Pulling into a restaurant parking lot these days can feel like arriving at a vintage car show or a motorcycle rally. Front-and-center parking spaces often showcase eye-catching, customized rides. These wheeled wonders don’t belong to VIP diners though. They’re how the chefs got to work.
Mike Isabella drives a pimped-out purple-and-black Honda Ruckus with chrome rims, an ostrich leather seat, racing tires and Graffiato logos emblazoned on it. Former BLT Steak executive chef Victor Albisu roars around in a restored black 1971 Mercedes 280SL convertible, while Cork Market chef Kristin Hutter favors an apple-red 1970 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia. Husband-wife team Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch & Barley/ChurchKey prefer modern conveyances, so they each drive a MINI Cooper.
Motorcycles are particularly popular with toques. Cliff Wharton, executive chef at Matchbox in Chinatown, has a 2006 Harley Davidson Night Train. He hits the road regularly with a group of culinary colleagues known as Chefs on Bikes, which has included Brasserie Beck’s chef-owner Robert Wiedmaier, Bayou Bakery’s chef-owner David Guas, Rogue 24’s chef-owner R.J. Cooper, Old Ebbitt Grill’s executive chef Robert McGowan, Passion Food Hospitality partner David Wizenberg and “whoever else wants to ride,” according to Wharton.
“Riding gives you a lot of free time to think,” says Wharton, who drove his hog nearly 3,000 miles roundtrip to the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally shortly after he bought it. “You don’t worry about all the stress of the job.”
It can be a creative time. “I definitely think about food when I’m out there,” he says. “I’ve come up with recipes on the road.”
Tallula and EatBar’s executive chef Brian Wilson prefers four wheels to two. His longtime love affair with Volkswagen Beetles began when he was a sophomore at Annandale High School, where a teammate on the lacrosse team drove one. “I was really envious that he had this neat little car,” he admits. In need of his own Fahrvergnugen fix, Wilson bought his first Beetle in 1994: a dark green 1971 with an air-cooled engine.
He quickly discovered how much of a conversation starter these colorful cars can be. “Everyone has a story about a Beetle,” says Wilson. “It’s always a good, nostalgic one. They range from ‘I lost my virginity in the back seat’ to ‘There was this time that me and my buddies were driving across Colorado, and we almost didn’t make it.’”
Since getting behind the wheel of his first VW, Wilson’s Beetle mania has only grown. He has bought five more, including a white 1968, a bright orange 1974 and his current ride, a radiant yellow 1973 Beetle. They were in various states of repair, so he has become an amateur mechanic in the process. “I’ve learned more by error than trial,” says Wilson. “I’ve ruined a lot of parts and a motor or two.”
He believes that it’s this puttering and tinkering that partly attracts chefs to owning, maintaining and customizing unique rides. “We love making stuff with our hands,” he says. “When you go out to work on your car, you have a project in mind, which is just like a recipe. Then you see it all the way through from start to finish, so you have a lot of pride in what you’ve done.”