Mitch Omer | Executive Chef / Owner
When football star Mitch Omer walked off the field in frustration and gave up his full scholarship at Iowa State to the chagrin of his furious father, he was understandably told “don’t come home.” Thus he kept going, past Des Moines, past Minneapolis, and way up into the north woods of Ely to forge a new life. Grabbing the first job offered (and lying about his lack of experience), he started cooking at age 19.
Lucky for him, he was good. “But it was just a job,” he explains, until he met world-renowned chef Jacques Pepin…friend of Julia Child, author of numerous cookbooks, and chef to several French Presidents. Watching Jacques in action “lit me on fire,” says Mitch. “That’s when I realized good cooking combines my love of art and science, and at that point, there was absolutely no stopping me.”
Omer then maniacally studied everything about the culinary world he could get his hands on. Fervently working up to 3 jobs at a time, he gained priceless experience under many great chefs near and far, honing his kitchen skills while trying to balance a crazy home life that included three children, two ex wives, irresponsible drug and alcohol use, subsequent punishments, and (finally) a proper diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder…which thankfully explained his manic-obsessive-depressive behavior.
In his 40’s and finally on an even keel, Omer sold almost all of his possessions (and his new wife Cyn’s house, she kindly reminds him), snatched his longtime “partner in crime” Steve Meyer, and opened Hell’s Kitchen in a tiny shotgun space one block from the current location in downtown Minneapolis.
Steve Meyer | Executive Sous Chef / Owner
The very last thing Steve Meyer wanted was his own business. Happy as hell to have a good cooking career at several great Twin Cities restaurants, Steve often followed Omer’s lead and worked as his Sous Chef from place to place, sometimes staying on as Executive Chef whenever Omer was fired (often). Then came “the call.”
“I’m opening my own restaurant and I want you as a partner,” said Omer, thus luring Meyer one more time into unknown waters. “Steve’s the hardest working line dog in the business,” explained Mitch, “and I wouldn’t do my own place without him.” So that’s how Steve Meyer ended up as a partner in Hell’s Kitchen. Side-note: when Steve’s sweet-yet-buttoned-down wife Kim heard that Mitch planned to call the place “Hell’s Kitchen,” she sat down and cried.
Ah, how time heals all wounds. Kim’s now quite happy as our Business Manager…Cyn (Mitch’s wife who also founded Creative Kidstuff) is CEO, and the two war dogs Mitch and Steve are still cooking and writing cookbooks and keeping the staff laughing and desperately trying not to micro-manage everything in between. It’s a good partnership, well balanced, and yet things still always seem crazy around Mitch and Steve. That’s why they brought in the Big Talent….
Tony Perella | General Manager
When redevelopment plans forced Hell’s Kitchen to look for a new home in 2007, the owners looked near and far but kept coming back to a fabulous underground space just a block away. Problem was, it was huge (3 times as big) and expensive (rent was 4 times as much). “There was no way we could break even just offering breakfast and lunch,” explains Steve, “so we were forced to add dinner service.” Problem #1: they had their hands full running things from 4am til end of lunch service. Who would run things for dinner?
Problem #2 Their new space included a beautiful stage with a jaw-dropping sound system. “We had no inkling what to do with it,” lamented Cynthia Gerdes. “Maybe do some dinner music on weekends? Maybe just add some more tables/chairs up there and make it a private dining space? It was too overwhelming to think about it so we just left it empty the first several months.”
Problem #3 was simply managing the unexpected increase in volume. “I was astonished whenever the huge new place actually filled up with customers” explained Steve’s wife Kim Meyer. “I could barely keep up with running payroll and paying the bills, let alone scheduling all the different shifts and maintaining good rapport with employees and customers.”
Enter Tony Perella, “our very own Guido” laughs Gerdes. “Right under our eyes, tending bar, was one of the best potential managers we could ever hope for” she continues. “Tony’s a perfect balance to our spontaneous and crazy styles, and brings stability to our operation with his quiet, methodical, and very likable personality.” And here’s the fun part, adds Omer, “It was all the employees who told us we should have Tony run the place. Everybody respects him…how cool is that?”
Perella, who had extensive experience running other restaurants, was immediately promoted to General Manager and began putting systems in place to ensure the restaurant’s future. He pulled together a “dream team” of smart managers in order to have someone in charge every single minute of operation. Once things were in place and running like a well-oiled machine, Perella turned his attention to that empty stage and instituted a music program which includes free music Tuesdays through Sundays during dinnertime and weekend brunch. He then put the incredible sound system to further use by adding Late Nite shows called “Hell’s Kitchen Underground” with rock-the-walls entertainment that draws in a younger crowd Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10:30pm to 2am. And finally, he took some of the cooking pressure off Steve and Mitch by hiring a Chef d’Cuisine to run the day-to-day food operations….so now meet Joe:
Joseph Wuestenhagen | Chef d’Cuisine
Well hell, as if Mitch and Steve weren’t troublesome enough, Joe Wuestenhagen swept into our underground digs with a fire in his belly and an intensity that reminded the founders of their younger days. With a load of cooking talent acquired at some of the Twin Cities’ top restaurants, Joe brought a fervent obsession of local, organic ingredients which added to the already-popular menu offerings. Grass-fed beef? Check. Organic eggs? Check. Obsession to quality? Check check check.
The owners of Hell’s Kitchen couldn’t believe their good fortune when Tony brought Joe on board, and thank their lucky stars that while they get to still be on the spontaneous entrepreneurial side –writing cookbooks, bothering customers, welcoming people, hopping onstage to introduce bands and enjoying their employees– Joe, Tony, and their band of renegade managers keep the place humming smoothly morning, noon, and well into the night.