Never underestimate the power of pizza dough to hold the attention of little hands. It was a trick Molly Broder would employ when her three boys were young as she attended to her business.
She also knew the hypnotic trance a pasta extruder could cast over a toddler. "I remember Thomas in front of it and he'd be just happy to watch it," said Molly, who founded Broders' Cucina with her late husband, Tom, in 1982, long before screen time existed.
Childhood is different for restaurant kids. While others sling on a backpack at the end of the day to head home, they head to work.
For the parents, it's not an easy job to manage a dream along with family demands. The restaurant business is a hard life. From sleeping on cots in the basement to physical scars — not to mention the emotional ones of having your family's livelihood dependent on pleasing other people — it can be as precarious as it is rewarding.
For kids who grow up working a salad line, stocking inventory, chopping vegetables and watching magic fingers fly over an adding machine, it would be understandable if they headed off to college and never looked back. And that was the intention of Charlie Broder, Katy Gerdes, Milissa Silva and Eric Pham, who all were raised in popular Twin Cities restaurants.
But something pulled them back, and they took what they learned from their mothers and turned it into restaurant dreams of their own.
Khue and Eric Pham: Life was supposed to be better
For Khue Pham, the restaurant business is inextricable from sacrifice. Her mother, Lung Tran, was just 36 when her father, Quang, died unexpectedly. With six kids to raise, there was little time to sit in her grief. Instead, she built a restaurant that endures as an iconic Minneapolis institution: Quang.
"I remember sleeping on a cot in the restaurant because I was so tired I couldn't drive," said Khue. She and her siblings were raised with their mother's inexhaustible work ethic, all with the goal that the next generation wouldn't have to stand for hours over simmering pots of pho broth.
"My relationship with cooking is different than what most people assume," said Eric. Rather than working in the kitchen at Quang, he was relegated to other chores, like chopping. "My grandma and aunties kept us kids away from cooking because they wanted us to get an education."
He broached the subject when he was 15. "I asked, 'Can you show me how to cook? And mom said 'You're too slow. Go upstairs and read a book.' "
Still, the love of cuisine seeped in. "I was supposed to be writing essays for school and instead I was writing recipes and essays about cooking."
He was also watching local chefs, including Gavin Kaysen. Kaysen was raised in Bloomington and became a nationally renowned chef before returning to Minnesota to open several notable restaurants. So, with the chutzpah of youth, Eric emailed Kaysen to ask him how to become a chef. Kaysen responding by inviting the 19-year-old to spend a day inside his kitchen.
Eric showed up at Spoon and Stable and tried on this new dream job. At the end of the day he came to one resounding conclusion: "I was terrible."
But genes are a remarkable thing. "I am not a quitter. That might be in the blood," Eric said. Instead, he went back and tried again, eventually earning a place on the kitchen line.
There was just one more piece of the plan to execute. "I had to call my parents and tell them I was dropping out."
When he explained to them he had a job at one of the most highly regarded restaurants in town, his mother immediately started crying.
"I was shocked. Shocked," said Khue. There were a lot of emotions, including betrayal and fear. This was a life that chose her and her siblings. But life was supposed to be better, easier, wealthier for their children.
When Eric left Spoon and Stable to start his own restaurant, originally a ghost kitchen that he named Khue's Kitchen in honor of his mother, their relationship had never been more strained.
Now, Khue's Kitchen has become a permanent pop-up inside Bar Brava.
"I was very lucky with my children," said Khue. "They don't go out or lie or do crazy stuff. So, I'm very proud of them."
But Eric's success isn't just that he is a good person. "It turned out that he is where he is right now because he is like he is: stubborn."
Charlie and Molly Broder: A legacy of hospitality
Charlie Broder and his brothers, Daniel and Thomas, grew up enveloped in the aromas of Parmesan and red sauce. It was the dream of their parents, Molly and Tom, to bring a taste of Italy (and proper New York-style pizza slices) to Minneapolis when they opened Broders' Cucina in 1982.
While the plan had always been to raise and send their kids out into the world, eventually all three would come back and take their places at the helm of the family business. It's that business, which has grown to include Broders' Pasta Bar and Terzo, and its community that embraced them after their father died, and when COVID threatened to jeopardize everything.
"Growing up I wanted to become a restaurant owner," said Charlie Broder. "I think I rebelled and wrestled with that identity a bit. Our restaurants are well known in our city and we are so fortunate. That's valuable and exciting. But there's another part of that, too, where your identity is tied to something that isn't yours."
Molly and Tom came to restaurant ownership from other careers, as educators. "We gravitated to food," she said. "And our kids grew up in hospitality, at home and in the business." Turning to Charlie she said, "So, you know, even while Charlie was rebelling, he was also delivering pizzas."
Thomas was the first to return. "He had gone away to college and about his junior year he says, 'I'm switching. I want to be in the family business.' Then Charlie came in right after that," said Molly.
Thomas had already worked in the kitchen of the pasta bar, holding down the salad line at age 13.
"Well, that's because, there were circumstances where that happened," said Molly, choosing her words carefully.
Charlie remembered: "That's when dad went into the hospital." Tom Broder battled a lifelong heart condition. He would receive a heart transplant, but passed away in 2008.
"Losing my husband was difficult, but I just felt so sad for my boys," said Molly. "I just could not relate to what it was like to lose a parent."
"That's where when you have a void, filling it is a good thing to do," Charlie said. "It was soon after that where it became very clear to me that there was something here."
Through the years, all three boys have traveled extensively in Italy, finding their own love of the country and the cuisine. Thomas and Daniel were enamored of the skill and craft of cooking; Charlie went deep into wine knowledge.
