By Gwen Dawkins
Yvonne Khananis, 47, known to her friends as a “unicorn,” left her career as a stockbroker some 20 years ago and has been happy in the kitchen ever since. This chef credits her success to her industrious nature, listening to signs, and the power of the pivot.
You took a circuitous route to becoming a chef. Tell me about that:
I’ve been cooking with my Grandma since I was 4-years-old. I grew up in Chicago, in an abusive household of extended family members and cooking saved my life. I never expected working with food could sustain my livelihood; it was simply a way for me to escape the ugliness. I moved away from home as a senior in high school, lived in a studio apartment, worked three jobs and got straight A’s. Right out of high school, I answered an ad in the Chicago Tribune and got hired as an assistant to four rookie stockbrokers.
Wow! You have been industrious and self reliant from a very early age.
Yes, I had to be. Months into my assistant job at Oppenheimer, a top broker noticed my work ethic and encouraged me to become a stockbroker myself. Once I passed the exam, he gave me a $40 million book to run. I love challenges and having a mentor who believed in me put me on an exciting path, meeting interesting people, traveling the world and learning about investing.
After working as a stockbroker for a few years, the Virgin Mary appeared to me in a dream and told me I should take my life in a new direction. I paid attention! In just three weeks, I arranged a transfer to the Los Angeles office, quit my job in Chicago, broke up with my boyfriend and moved. But days before I was to start my job, it fell through. I was already in L.A., so I took a server job with a prestigious catering company. Soon the owner said, “You need to be in the kitchen.” For a few years, I flip-flopped between catering and working as a stockbroker.
“I believe women are the strongest beings there are. We have something that guides us to keep going.”
But, when 911 happened, I thought the world was ending and wanted to be with my mom. I put my L.A. house on the market and my boyfriend and I left for Chicago. We got engaged along the way. Once I realized the world was not actually ending, I opened a restaurant in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. I move fast at most things! The restaurant was an immediate success, my crab cakes were written up by Zagat and the governor was a regular. I attribute that success not only to my food, but also to the fact that I try to make my customers feel like they’re being hugged when they walk through my door.
You have a gift for turning tragedy into triumph.
Thank you! Unfortunately, there was more tragedy to come. Because of my restaurants’ success, my landlord raised my rent, forcing me to close shop. So, I pivoted into corporate cooking. Then I got pregnant and my son was born prematurely. I named him Luc, pronounced Luke, but inspired by luck. I stayed home with him for three years then went to work for a gourmet meal prep company. Later, I opened a restaurant in Evanston, Illinois and Whole Foods wanted to buy and sell my famous granola. That was all very exciting, but I had to decline because I was going through a divorce. Eventually, I sold my restaurant and my son and I moved back to California, where I got a job managing nine restaurants.
Your life sounds like an action movie! How did you keep it all together?
I believe women are the strongest beings there are. We have something that guides us to keep going. Eventually, I moved to Silicon Valley to manage another restaurant group. A few years later, I opened Reverence Catering, primarily serving corporate clients.
How is your emotional state different as a chef versus as a stockbroker?
I saw the greed and ugliness of being a stockbroker and remained emotionally detached from the job. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good life. I had an unlimited expense account, a nice house, drove a Range Rover, etc. But cooking is my heart.
When people are eating, I listen to the chatter and the silence. I hear people exhale and pause when they take a bite of my food. For me, that creates the most amazing feeling.
How about the hours?
As a stockbroker, I worked about six hours a day. As a chef, I work 16, especially when we have 3,000 meals to prepare. My staff and I are in the kitchen at 3:00 a.m. or earlier. Stockbrokers have no reason to complain about getting up at 4:30.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your work? How have you adapted?
March 14, 2020 was the last day I employed 24 people. Now I only have two catering employees. Many successful restaurants have closed for good. My business is in downtown Los Gatos, California. The town adjusted to allow outdoor dining along sidewalks. That’s enough for many restaurants to keep going. But my business is not on a main thoroughfare and I primarily serve corporations, so pivoting has not been easy.
I’ve been dreaming of pop-ups to showcase my Reverence brand. We’re also offering breakfast, lunch and dinner in family packs, à la cart meals, and platters in a variety of cuisines. As a corporate full service meal provider, we’re on hold until employees are allowed to go back into the office. Even so, my CEOs are still going in, so I’m there with their favorite meals and snacks. Our corporate clients have taken care of us and I want to continue to support them the best I can during these uncertain times.
Additionally, in October, I opened Grocer + Goddess, in downtown Los Gatos, featuring artisan grocery items, fine wines, charcuterie boards and Reverence salad dressings, spice rubs, granola and more. I’m hoping to create a retail presence to cross-promote my catering brand.
Years ago, I was listening to worship music and praying about finding the right name for my business. During one song, the singer sang, “Reverence.” That was the answer. I believe you attract the energy you put out into the world. I’m keeping the faith. I will keep going.