West, Cherry Hill, 856-663-1747

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