At Gristmill, an Incredible Partnership Makes for Even Better Bagels

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The couple met while working at Otto. Photo courtesy of Gristmill.

For Valentine’s Day, we spoke to a few Brooklyn couples in food about working together and living together—and how it all balances out. First, we talked to the vegans behind Chickpea & Olive. Today, we move to Park Slope restaurant Gristmill, beloved for its pizzas, bagels (see a video of how they’re made below) and overall commitment to using New York State ingredients. Chef Jake Novick-Finder works in the kitchen while his girlfriend, Maria Espina, serves as director of operations. It wasn’t intentional, but they’ve found out they work better together. Here, we talk to them about how it all happened.

Edible Brooklyn: How did you guys meet?
Maria Espina: We met at Otto—of course, a restaurant. It was Batali’s place. Jake was filling in as a pastry chef over there and I’d been hosting there for about two years. I was actually away on vacation when he started, so I came back and was like, “Who’s the new guy? He’s kinda cute.” We caught each other’s eye and had some mutual friends. I was pretty friendly with all the managers, and one of them was actually a good buddy of Jake’s from Union Square Café, so he kind of introduced us, got us going—
Jake Novik-Finder: I think he just invited you to my housewarming and didn’t introduce us. You came up to me at family meal and were just like, “Oh, so you’re having a party?” Then you came to the party and we’ve been dating ever since, in 2012.

EB: What has it been like to work together at Gristmill?
JNF: I would say it’s been pretty great. I didn’t expect us to work together. Maria always knew she’d be very involved, but she was working at StarChefs, doing their marketing. But everything at Gristmill became more and more work. We asked Maria, “Would you be interested in helping out, filling in gaps? Maybe part-time, maybe just two or three months?” and she said yes. She immediately just started diving into a lot of projects and she was doing a much better job than either front-of-house manager we’d hired. She really just embraced the role and grew into it. Her and I now run the restaurant together with no other managers, and it’s been great.
ME: I’m literally making faces at him right now. He’s being way too nice. He’s seen me just like running around, stressed out. I think I just try harder than any other person he could bring in because I love him and I love this place and this is kind of our baby, aside from our dog. And it’s been a learning curve and I know my personality, I just have ADHD. I love learning and doing every little bit of everything. And Jake has a similar personality. He just likes to learn every single detail to a level that I can’t even fathom, which always amazes me every day. I forgot how much of an Energizer Bunny he is. He’ll sleep—and by sleep, I mean take a two-, three-hour nap and wake up and do the same thing every day. And that’s his whole week.

EB: So is this what you want to be doing, Maria, even though you just kind of fell into it?
Absolutely. I can’t really imagine a lifestyle get any better than what we’re living right now, where we share our day together doing something we love—from Jake being in the kitchen, to me interacting with the people that I want to please. Hospitality is kind of ingrained in us, and so to be able to work in a project that is so wholly ours is kind of incredible. I feel so fortunate to be able to do this with my partner.