Kat and Zoe, both OCI alums, will be opening a new restaurant together in March of 2011. We sat down with them for lunch at OCI last month to find out more about their story.

Kat Liebman (left) and Zoe Hackett (right)

How did the two of you meet?

Kat: We met at Lucy’s Table after I’d been there for three months.

Zoe: I had just finished my externship at Beast, then I travelled a little bit. When I came back, Nina (Tuthill, OCI Career Services Director) helped me get a job at Lucy’s Table. I started in pantry.

K: I was moving from pantry to sauté.

Z: Brian, the Chef de Cuisine, hired me that day. The restaurant has 60 seats, and it was just a staff of Kat, Brian, and me. Sometimes it was only two of us, and we’d be dealing with lunch, happy hour, and dinner, with the only other back of house staff being the dishwasher.

K: Pretty soon after we met, we realized our styles and goals were similar. We immediately started brainstorming. We both wanted to be more efficient and do it our way.

Z: When we met, Kat was helping me get up to speed in the kitchen, but after that, we got to be really creative every day. We created the specials. Kat would do daily sauté and salad specials, I was doing the amuse bouche and au revoir. We always had specials. We also had to squeeze in an hour of creative prep for the specials, all in addition to the huge menu.

K: The bar menu has 20 items different from the dining room menu. The dining room has both small and large plates.

Z: Plus, we made everything in house – sauces (demi and remis), and pasta, gnocchi, barbecue sauces — anything you could think of. Nothing came in that was premade.

K: We fabricated all proteins in house, too, large cuts of meat. And we managed costs. When the Chef de Cuisine left, we basically did the job of an executive chef. We got really good at ordering, managing schedules, all that stuff.

Z: Plus, we had a bare bones kitchen. There was no line refrigeration. Everything was hotel pans with ice. That’s like another 45 minutes changing that out every day.

K: It was a great experience.

Z: Yeah, it was like a year long extension of school. Hands on, practical. Once we got up to speed to make it happen, we were able to constantly talk about where we wanted to go next, together.

Z: Originally, we thought about a sauce business. We brainstormed and even created homework assignments, but before we really got started, Kat started expanding it to a real business plan and a restaurant, and that was the long term plan anyway, so we couldn’t turn back.

K: One of our best nights at Lucy’s Table was when we expected 20 covers, and we ended up with over 80 between the bar and the dining room. There were no mishaps, with exception of the gas burner not lighting, and our point and click wasn’t working, so we were lighting the burner with flaming paper towels! That’s when we knew we could be successful managing a place and the food correctly on our own. After that night, we said “we can do this.”

Z: It got to the point where we were so productive on the time we had off together that we decided it was time to put in our notice and get busy with our business plan. The last item on the business plan was finding the right property.

K: I started reaching out to brokers, and I got a couple tips here and there, and then on the first day of unemployment, I randomly got an email from a broker who asked if I would be interested in the old Fats place. He didn’t want to announce it, so we were able to do it quietly. It was a perfect match for us. There were six more prominent Portland food people than us, but Micah (the Fats owner) decided we were the best fit for the area and the street. The business plan that we were working on had the most developed concept. Micah and the broker were confident in our concept and liked that we were two new food chicks on the scene.

Do you know what you are going to call it?

K: “Cocotte” is the name. The concept came first. We had a few working names that we dropped. We were looking for a word that could be feminine, edgy and inviting, and carried a food connotation. We also wanted a name that would coexist well with the neighborhood, being near DOC and Beast.

Z: I found the name in an old French book. I was looking for an approachable word people could say.

K: “Cocotte” has a few different meanings:

- Casserole or stew pot, a dish, earthenware or cast iron;
- my baby chick or hen;
- honey, darling;
- and in comtemporary French, it can be slang for a “painted lady” or “lady of the night.”

We have the concept of it being a feminine and warm place, even a little bit sexy. We don’t want it to be pretentious. It will be a Parisian style bistro in look and feel, with food inspired by classic French cuisine. But the food will be very contemporary.

Z: We’ll have rustic touches, but not “smack you in the face” French bistro. There will be old world French elements. Right now we’re finding ‘20s era antiques, light fixtures, and china.

K: The space lends itself very well to the theme. We even have old French doors on the building, which is from the turn of the century.

Z: The kitchen will be semi-open. We want the warmth and femininity to come through in the food.

How many seats and when do you plan to open?

K: There will be 38 seats, including 8 in the bar. We are aiming for a March 1, 2011 opening date.

What is the address?

2930 N.E. Killingsworth St., near Beast and D.O.C.

How have Ray (Colvin, OCI Business Program Architect and Location Director) and Maxine (Borcherding, Management Instructor) helped you?

K: Ray and Max have been like advisors. I’ve had an entrepreneurial goal ever since I came to OCI. Max has been amazing. She asked Ray to get involved, and they’ve been great.

Z: They really backed us up so we didn’t feel like young dreamers. They really believe in us, pointing out little details that would help us.

K: It really helped when we met with Max for the first time and she wasn’t terrified of our idea!

M: Max said, “Don’t be afraid to give your dishes a good, fair price point,” and that was good advice.

Z: She also told us to have wine distributors come in and walk us through the wines. And she told us to be open as often as possible. There will only be five on staff, and we planned on only being open Wednesdays through Sundays, but she pointed out that we’re paying rent all those days, so we should be open as much as we in the beginning. Then, when we’re dialed in, we can bring in help so you can have a weekend.

So what will the hours be?

K: Every Monday will be an office day, while we work on new menu, because we want to change the menu every couple weeks. We’ll only be closed Sunday nights and Mondays. We’ll only be open for dinner on Tuesday through Friday, on Saturday we’ll be open for brunch and dinner, and on Sunday we’ll be open for brunch only. Zoe and I feel like we work so well together, this is our baby, it is a labor of love, and the goal here is for us to establish ourselves.

Z: Yep.