Brotherly duo makes waves in restaurant industry | ParkRecord.com
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Brotherly duo makes waves in restaurant industry

With the success they’ve had, one might think the Valaika brothers had their entire business strategy planned out since they were kids. But that’s not exactly how it happened. For the owners of Park City Private Chefs and award-winning Main Street restaurant Shabu, things more or less just fell into place.

Of course, Robert had his culinary aspirations mapped out at an early age. As a teenager, he worked at Benihana, chopping ingredients for the teppanyaki chefs. He attended Kendall College School of Culinary Arts in Chicago after graduating high school, and went on to work with culinary masters Nobu Matsuhisa (of the famed Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants) and Charlie Trotter (one of Chicago’s best-known chefs).

Kevin, on the other hand, never thought he’d end up owning a restaurant. But the managerial role was apparently ingrained in him from the start. His first gig was helping to open an improv comedy club in the Valaikas’ hometown of Chicago. At 23, he opted for the ski bum lifestyle and chose to take up residence in the burgeoning ski town that was Park City in 1989.

From there, fate took its first turn. Kevin interviewed for a position waiting tables at the Olive Barrel Food Company in Deer Valley. He was hired by none other than Bill White, one of Park City’s foremost restaurateurs and businessmen. When White opened Grappa in 1991, he selected Kevin as one of the first employees.

"It turned into sort of a dream team," Kevin says of the Grappa start-up group. Almost all of the original employees went on to do great things in the food and restaurant businesses, he explains.

Kevin was no exception. In 1995, he got a call from Robert Redford asking him to open Zoom, a Main Street restaurant that is part of the Sundance Resort family of establishments.

He reunited with Bill White in 1997, becoming the general manager of White’s newest creation, Wahso, and subsequently served as the rotational manager at White’s trio of restaurants.

During the 2002 Winter Olympics, Kevin had the unique opportunity of managing Grappa, which was rented out by the Samsung Corporation for the duration of the Games.

Meanwhile, Robert had been experimenting life in the culinary field for nine years. He cooked at four-star restaurants across the country and worked hand-in-hand with Nobu Matsuhisa in opening the Matsuhisa restaurant in Aspen, where Robert cultivated a certain appetite for small ski towns.

After returning to school and earning his bachelor’s of science degree in Culinary Arts and Management, Robert did a brief stint at a corporate cafeteria in Boulder before moving to Park City in 2002.

As fate would have it, the brothers reunited at a point in their lives when they were both looking for a new venture. Seeking to complement the luxurious lifestyle that Park City provides to locals and vacationers, the duo dreamed up a personal chef service. It’s somewhat abnormal to start a catering service before a restaurant usually it’s the other way around — but Kevin and Robert wanted to test the waters first. "We started Park City Private Chefs as a sort of litmus test to see if two brothers could work together in the restaurant business," Kevin says. "We wanted to make sure the chemistry was right."

The Valaikas started Park City Private Chefs in a teeny kitchen with a single-burner stove, some used kitchen equipment and a couple of chef coats. One by one, they built a clientele that encompasses Park City’s demographic: locals, second-home owners and tourists.

The business sends a crew into people’s homes to serve plated, formal dinners for private parties, lavish galas and small family gatherings. "We took the concept of a personal chef and broke it down so everyone can enjoy that experience," Kevin explains. People get a chance to use the fancy, high-tech equipment in their kitchens, and if they’re interested, they can get a cooking demonstration along the way, he says.

In 2003, a location the brothers had been eyeing for some time (the location that is now Shabu) became available and they jumped on the opportunity to upgrade to a larger space. They ran Private Chefs out of the kitchen and used the dining room area as a clubhouse. "We had some killer parties," Kevin recalls with a laugh.

In September of that year, Robert and Kevin sat down for a beer one night and started to talk business. "We just decided, let’s do this let’s open a restaurant," says Kevin. And that was it. With Robert’s culinary expertise and Kevin’s managerial know-how, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Robert began planning the menu (using traditional Asian cooking techniques with his own twist) and the concept and design formed around that. "We wanted to categorize the food in a totally new way," says Kevin. Thus came the moniker, "freestyle Asian cuisine." The name Shabu came from a recipe for shabu-shabu in one of Matsuhisa’s cookbooks.

"We knew we could do it with creativity instead of a huge bankroll," says Kevin.

The concept, which Kevin describes as "simple and elegant" was designed with a "love all, serve all" attitude in mind. From ski bums to celebrities, the brothers wanted to cater to everyone in Park City.

Today, both the personal chef business and Shabu, which is celebrating its 5th year, are thriving. The two businesses feed off of one another, Kevin says. People who eat at Shabu find out about Park City Private Chefs and vice versa.

Although the Main Street Mall is slated for total renovation ("somewhere between April and never," Kevin says), the future is far from bleak for this dynamic duo. The brothers have already started looking for a new location, preferably on Main Street, and they are constantly evolving and reinventing their concept. "We’ve never followed a model," says Kevin.

The new restaurant will likely have two separate areas: one section for elegant dining and traditional Japanese tatami rooms, and the other with a bar-scene atmosphere for sushi, appetizers and sake martinis. It will also have a large kitchen, Kevin says. They’ve already outgrown their current facility and had to take several noodle dishes off the menu because they ran out of wok space.

Kevin, who also sits on the board of the Park City Restaurant Association, says he’s worried about the economy and its effect on tourism this winter, but he remains optimistic that Park City will adapt, counteract and make changes to meet challenges. He says the association spends a lot of time sharing information with lodging, Sundance and other entities. He expects that Park City will experience a downturn, but thinks that forward-thinking business owners will be able to recover their losses.

In terms of the Valaikas’ own business ventures, "I’m really pleased with where the whole thing has gone," Kevin says. "For anyone interested in opening a restaurant, they should know it’s hard as hell. And yes, I would do it all over again."

Vital stats:

Favorite activities:

mountain biking, skiing powder, backpacking, river rafting, and playing bad golf

Favorite time of the year:

Sundance week

Favorite dish on the menu at Shabu:

Robert — Firecracker Shrimp

Kevin — Morgan Valley Rack of Lamb

Favorite bands:

Robert Grateful Dead

Kevin Built to Spill


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