dame-collective-promo-eva-Kolenko.png Eva Kolenko

Chefs-in-residence model allows restaurateurs to test the waters

Portland, Ore.’s Dame Collective is part incubator, part chef residency

Dame Collective in Portland, Ore., first opened in 2016 as a typical restaurant. But after hosting a biweekly in-house popup event, owner Jane Smith saw an opportunity.

Rather than juggling between temporary events and a permanent menu, Smith decided to tap the potentially symbiotic relationship between her restaurant and chefs looking for a no-risk way to test out their brand. A new hybrid model was launched in February with chefs-in-residence.

Dame Collective owner Jane Smith
Photo: Hattie Watson

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“We wanted to create a place where we could partner with multiple chefs to highlight talent and new concepts,” Smith said. “This is more of a chef or restaurant incubator than a one-off popup or dinner series.”

Here’s how it works: Dame Collective provides the space, customer service, front-of-the-house staff, and beverage program led by the Dame Bottle Shop natural wine collection, which launched this winter. Visiting chefs serve six- to nine-month residencies, sourcing their ingredients and providing the menu and culinary talent.

The partners split utilities, equipment costs, and the chefs contribute to rent. At the end of each dinner service, Dame Collective keeps 100% of the beverage profits while the chef keeps 100% of food profits.

First up with the new model are two chefs who each take part of the week:

On Sunday through Wednesday, Patrick McKee of the now-closed Perlot in Portland, operates the concept Estes at Dame, with a classic Italian menu featuring dishes such as duck confit ravioli and oxtail over potato gnocchi.

Chef Patrick McKee of Estes
Photo: John Valls

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On Thursday through Saturday, the restaurant becomes Pasture at Dame, featuring the whole-animal butchery of Kei Ohdera and John Schaible, who both trained with Dan Barber at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York. Pasture offers a meat-forward menu like New York strip steak and beef tartare.

Chef Kei Ohdera of Pasture
Photo: Pasture

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Both restaurants run an average check of $58 per guest, with alcohol. Together, they are known as the umbrella of Dame Collective.

The first Dame Collective chefs-in-residence were chosen organically, Smith said. McKee actually approached Dame to be their executive chef around the same time that the restaurant was gearing up to shift its business model.

In the future, Smith hopes to continue the process of naturally forming relationships with local chefs looking to try out a concept or idea.

“[This business model] allows for a greater amount of creative energy to flow between the front and back of the house,” Smith said. “For them, the opportunity to work with different chefs and share the realities of running a day-to-day restaurant is so important. Hopefully, they will know a lot more when they leave. They can share their food with the local community before committing to the financial burden of opening up a brick and mortar.”

Conversely, on the Dame Collective side, Smith and her team won’t have to worry about training kitchen staff or shouldering the burden of food costs alone, she said.

Cacio e pepe at Estes
Photo: Estes

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“A full restaurant at our size operating as a traditional fine-dining restaurant is brutally hard financially,” Smith said. “This way we can execute at a high level, support local chefs, and be able to operate a business that works by spreading the cost burden between us. The partnership is an enormous benefit to everyone involved.”

Achieving profitability is not necessarily more difficult than at a traditional restaurant, but the challenges are different, Smith said.

The Dame Collective team is primarily focused on maintaining heavy volume and smart staffing.

Smith currently works with both restaurants seven days a week, and in the future wants to figure out a more sustainable work schedule for her staff. For now, the beverage sales on busy days more than cover the front-of-house labor and overhead costs, she said.

However, having two chefs and concepts means double the wholesale orders, double the ingredients storage needed, and two back-of-house teams sharing the same space.

Chef Patrick McKee likened the experience to having a roommate. Still, two chefs sharing a kitchen leads to collaboration. For example, McKee said he recently started buying ground beef and pork from the Pasture chefs.

Meat from Pasture
Photo: Pasture

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“[Smith] has given me a platform to present my personal concept without having to open a brick and mortar or resorting to opening a new pop-up every few weeks,” McKee said. “The idea of how we split everything and maintain staff makes it easier on everyone involved.”

Dame Collective is still very much a work in progress. Earlier this month, Pasture just launched a butcher’s counter, as well as a dedicated lunch menu Thursday through Saturday, featuring items like an upscale pastrami sandwich and grass-fed beef sausage sandwich. Estes is also looking to launch a Mexican-style brunch on Sundays.

Additionally, Smith plans to partner with a local Portland coffee and tea purveyor to add a daytime café element to their offerings.

Going forward, she envisions Dame Collective functioning as a community space, offering different experiences depending on the time of day or day of the week.

“Guests will be able to come in and use the space however feels right,” Smith said. “Locals know Dame Collective will be open whether they want a glass of wine or nice dinner, or just want to grab a cup of coffee. It will all be executed at the same level of quality that we’re looking for.”

Contact Joanna Fantozzi at [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter: @JoannaFantozzi

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