Those who have experienced the hangover-curing brunch at AC’s Bar & Grill may have not noticed the force behind the kitchen, but chef Leigh-Ann Gobel has been a consistent powerhouse at the King Street bar since 2002. After years at the dive, Gobel finally realized her childhood dream of owning her restaurant at Park Pizza Co., with partners Adam Pavao and John Carr.
The busy chef helps out in both kitchens on a weekly basis, while still maintaining a balance of calm and charm. Making omelettes for the Jameson-downing crowd at AC’s, while switching into pizza mode the rest of the week, sounds hectic, so Eater wanted to know how Gobel keeps going.
How did you get into the F&B business?
I guess I'm lucky that way — that I didn't want to be an astronaut or a basketball player. Even as a child, I guess I was pragmatic enough to pick something I could handle. I've always wanted to work. I bugged a tiny pizza place (which has been closed for years now) to hire me, and they said when I turned 14, they would find something for me to do, so I went in there after my birthday, and held them to it! That was 22 years ago, and I've been in kitchens, in one form or another, non-stop ever since.
What drew you to it?
I think the passion for food stems from always wanting to work, and loving what I did, and the desire to be creative without necessarily being gifted artistically. Being in a kitchen was always the goal. It's easier to create what you want if your name is on the door, so I knew eventually I'd want to open my own. I didn't have any restaurateurs in the family, but food is such a staple in the South that I immediately identified with the concept that good food makes people happy. I get to create the best part of people’s days sometimes. As simple as that may seem, that is an awesome job to have.
How did you end up at AC’s?
I worked in kitchens all through college but was still able to graduate early (I double-majored in business and marketing with a concentration in entrepreneurship), and in my last semester I went on interviews for jobs I was qualified for but didn't really want.
I thought, “Let me take six months to think about this, and then I'll get a 'grown-up' job.” That's what I assumed you were supposed to do with a degree. My friend Eric Rickert mentioned a job at AC's but not in the kitchen — as a bartender. At this point I hadn’t really done front-of-the-house work, and, here's the kicker, I didn't and still don't drink alcohol. I thought it was a nutty idea, but I knew it was experience I would need at some point.
What I didn't know was that the owner Jim Curley had plans for me, from the beginning, to take the general manager position, which I did about six months in. His guidance has been invaluable, and I have learned more about this industry from him than anything in college. Fifteen years later, I'm still learning, and though I've stepped back a bit to focus on my own restaurant, I still handle their administrative work and still cook brunch every Sunday.
How has your role evolved?
I enjoyed bartending at first and worked in the kitchen as well but still missed cooking like I did on the lines throughout high school and college. The idea from brunch came in 2006, and I believe Jim was out of the country, and I thought, "better to ask for forgiveness than permission sometimes," something Jim taught me, by the way, “let's just try one and see what happens.” It became this massive success, and we won Best Brunch that year and in 2008. Over 500 brunches later, we're still here. The history of that remains something I'm really proud of, because it was the first time I could create dishes completely on my own. And as simple as some of them were, it was validation that people “got it” and that what I wanted to cook would sell.
How did Park Pizza Co. come about?
The end goal was always to open my own restaurant. I just needed to save up the money! For a couple years at AC's I worked 70 to 80 hours a week between kitchen shifts, bartending, and management roles just to be able to be confident we had what we needed to make our restaurant a reality. I wanted to start out with something small, so that if we completely screwed it up, it wouldn't be total disaster. My co-worker Adam Pavao and I started brainstorming what kind of restaurant we could start that would make sense to be small and not really have a front-of-house, since my strengths were really in the kitchen. I live in North Charleston, and he was in Park Circle, and we saw this need for a local pizza place that could do delivery and take-out. I guess it was a perfect combination of a need colliding with our strengths.
We found this great tiny location with four walls and a floor and totally built it out ourselves. This was in 2008, and Park Circle was just coming up. I was 27, and I don't remember being that nervous except for the day I signed the lease, and I threw-up when I got to the parking lot.
I stopped bartending but stayed on at AC’s, one, because Jim wanted me to and, two, I wasn't sure giving away a perfectly good job was a smart idea in case I wasn't good at the one I created! Looking back on it, knowing what I know now, it had to have been scary — the unknowns, the learning curves, the mistakes. I didn't pay myself for at least a year after we opened, despite working everyday. The winter after we opened, the central heat broke in my house, and I went a couple weeks without it, until my parents found out and flipped and offered to loan me the money to fix it. I think I was willing to go through a lot in order to wake up everyday and really want to go to work. I have that now. And it's made it all worth it.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I do love the full brunch menu at AC's, and then as far as specials, we do themes, which started for bartender Kevin Young's birthday years ago. It continued on from there and just became easier for me to come up with specials when I had parameters. After you've done, like 100 different omelets, it can become difficult to come up with new or exciting ideas. All of a sudden when we started doing the themes, and I could use puns, colors, temperatures, and textures to allude to these specials, and that gave me all kinds of new ideas.
We just did a Disney brunch (titled Beauty and the Brunch) with Little Mermaid Benedicts with mahi mahi and crab and pesto hollandaise and Cinderella's pumpkin waffle, and Alice In Wonderland's Firefly Tea cocktails. It's just good food that doesn't take itself to seriously.
Park Pizza Co. is kind of the same way. We are more whimsical than artisanal. I think we do the simple things really well and yet still pull off the more creative dishes that make us happy. Our pizza of the month now is the Wrath of Banh with pulled pork, house-made kimchi, carrots, cilantro and Sriracha ranch. I have the best staff on the planet and my business partner, Adam, inspires me. We'll brainstorm and call each other on our misses. Adam and I are like Jordan and Pippen. We don't always see eye-to-eye, and we'd probably be fine on our own, but I think we're much much better together. Park Pizza Co. will be open nine years this June, and we're doing great. I'm super proud of what we've built.