Molly mused that the torch really passed to her sons during COVID, a time they fully realized ownership and she decided to dabble in retirement. It was a harrowing time, and a devastating business blow from which they're still recovering.
"One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that everything really did stop," said Molly. "We were able to completely restructure and reimagine how we could take care of employees."
And in that recalibration, she was able to get some grandma time in while her children carry on the family tradition.
"It all starts because of your passion," Charlie said to his mother. "You are a driver of taste and understanding for the cuisine and culture. It's not the work, it's your passion that is paramount to our business. It's an inspiration my brothers and I carry with us."
Milissa and Maria Silva: The village is key
Maria and Tomas Silva were immigrants from Aguascalientes, Mexico, who longed for a taste of home when they loaded up their family station wagon with staples of Mexican cooking to bring back to St. Paul. Their tiny grocery store, El Burrito Mercado, would become an anchor of Mexican cuisine and culture.
"I remember the store across the street in the basement, I think my dad built the office walls," said Milissa. She vividly described her mother's fingers flying over the adding machine, ticking up sales and accounts payable. "She did everything by hand." She and her siblings would help count the coins and play store.
"I mean, I also remember you in the kitchen," she's quick to add.
"That was my reputation as a cook," said Maria. "I grew up with my mother and a younger sister. She would make small amounts of food. At that point, my husband would say 'Make a little bit more, my friends are coming over and I want them to taste it.' For some reason he loved what I did."
He wasn't the only one. Soon their tiny market expanded with the addition of a bakery and eventually a deli and restaurant featuring Maria's recipes.
It was in those early days, in the 800-square-foot office, that St. Paul's famous Cinco de Mayo celebration began as an extension of Maria's pride in her family, their business and their people.
"I am very proud that it was the beginning of a real Hispanic community with meaning. We were somebody. We had a future. We became a destination point for Hispanics finding themselves, being encouraged and seeing they could do it, too. A beginning for not only our family, but for so many families," said Maria. "The village is key."
As much as she grew up in the business and loved it, Milissa grew up and moved on. She graduated from college and lived in San Diego before moving home so her daughters could attend school here.
It was then Target reached out to her, looking for a small family brand to feature in stores. "That was where it started," she said. "Suddenly my eyes were open to the potential of what we could do."
As Milissa moved into a leadership role, she draws on her mother's strength for inspiration. "As a Latina with no previous experience, the passion and dream she shared, but it's her relentlessness I lean on. She didn't take no for an answer and she was and is a force to be reckoned with. I think of her when I'm in certain situations with staff, community members or with banks. I draw on my own inner Maria."
El Burrito Mercado, 175 Cesar Chavez St., St. Paul, elburritomercado.com
Katy and Cynthia Gerdes: A shared steely work ethic
Cynthia Gerdes is supposed to be retired. She sold her stake in Hell's Kitchen, the downtown Minneapolis restaurant she ran with her late husband, industry legend Mitch Omer, to the restaurant's employees. But she started creeping into some light office work, and that's why she was answering emails at Angel Food Bakery.
Angel Food, founded by pastry chef Katy Gerdes, began as an upstairs counterpart to Hell's Kitchen. And while the mother-daughter duo worked together, this is far from another nepo-baby story.
Katy was 22 and in college when Hell's Kitchen opened. The restaurant would become a Minneapolis mainstay for all-day breakfast and quirky but now iconic dishes like sausage bread and lemon ricotta pancakes.
Although she was studying design, Katy was bitten by the baking bug early on. She remembers being 9 and making her first cakes — a skill she did not pick up from her mother.
"I cannot cook," said Cynthia. "I remember in college I made one batch of cookies. I thought you had to flip them over to cook on the other side. Meanwhile, Katy's 9 and she said, 'I'm going to make Easter dessert — I'm going to make a cheesecake.' Not only did she make a cheesecake, it was adorned with shortbread bunnies dancing around the edge."
That was just the beginning.
She found baking work while in high school, but it was always just a summer job. When Hell's Kitchen moved to its current subterranean location, it took Katy some creative finagling to get hired as the pastry chef — and no one told her mom.
"She had said no," Katy said. "But Mitch said, 'We've worked in enough kitchens with her and we know we like her.' So, they hired me. I don't remember when she found out. She was not happy."
"I knew her capabilities," said Cynthia, "but I didn't want to work with a kid, because I think that's unfair to the kid. And you see nepotism all over the place."
The discomfort in working with family remains, Katy said. "It's embarrassing when you're the boss at work and you have to say, 'Go talk to my mom.' "
So, the two have kept their roles clearly defined at Angel Food. While Cynthia is happy to share her years of knowledge of the industry, regulations and working with the city, she's trying to do it quietly on the sidelines, despite a can't-sit-still personality that may be due in part to their Puerto Rican heritage.
There's also the steely work ethic Katy inherited. The bakery does a brisk cake and doughnut business in the Texa Tonka strip mall in St. Louis Park and at MSP airport (the original in downtown Minneapolis closed during the pandemic). At the back of the bakery, the seasonal Frio Frio sells paletas-like ice lollies.
With all of that experience, Katy is able to view her mom's career and legacy through a different lens. "I'm most impressed with the fact that she did it. This wasn't a one-and-done sort of thing. She figured all of it out on her own: the permits, regulations, the business and she raised two kids along the way. And I'm so proud of her. She will take care of everyone around her — almost to a fault."
Sounds like a mom.
Angel Food Bakery & Coffee Bar, 8100 Minnetonka Blvd., St. Louis Park, angelfoodmn.com