A lot has happened behind the counter at Chef Tony’s Kitchen in its four months in business: countless orders taken, new menu items thought of — and even a proposal.
“We were going through kind of a rift and I was just like, ‘You’ve got to seal the deal, Lee. She’s too good to lose. Time to do it.’”
Lee, the sous chef at the Northeast Philly eatery, popped the question to her partner of eight years, Amy, the restaurant’s head server, while the pair was working by themselves on a Sunday.
Their busy work schedules — both work full-time at the restaurant, and Lee also has another full-time job in home care — made planning their nuptials a challenge, so they went for simplicity.
They chose Presidents’ Day, when they both had time off, and headed to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Amy had “Ms. & Mrs.” hoodies made for the pair.
“We did it in hoodies, jeans and Js,” Lee said about the laidback ceremony.
LEE (LEFT) AND AMY
Afterwards, they and their family and friends headed to Chef Tony’s Kitchen, where owner Tony Hughes and his wife hosted a reception.
Amy, 35, has known Hughes since she was a teen, through Hughes’ oldest son. When she heard he was hiring for waitresses at his new restaurant, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I had never waitressed but I’ve worked in retail, in banking, always with the public. So I was like, I’ll come help out, I want to get my feet wet,” Amy said. “I asked him if he would give me a shot and he did.”
A few weeks later, Amy encouraged Lee, 29, who had fast-food cooking experience, to apply for the chef position; Lee cooked Hughes a cheesesteak and he hired her on the spot.
Hughes previously worked in real estate but decided to go back to his culinary roots — he served as a personal chef when he was a teen — while living in the Dominican Republic in 2011.
“After six months laying on the beach drinking beer, I decided to start a restaurant,” Hughes laughed. “My wife thought I was nuts.”
Fat Tony’s Café quickly grew to serve 400 customers a day. The couple moved back to Northeast Philly a few years ago, and Hughes continued on the restaurant trajectory — earning a culinary degree, while cooking and consulting for a number of local eateries and catering companies.
On Nov. 14, he opened Chef Tony’s Kitchen at 4320 Megargee St., in the Pennypack section of the Northeast.
Hughes billed the restaurant as an American-casual bistro, and said it brings an eclectic and adventurous menu to an area sorely needing it.
“Every Friday night, my wife and I would order takeout. She’d go, ‘What do you want to order?’ and I’d always respond, ‘I don’t care, pizza or Chinese.’ That’s all that’s up here,” Hughes said. “It’s like a culinary wasteland.”
That’s a reality Chef Tony’s is hoping to change.
“You can’t find porchetta, Bolognese, stuffed-crab shrimp anywhere around here,” Lee said about some of Chef Tony’s popular menu items.
The restaurant prides itself on changing up traditional dishes, like with its jumbo chicken wings stuffed with macaroni and cheese and its selection of stuffed burgers — plumped with cheese, meats and veggies.
“Our burgers are like this,” Hughes said, signaling the large space between his thumb and forefinger.
“Everything is made from scratch,” he said. The day of PGN’s visit, chefs were busy rolling pierogie dough and had just finished up a batch of hand-rolled cheesesteak egg rolls.
Stocking ingredients — which Hughes strives to gather from markets and small businesses in the neighborhood — is one of Lee’s daily tasks. When she starts her shift, she ensures her area is clean before diving into prep work and then getting in a cooking groove once orders start rolling in.
Amy fields takeout and delivery orders — in person, over the phone and through apps like GrubHub and UberEATS — and also serves patrons in the dining room, which seats 35.
“I try to make all the customers feel like my family,” Amy said. “If I’m the only one here and we’re really busy, I’m like, ‘OK, if you need something, make sure to raise your hand if you need me, like in school.’ Everyone likes that one. But I try to get everyone talking to each other and it’s great when I hear people go, ‘Oh, are you coming Friday night? I’m bringing the girls, I’ll see you then.’ I like being connected to people and seeing them connect.”
That family atmosphere also extends to the eight employees who keep Chef Tony’s up and running and who wear many different hats.
“I also do a little of what Amy does, with answering phones, and I’m doing dishes,” Lee said. “We all do a little bit of everything here. If you work here, you’re cleaning the toilets, you’re mopping the floors, you’re doing everything everybody else is doing. We share the responsibility around here.”
LEE AND AMY WITH CHEF TONY HUGHES IN THE RESTAURANT'S KITCHEN
Staffing was among the biggest challenges in getting Chef Tony’s off the ground, Hughes said, but he’s confident in the team he has now.
“In the beginning, I was in here 14-16 hours a day, doing everything, and I was really in the weeds,” he said. “But I have a really good core group of people now, which means we can start adding to our staff and bringing in other components to the business.”
Among those components the staff has discussed are outdoor seating, a roof deck and a summer block party.
Chef Tony’s recently started serving breakfast on the weekends, which has been a big hit with customers, and Lee said she hopes to see breakfast expand to be a daily offering.
Long term, Hughes wants to open other locations in areas like Bensalem and Fishtown.
Competing with Northeast Philly staples, like a nearby diner that’s been in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, is no easy feat.
“We may not include the soup and salad that diners do, but in the end you’re getting fresh food in a really great atmosphere,” Amy noted. “Nowadays, everything’s fast-paced at neighborhood diners. They rush you in, throw your order on the table, don’t check back on you. It’s all about turning over the tables and how much money they can make.”
Lee said she recently saw a couple on their first date who sat for two hours after their meal relaxing and talking — and spotted that they shared their first kiss. Other couples and families will come in with bottles of wine — that Chef Tony’s is a BYOB is another rarity for the Northeast — and stay until the drinks are done.
“I had a couple come in and play chess. They were like, ‘Do you want us to leave?’ I was like, ‘Absolutely not, stay and hang out,’” Amy said. “We encourage that.”
That attitude seems to be inviting the loyalty of customers, Lee noted.
“For the past two weeks our trashcans have overflowed,” she laughed. “That’s a plus.”
The couple also has shared their good news with many of their customers.
“In the weeks after she asked me and before we got married, I was crazy smiley all the time,” Amy said. “A lot of my regulars were like, ‘What’s going on with you?’ And I was like, ‘I’m getting married!’ A lot were like, ‘Oh my God, bring her out. Let me say hi to her.’”
“Which actually surprised me,” Lee interjected. “Some of our customers are older and you wouldn’t think they’d be accepting of LGBT communities. But they’re very open and welcoming to us.”
Working with one’s spouse might be a daunting task for some, but Amy and Lee said they balance work and home well. Lee recently arranged her schedule to take off Friday nights, while Amy’s working, so she can have some time to herself.
“At first, I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’ve spent eight years with you, I see you every day and now you’re going to be working with me,’” Amy laughed. “But I enjoy it. We joke around a lot.”
“I think our relationship even improved after I got the job,” Lee added.
And even though their hectic schedules prevented them from honeymooning after the wedding, the couple said they try to honor their marriage in small ways.
“We’re always sending each other text messages when we’re not together like, ‘I’m thinking about you, I miss you.’ She was working last night and was like, ‘Come meet me, I’ll feed you,’” Amy said. “It’s nice to feel giddy, like when we first met. The lives we lead, we couldn’t just run off on a vacation but we’re doing our own things to make each other feel special and remind us why we’re doing all this hard work.”
For more information on Chef Tony’s Kitchen, visit https://www.facebook.com/cheftonysbistro/?fref=ts.