Everyday Icon: The Restaurateur

Chef and community builder Maire Bern shares with us the secrets to her cooking success and her plans to make her community that much more welcoming.

Image Credit: Lehua Noelle

If we were to one day open a restaurant, we would hope to do it with the same spirit and passion as Maire Byrne. What started as a catering business based out of the same kitchen that inspired her career, evolved into a cafe and restaurant with the mission of fostering community in her own backyard. We sat down with Maire on the eve of the opening of her next venture (Local Kitchen & Wine Bar) to hear about her connection with food, her commitment to community and to glean a few culinary tips of from the chef and restaurateur (can you blame us)?

 You have an extensive culinary resume but have said that your biggest influence was growing up in a large family and cooking with your mother. Can you share with us how that experience shaped your professional trajectory and, really, your life?

I grew up in Los Angeles with a family of five brothers and sisters, where great food and family gatherings were frequent and lively. I was lucky to attend the Culinary Institute of America and work at some acclaimed restaurants (including Chez Panisse and Ajax Tavern) where I learned so much. However, it was cooking alongside my mother where I truly grew to appreciate homemade food and the delicious memories it can create. Cooking with my mother was a way that we bonded as a family and really showed me how food can bring people together. I think this planted the seed for my future career.

What inspired you to take the leap from working for other people/establishments to going out on your own, initially with catering and then by opening up a cafe?

I think it was the camaraderie I experienced in my mother’s kitchen that inspired me to launch my first company, Thyme Catering, in 2004. I started the company in my mother’s kitchen (where else), and we quickly developed a loyal clientele who appreciated the sincere staff and our inventive New American food, which took advantage of all the incredible fresh, local produce available to us in Southern California year round. Once the catering company was successful and established, I realized that I could do what I was doing but on an even bigger scale and in a way that connected with the neighborhood in which I was living and working. I opened Thyme Café & Market in 2009 on Ocean Park Boulevard in Santa Monica and it immediately became a community meeting spot which is what I had really hoped for.

Thyme Cafe and Market is a "neighborhood cafe", how important is creating a community feel and environment to your business?

A sense of community is central to my business. My family’s roots in Santa Monica date back to the 1880’s when my great grandfather emigrated here from Switzerland. A dairyman by trade, he purchased Santa Monica Dairy, which later came to be known as Edgemar Farms. Located along Rose Avenue and Main Street, his dairy delivered milk and dairy products for the next 100 years to all of Santa Monica, Venice and Marina Del Rey. I love that people who live in the area walk to Thyme for breakfast or lunch, to pick up dinner or just grab coffee with a friend. It was always meant to be a welcoming, casual spot where everyone would want to convene and I think we have achieved that, with of course the help of our incredible neighbors.

What is your favorite meal to prepare for those you love most?

I love to make braised dishes. Whether it be Chicken Tagine, Zinfandel Braised Short Ribs, or Osso Bucco, I feel as though so much love goes into the slow cooking of a braise. It is easy to make and hard to mess up!   Through the process the meat gets so tender and the flavors build. I truly love the whole process….sautéing the vegetables slowly, searing the meat, skimming the broth, and checking the meats tenderness. Braises are so delicious!

What are three things even the most hesitant of home cooks can learn to make well?

  1. A roast chicken is something that is so easy and truly delicious. I love to stuff the cavity with quartered lemons, rosemary stems, and garlic. I rub the outside with lemon zest, olive oil, chopped rosemary, salt and pepper. In the oven it will cook at 375 degrees for an hour and a half. Roasted chicken is the perfect dish served with a side salad, roasted root vegetables, or warm toasted bread.

  2. I am not a fan of store bought salad dressings and it is so easy to make vinaigrettes at home! It is basically a balance of acid (fruit juice or vinegar) and olive oil. I always go with a 1/3 acid to 2/3 oil rule. My favorite way to make an easy vinaigrette is: grab a cocktail shaker, measure 1/3 balsamic vinegar or another vinegar or fruit juice, salt and minced shallots, then shake it (this will help break down the salt). Then add the olive oil and shake it again. Done.

  3. Couscous is so easy and so fast! My kids love it and it is the perfect accompaniment to grilled meats, roasts, fish or even eaten as a vegetarian dish. We have a Moroccan Couscous that we love to make here at the café.

You have a big project on the horizon! Tell us about Local Kitchen and Wine Bar and why this was the natural next step for your business.

Having Thyme Café showed me that there was a real need for an easy, delicious spot for Ocean Park residents to hang out. However, we close early and I wanted to create a space that would continue to serve the neighborhood for dinner and drinks, so we are opening Local Kitchen & Wine Bar in late September. Local will be a casual dining experience featuring handcrafted pizzas, small plates, exceptional wines and a craft cocktail bar. I have long felt that people who love to eat are always the best company and I hope Local will be a meeting place for the community as well as a destination for those throughout Los Angeles who enjoy good food and great conversation!

Many of us have paid our dues working in some level of food service, and needless to say, it is a fast-paced, demanding industry. Do you have any personal mantras or practices that keep you grounded?

  • Grit Get’s it Done!

  • When upset: Drink water and take a walk. (This was my mom’s answer to everything…it works.)

  • Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure. (I loved this quote when I saw it and look back to it all the time.)

  • In taking the high road you will always win….even if you don’t think you won.

  • Surround yourself with people who love and support you.

  • Love what you do!

What are 5 everyday items you cannot live without?

  •  Handheld Lemon juicer, my Santuko Knife, morning latte (limit: 1), chocolate covered almonds (no limit), afternoon Arnold Palmer (limit: 1), kisses and hugs from my little girls (no limit)

p.s. Maire has graciously offered to share one of her favorite recipes with us: Moroccan Couscous!

Thyme Cafe Moroccan Couscous

Serves 6-8

1 ½ cups couscous
1 tablespoon butter
1 ½ cups boiling water
1 1/4 cup plain yogurt
¼ cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon curry powder
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup grated (or small-diced) carrots
½ cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ cup dried cranberries
¼ cup blanched, sliced almonds
2 scallions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
1/3 cup small-diced red onion

Place the couscous in a medium bowl. Melt the butter in the boiling water and pour over the couscous. Cover tightly and allow the couscous to soak for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork.
Whisk together the yogurt, olive oil, vinegar, curry, turmeric, salt and pepper. Pour over the fluffed couscous and mix well with a fork.
Add the carrots, parsley, cranberries, almonds, scallions, and red onions; mix well and taste for seasonings. Serve at room temperature.