4 couples behind Long Island restaurants

Sushi chef Kikumatsu and general manager Kyoko Mitsumori

Sushi chef Kikumatsu and general manager Kyoko Mitsumori behind the sushi bar at their Koiso Japanese Restaurant in Carle Place on Jan. 28, 2014. (Credit: Agaton Strom)

Friday night, at tables for two all over Long Island, countless couples will be clinking champagne flutes and settling in for a relaxing dinner.

This story is about the couples who won't have a moment to sit down.

They'll be setting those tables, popping those champagne corks, cooking those dinners. They are the husbands and wives who own and operate restaurants.

Some of Long Island's best are run by married couples, from the most rarefied -- 18 Bay on Shelter Island, Stone Creek Inn in East Quogue, The Lake House in Bay Shore and North Fork Table & Inn in Southold (actually the product of two married couples) -- to humbler Mom and Pops such as Quetzalcoatl in Huntington, Hicksville Sweet Shop in Hicksville and Taste of Africa in Deer Park. A happy marriage takes work. A successful restaurant takes work. Sustaining both at the same time is not for the fainthearted. And so, in honor of Valentine's Day, we're featuring four couples whose marriages and restaurants are flourishing.

Frankie and Jintana Lauchalermsuk

FRANKLY THAI, Franklin Square

It was love at first bite for Frankie Perrone and Jintana Lauchalermsuk. One day in 2000, Perrone, a longtime "Thai food nut," wandered into Onzon Thai House in Bellmore with his cousin. They ordered pad Thai. "I could taste everything," he recalled, "the lime juice, the fish sauce. It was sour, salty and sweet. It hit every note." Perrone ordered another dish, then another. After the third plate, the waitress brought out the chef.

"I thought there was something wrong," said Lauchalermsuk, who had emigrated from Thailand only a year earlier. "I thought he thought it was terrible and he didn't want to pay."

Far from it. "As soon as I saw her," Perrone said, "I felt this connection. I knew." Perrone believed it would be inappropriate to ask the chef for her number, so he proffered his own. ("He did know where I worked," Lauchalermsuk pointed out.)

"He seemed like a good guy, a happy guy," she said. "I needed friends, people to practice my English with, so I called him." Within a few months, she had fallen in love, too.

Those next few years were not easy. Lauchalermsuk, now 55, was cooking every day. Perrone, 51, was taking care of a sick mother. They were able to be together only on Sundays, and much of that time was spent at the hospital or at rehab. But the challenges strengthened their bond. Lauchalermsuk loved how devoted Perrone was to his mother. Perrone loved that Lauchalermsuk valued family so highly. (On future visits to Thailand, he was to forge a close relationship with his mother-in-law. Today, a chain around his neck bears a crucifix, a pendant of the Blessed Virgin that his mother wore until she died, and a tiny crystal locket containing tiger skin, a deathbed bequest from Lauchalermsuk's mother.)

After Perrone's mother died in 2005, he bought a diamond ring and proposed to Lauchalermsuk. In 2007, they were married, following up the American service with a three-day Buddhist ceremony in Thailand that had Perrone riding to the "marriage cottage" on an elephant. (The photos to prove it are in the wedding album stored behind the restaurant's bar.)

Back home in Franklin Square, Perrone decided he "didn't want Jin to be away from me, ever," and so in 2010, the couple opened Frankly Thai. The resolutely authentic Thai restaurant received 2½ stars and was named by Newsday as one of the Island's 10 best Asian restaurants. While Lauchalermsuk was an accomplished chef, her husband's professional experience was as a rock and roll road manager and pharmacy worker. But he took to the restaurant like a duck to water. "Arranging concerts, dispensing medications -- it's all knowing how to talk to people," he explained. ("Talking to everyone," said Lauchalermsuk. "He has no voice when he gets home.")

Still, he defers to his wife on most matters. "She works so hard in the kitchen. The best ingredients, all the traditional ways of making things. Whatever she sends out on her 'honey do' list, I do. I could not be more honored that we work together. This marriage, this restaurant -- they're the best things I've ever done."

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Tony and Gary Clifton

PRETTY TONI'S CAFE, Valley Stream

Pretty Toni's was not supposed to be a joint venture. Toni Clifton took over the little, freestanding building on Merrick Road with the intention of turning it into a soul-food restaurant serving down-home food in an intimate, uptown setting. She knew she'd be running the kitchen. The rest of the staff, she'd hire. That was in 2006.

By the time the place finally opened in 2009, the economy had turned south and her bank account was almost empty. That's when Gary stepped in. He'd retired from the nonprofit world in 2004 but was now drafted back into service. "I thought I'd be doing some behind-the-scenes work," he recalled. "I didn't realize I'd be waiter, busboy, host, manager."

Toni, 52, and Gary, 53, met at a block party in Jamaica, Queens, in 1978, when they were still in high school. They married in 1985 and have three grown children.

