Eat Drink Man Woman

In the month leading up to February 14, says Nancy Laird, co-owner of the ultra-romantic restaurant Serenäde in Chatham, “The phone is ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing…That’s what we all do, is answer the phone.” Her husband, chef James Laird, says, “It’s no exaggeration. We turn away 5,000 phone calls for sure.”

In the month leading up to February 14, says Nancy Laird, co-owner of the ultra-romantic restaurant Serenäde in Chatham, “The phone is ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing…That’s what we all do, is answer the phone.” Her husband, chef James Laird, says, “It’s no exaggeration. We turn away 5,000 phone calls for sure.”

Between Nancy having the phone plastered to her ear and James concocting his Lovers’ Sampler (a plate for sharing), his whole roasted duck for two, his strawberries dipped in chocolate, and a drink called the French Kiss (cranberries, vodka, and sugar, topped with champagne)—is there any time left for their romance?

The Lairds, who celebrated their tenth wedding anniversary in March and Serenäde’s tenth anniversary in October, typically celebrate holidays a week early or a week late. Two years ago for Valentine’s Day, James surprised Nancy with a hotel room overlooking Central Park when Christo’s “Gates” exhibition was on display. “That was really fun,” says Nancy, but “other than Christmas Day, we celebrate everything around the restaurant.” Naturally. Food, after all, is what brought them together.

Back in the early 1990s, Nancy, who had chucked a Manhattan career in mergers-and-acquisitions research and investment banking to go to culinary school, was interning at the Ryland Inn. She was prepping salads at the garde-manger station when a young sous-chef caught her eye. “My station was across the way, and when James would cook he was like a dancer. He’s so graceful, and every movement is so well thought-out and so precise. And then the taste of the food—it was just completely eye-opening, and it still is.” For his part, James says “I was attracted to Nancy for her looks and her brains and her accomplishments—outside the food world. I bet if you ask most chefs where they met their wife, it’s either a customer or someone they met in the restaurant somehow.”

Well, there’s at least one exception to Laird’s rule: Lorena Perez and Humberto Campos Jr., co-owners of Lorena’s in Maplewood, open since June 1995. Perez, who until the restaurant opened worked as a nurse in the intensive-care unit at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield, says her parents and Campos’s parents—physicians who worked together—tried to fix the two up.

My mom was ready to retire, to move to Argentina,” and she was desperate to find a partner for her daughter. “She told my sister about Humberto, and she made my sister convince me to meet him,” the soft-spoken Perez says with a giggle. But living happily ever after will have to wait—the demands of the restaurant have prevented them from setting a wedding date. “We just keep pushing it, and pushing it, and pushing it,” Campos says. “But we are looking around for a place.”

Perez says that running a restaurant is actually more stressful than working in the ICU. “In the ICU, yes, it’s very stressful, but if something goes wrong, you know what to do, you give them this medication, and there’s always a doctor there to back you up. Here, it’s a little harder in some ways. You want to make sure everyone is happy when they leave, and it’s just a different type of stress. I think this is harder, but it’s yours, and it’s worth the work that you have to do. ”

For Perez and Campos, there is a benefit to living, eating, and breathing the restaurant all the time. “We get to spend time together here,” Campos says.

So what do they do on off days? Go out to eat, of course, sometimes at Robuchon in Manhattan, or Blu in Montclair, or a favorite pizza place, Elio’s, near their home in Edison. “We’re always eating,” Campos says. Except at home. “I don’t think we ever cook dinner at home anymore since we started the restaurant,” Perez says. “Maybe breakfast—a coffee, a doughnut.”

Frank Diaz and Karen Schloss, who celebrated their thirteenth wedding anniversary in December, run a public relations agency and consulting firm that deals only with the food and beverage industry. Two of their first clients were the Rainbow Room and Windows on the World, but since moving to Montclair nine years ago, they have specialized in New Jersey restaurants. The two spend so much time together—“For thirteen years, we have been together 24-7,” Diaz says—that they routinely finish each other’s sentences, and conversations can resemble a fast-paced tennis match. (Diaz is a sort of cerebral, Billy Crystal-jokester type, while Schloss quips that as a kid she wanted to be like That Girl. Her demeanor does bring to mind Marlo Thomas, minus the flip hairdo.)

“A huge part of what we do,” says Schloss, “is to dine in client restaurants and restaurants of competitors. And if we were not together, truly we would never see each other.” They go out in the evenings somewhat less since the arrival of their daughter, Lucy, now three years old. Diaz says, “Chefs and people who work in the kitchen and the front of the house just never see their families. So from the get-go this agency was based on a mom-and-pop model from the 1920s and ’30s, meaning that where our agency was, our home was.” They do have to be careful not to bring issues from home into the workplace and vice versa.

“Frank made a great point early on,” Schloss says, “that if we were married and we didn’t work together, and we had a huge fight at home, that wouldn’t give us an excuse to go into the office and be nasty to the secretary or the clients. We’ve got to button up.” Diaz says the constant togetherness ups his game. “Before Karen, I could come home [to] whoever I was with and say, ‘Man, I just kicked ass at that meeting, I really rocked!’—even though I probably had my foot in my mouth the whole time. But now Karen is there at the meetings, and when we leave she’ll turn around and say, ‘What the heck was that all about?’ It pushes you, if you’re so inclined, and if you want to have some longevity in a relationship and in a career, to do much better.”

One might reasonably ask whether it’s a good thing for a couple to spend as much time together as these couples do. When both halves of a couple are in the same business, outside interests are healthy—indeed, necessary. Diaz is a photographer and James Laird has taken up squash. But it’s also critical to define the term together. “Sometimes, like yesterday,” Campos says of the stretch between 5 pm and midnight, “I say hello and I say goodnight, because we’re so busy. That’s why we have two days off—Monday and Tuesday. Those days are for us.”

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