At Ardent, Carlisle, a three-time James Beard Best Chef: Midwest finalist, cuts the same check as the guy washing dishes.
“Hard labor off of fear, to me, it isn’t productive,” Carlisle says. “It’s a forced productivity. You can’t hope to get the same effort as somebody who cares about their job. If they’re doing wonderful, they’re going to work harder. And the food is going to taste better. If you can give them that quality of life, the return is 10-fold in your business.”
When Carlisle fostered the plan for Ardent, which also earned a semifinalist nod for James Beard: Best New Restaurant in 2014, he met with three industry friends. They never discussed money. He suggested they go home, consult their families, and return with a wish list: Whatever they needed financially to survive, Carlisle and Ardent would make it happen.
Or so the thought went.
The four-person staff opened Ardent on an October night in 2013. Two people showed up. They made $292. “I looked at my three cooks standing next to me and I said, ‘I’m f–ing sorry,” Carlisle recalls.
About four months in, a food critic from Milwaukee praised Ardent. Writers in the nearby food-crazed city of Chicago followed suit, and, within a year, Carlisle added staff when he recognized a skeleton crew couldn’t cut it anymore.
“It got to the point where the bills were getting paid and the lights were on and the employees were getting paid and they were happy and people were showing up,” Carlisle says. “We realized then that, no matter what, we’ll find a way to make this work.”
Carlisle’s staff currently sits at nine, himself included. Every person he’s hired has stayed. Not one has taken a different job or quit. If they did, Carlisle says he’d help out in any way he could. “If I have money, it’s theirs,” he says. “If they want to go and do a restaurant, I will be the first one to give them as much money as I physically can, and help them with anything they need.”
This seems remarkable but it really isn’t. Carlisle refers to the group as his “wonderful, dysfunctional family.” He doesn’t have any children. Just two mutts, a shepherd mix named Randy and his crazy bull terrier/blue heeler, Chester.
“Everybody who is here is pretty much my kids,” he says.