By the time Pretty Toni's opened, the chef was an old restaurant hand, having managed several large restaurants (including a few Red Lobsters) in her long career. For decades, she'd been telling her husband stories about the business, but still he was "shocked at the amount of work." And while Gary had always known his wife was a hard worker, watching her in the kitchen, "I could not believe that one person could do all that work at once. She's frying and cooking -- and baking cakes all at the same time!" Seeing Toni pour her heart into the restaurant, Gary vowed, "I am not going to be the person who drops the ball." (And he didn't. The food at Pretty Toni's earned 2½ stars in Newsday; Gary's service matched it with a "very good.")

For her part, Toni knew that even without experience, Gary would rise to the occasion. "He's always been a people person. He was the 'good cop' even when we were raising our three kids. In the restaurant, that means that no matter what is going on, he comes out with a smile on his face, makes you feel at home." Both Cliftons agree that their marriage is stronger today than it was in 2009. "That we made it through the downturn, then through Irene, then through Sandy," Gary said. "Wow, if we can survive that, we can survive anything."

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Kyoko and Kikmatsu Mitsumori

KOISO JAPANESE RESTAURANT, Carle Place

Kyoko and Kikumatsu Mitsumori met over sushi. Kikumatsu, a champion wrestler in Japan, had been recruited for the wrestling team at the New York Varsity Club in 1976 and was working as a sushi chef at Chikubu, one of Manhattan's most illustrious Japanese restaurants. Kyoko, in New York to do research for a friend's Japanese publishing company, was a customer. "He thought I was cute," she recalled, "and he asked me out for Korean barbecue."

At the time, Kyoko was being wooed with flowers, perfume and fancy French dinners by a legion of young swains. "But really," she said. "I hated all of that. I loved Korean barbecue."

Kikumatsu, 63, eventually gave up the wrestling, passing on his athletic ability to son Shingo, a professional pitching coach who runs Torque Athletic Performance in Deer Park. He stuck with the sushi, striking out with a partner in 1985 to open Koiso on Manorhaven Boulevard in Port Washington. When the restaurant moved to Carle Place in 2000, the partners split and Kyoko, also 63, came aboard.

The division of labor at Koiso goes like this: Kikumatsu is responsible for the fish at the traditional Japanese restaurant. Everything else is Kyoko's purview. Most mornings, Kikumatsu makes a detour from their Hicksville home to buy fresh local fish from Two Cousins Fish Market in Freeport. At the restaurant, he prepares his own sushi vinegar and, during meals, he is stationed behind the sushi bar expertly slicing fish and arranging it in countless bowls and plates. "I don't want to touch the money," he said.

Kyoko greets customers, waits tables, deals with vendors (except the fish vendors), does the books, makes the restaurant’s distinctive origami chopstick covers and supervises the kitchen.

The arrangement works because both parties are secure in the knowledge that their partner could not do a better job. “His fish is the best,” said Kyoko. For his part, said Kikumatsu, “I trust her 100 percent.”

Conflicts arise at Koiso when customers order rolls that Kikumatsu considers ... unorthodox (to put it kindly). “They want to mix all the fish, have eel sauce and mayonnaise,” Kyoko said. She knows what Kikumatsu’s initial reaction will be: refusal. “He says that each fish has its own taste — and he’s right,” she said. “But he still has to make it. Or I go behind the sushi bar and make it. I can make sushi, too.”

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Steve and Jessica Cardello

RELISH, Kings Park

The whole point of Relish, Kings Park's 2½-star farm-to-table eatery, was for Steve and Jessica Cardello to be able to work together morning, noon and night. The locally sourced menu reflects their commitment to sustainability. The family-friendly atmosphere means their 2-year-old daughter, Lily, feels comfortable coloring at one of the tables. And serving breakfast, lunch and dinner makes their joint hours even longer.

The couple met in 2001, when they were fledglings at Legal Sea Foods in Huntington Station. Steve, now 37, was the sous-chef; Jessica, 31, was a server and a bartender, and both of them distinguished themselves. Jessica joined the company's management program and Steve rose through the ranks to become "area chef" for Long Island.

When they both wound up at the now-closed Garden City branch of Legal Sea Foods, it was time to come clean. "Jessica was my direct report," Steve recalled. "And when we realized that our relationship was serious, we confessed to the regional manager. 'Yeah,' he said. 'Everybody knows.' And Jessica went back to Huntington."

They married in 2010. After Legal, Steve worked at Grey Horse Tavern in Bayport; Jessica took a job managing a gastroenterology practice. When Relish opened in September 2011, Jessica stayed at the doctors' office until they were confident the restaurant would succeed. "But my ideal situation," Jessica said, "was to work with Steve again. We work so well together. We both have the same philosophy, that every day is a blessing."

Before Relish was a year old, Jessica quit her job and came aboard full-time. "We both try to do right by people and hope it comes back," Steve said. "Now that we're business owners, that means trying to care for our employees and our guests, and for each other, too."

Their shared approach to life makes the burden of joint ownership much easier to bear. "I know that whatever comes up in the dining room, she's going to do what I would do," Steve said.

The restaurant has strengthened their relationship. "A lot of couples can run and hide instead of communicating," Jessica said. "At work, we don't have that option. 'Get over it' is the only way we can function."

And the long hours together at work actually make their time off better. "When we get home to West Islip, we don't have to rehash the day -- we already know what happened to both of us."

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