Joanna and Nelson Cognac have always worked with and around food, so deciding to open a restaurant together was “really a no-brainer,” according to Joanna.
As their Waban eatery nears its ten-year anniversary, and they approach their own 12-year mark, the Cognacs are also enjoying the success of their new restaurant, in Brookline.
But back when they met 14 years ago while working at the now-defunct Figs in Wellesley, Joanna was waiting tables and Nelson was Executive Chef. But their careers in the kitchen began much earlier.
“We’ve both been in this business for 30 years,” explains Joanna. “We both started as dishwashers. Back then, that’s what American kids did — you washed dishes. Kids don’t really wash dishes today.”
Nelson also did a stint in San Francisco. He trained under Larry Vito at the Stamford Court Hotel and also worked as executive chef for restaurants in the Kimpton Hotel Group. But his family was still here in Massachusetts, “his parents were getting older,” explains Joanna, so back to the Boston area he came. Eventually he landed at Figs, and their romance blossomed.
From the very beginning, the couple talked of opening their own places; yes, Cognac Bistro was also always a part of their plan. But when they first opened Kouzina in 2001, naysayers couldn’t see the small restaurant in the very upscale Newton village having much success.
“When I was outside painting the front, getting ready to open, there was this old guy who would ride his bike by,” explains Joanna. “He’d say, ‘You’re not going to make it.’ And I was like, ‘Thanks.’ Well, now he rides by and he comes in!”
Their original menu contained a melting pot of Mediterranean-influenced dishes, and in keeping with Nelson’s heritage they did have some French fare. But they held back some of his favorite recipes for their eventual second endeavor. Now Kouzina’s menu focuses on Greek flavor profiles.
“We have the pastitsio (ground beef with béchamel sauce and tomato) and the moussaka (ground lamb with béchamel sauce and eggplant),” Joanna says. “We have a number of souvlakis- that’s on a skewer. It’s pretty much geared towards the Greek.”
Six months ago, the French-influenced recipes Nelson had dutifully saved were finally able to see the light of day. Cognac Bistro opened in late October, and as of this week they added lunch to their existing dinner, brunch and bar service. They are currently open seven days a week.
Kouzina is closed on Sundays and Mondays, but the other five days of the week find the Cognacs juggling a very busy schedule. They both begin the day doing prep and organization at Kouzina. Nelson then heads over to Brookline, leaving Joanna to run the front of the house, and hands off chef duties to his well-trained line cooks.
“We’re very fortunate that they’ve been with us for 10 years,” Joanna states. “Nelson writes all his recipes down. They follow a format. You have to — it’s a standard!”
Their schedule looks to be this hectic for the foreseeable future, but Joanna is just excited about realizing their dream of having two restaurants that can honor both her Greek heritage and Nelson’s French culinary background.
“We’ve been thinking about this for nearly eight years,” she beams.