Uncooked: A conversation with Kurt Janowsky
Kurt Janowsky’s businesses feed thousands of people every week. As owner and operator of Matterhorn and Lerner catering, of Cafe Navarre and Rocky River, Artisan, The Exchange and O’Rourke’s, he’s one of the most successful restaurateurs in northern Indiana. He’s a busy man, but took time to answer our questions for Uncooked. Answers were edited slightly for clarity or context.
What did you have for breakfast today?
A banana. I don’t eat breakfast like I should. I believe in breakfast, too.
What is your current frame of mind?
Hectic. We’ve got just too much going on in our company. I’m not doing a good enough job managing it all.
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What is your biggest extravagance?
For sure, food and wine. Friends will go to Next or Alinea or some of these $300-a-person dinners in Chicago and we go way too often.
What trait do you dislike the most in others?
Insincerity. And laziness. That’s two. Did you say trait or traits?
If you could cook dinner for one person, who would it be and why?
It might be my mom because she’s the most appreciative. She’s never not liked anything I’ve cooked.
What is the best gift anyone has ever given you?
I got an opportunity I stupidly did not redeem before it expired to spend a day with Charlie Trotter.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve eaten?
I’ve eaten just about everything you can eat in our country. I’ve eaten lion, antelope. Everything that’s ever crossed my path I’ve never said no to.
Which of your five senses is the strongest?
What was your first job?
Pulling salt water taffy at one of those improvement shows or one of those kinds of things they used to have at the ACC.
What motto or mantra do you live by?
I try to enjoy the journey. I tend to get stressed out about what I need to get done and focus too much on the finish line, but I’ve recognized it as a flaw and fault and correct myself to enjoy the journey.
Preferred way to travel?
Lately, I’ve had the opportunity a couple of times to fly privately and it’s really hard to beat that. Those guys live a different life than the rest of us. Non-commercial air travel is really sweet. But by canoe is the most fun.
Your biggest motivator?
Myself. And just not going broke. I recognize this is all pretty precarious and I have an obligation to the 230 who work for me.
What is your favorite smell?
It could be garlic one day and it could be lavender the next.
How do you define success?
My family’s happy and I’m happy, then we’re successful. If we make payroll next week, we’re successful. If guests come in and enjoy us. If people respect what we’re doing in the community. If I’m able to help other people, we’re successful.
What book has had the biggest impact on you?
“Atlas Shrugged.” There’s a lot of truth in all of that. Professionally I like “Kitchen Confidential.” I like all of Anthony Bourdain’s books.
Out of the kitchen, what is your favorite hobby?
Anything outdoors. I like to hike. I used to play golf, but I don’t have time for that anymore.
What is one skill you still want to master?
When I get older, I might need to learn to play bridge.
What is your signature characteristic or trait?
I am way too demanding and way too hard on my team. I constantly try to keep that in check.
What piece of advice would you tell your younger self?
I would probably not get in the restaurant business. I would have gone to MIT where I should have gone and become an engineer. When everybody else is playing, we’re working.
One kitchen tool you couldn’t live without?
TV personality you can’t stand?
Just about every single cooking show, whether it be Rachael Ray or any of them. None of these are real. She couldn’t work here as a prep cook.