monterey herald

18-hour Days & Hugs Built the Cookhouse

by Mike Hale, Food Editor (December 11, 2012)

Linda Cantrell's midlife divorce spit her out into a hostile world with a blank resume and no corporate ladder to climb. She needed to support herself and gather confidence through her own independence. She knew enough to follow her passion — food — and to embrace her strength — creating warm, hospitable connections with people.

Opening a restaurant is not for the squeamish. And her decision to invent and open the Monterey Cookhouse four years ago could have best been described as folly. All bets had Cantrell falling on her face within six months, certainly a year. A middle-aged woman with no previous restaurant experience couldn't be expected to succeed in a male-dominated industry where more than half of all new restaurants fail within 12 months.

Not only did she succeed, she re-imagined local restaurant hospitality. Today the Monterey Cookhouse exudes warmth and genuineness, and locals flock for the hearty, wood-fired fare and Cantrell's attentiveness, which include actual hugs (Cantrell won the 2011 John "Spud" Spadaro Hospitality Award).

"I try to treat each person who walks through the door with love and gratitude," she said. "I really love my customers and I feel we are one big family. I know that sounds corny, but it is true."

Her first five months in business, Cantrell worked 18-hour days, seven days a week. She hugged every customer who walked through the door, met constantly with her staff, handled the minutiae and put her stamp on everything. After her first year in business, she wrote a love letter of sorts to her regulars because "I really didn't know what I was getting into and their kind words and encouragement saw me through."

It's difficult for a restaurant to succeed without a visible, hands-on presence by the owner or chef-owner. You may have read the scathing New York Times' review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in Times Square, owned by TV personality Guy Fieri. Besides being the single most contemptuous, cutting critique in history, it brought into focus the difficulties of merely slapping a recognizable name on a restaurant door. The truth is, Fieri is not there, only his spiked-haired image. "That’s what is missing today in all of these corporate chain restaurants," Cantrell said. "There is no owner to welcome you ... or hug you. It is very impersonal."

It's not the only secret to success, but a hands-on owner is critical. Walk into any successful local restaurant and you'll see the owner wearing one hat or another.
And so it goes all over the Peninsula, good people running restaurants as a full-time passion, not as a flash-in-the-pan investment.

Bargain of the week

Cookhouse manager Kris Susalla has set up some value-priced specials for the winter. On Sunday through Thursday (4:30p.m. to closing) order a premium three-course menu for $25. Course 1: choice among half Caesar, house salad, bruschetta and cup of soup; Course 2: New York steak, grilled salmon, baby-back ribs and half-smoked chicken; Course 3: chocolate chip bread pudding, rice pudding or sorbet.

Show up between 4-6p.m. and order off the three-course early-bird menu for $15, and pair the experience with one of the area's best happy hours. The daily two-hour window includes $3 well drinks $3.50 craft beer, $4 margaritas and martinis and $10 burger-and-beer combo.

The Cookhouse will be open Christmas Eve, offering items such as a brined-and-smoked ham with orange bourbon glaze, roasted duck with berry and port reduction and prime rib. More info at

The Monterey Cookhouse features California cuisine, a delicious fusion of cooking styles and ingredients from around the world. We are well-known for our wood-fired cuisine. Our house specialties include delicious flame broiled steaks,
lightly smoked and barbecued ribs and briskets, and fresh seafood.
Traeger Smoker - Oak-fired Grill - Wood-fired Pizza Oven - Family friendly
Barbecued ribs, brisket, & pulled pork. Oak-grilled steaks. Smoked prime rib. Fresh seafood. Wood-fired pizza.