In 2017, chef Alana Shock and her husband, Kevin Bertschi, shuttered her namesake restaurant after a successful 18-year run. We wanted to learn more about her life after Alana's Food & Wine.
As chef Alana Shock and I chat over a cup of coffee at Lucky's Market near her Clintonville home, a handful of the store's employees stop to say hello. After closing the much-lauded Old North restaurant that she and her husband, Kevin Bertschi, lovingly operated for 18 years, Shock was employed for a short time in this natural food store's wine department.
“This is an interview,” she tells one inquiring passerby with a laugh. “If you can believe it, somebody is actually interested in me.” If you live in Central Ohio and appreciate great food, you most likely know of Shock or dined at least once at her restaurant, Alana's Food & Wine. Even if she doesn't believe it, Shock's presence on the Columbus dining scene is missed.
The Legacy of Alana's
The closing of Alana's in 2017 appears to have mirrored most decisions in Shock's life—it was fueled by emotion and instinct rather than a business plan. The 52-year-old chef tells me that she has never been driven by bottom-line business investments. “I pursue my art form first,” she says, regarding her work in the kitchen.
Alana's was still in its prime when it shuttered (she takes pride in the fact that the restaurant's last year was its busiest) and was a beloved favorite for many Central Ohioans.
The eclectic restaurant—a locavore's delight long before the term was in vogue—delivered outstanding cuisine that was respectful of the region's seasons and growers. On Alana's bright orange walls hung artwork by local artists, friends of the owners. The institution, unlike anything else in the Columbus culinary world, reflected the creative, bold and rich personalities of Shock and Bertschi. At the core of the decision to close was the simple fact that the couple was exhausted and ready to move on.
“I don't want to own my own restaurant again,” Shock says, reflecting on the intensity of managing an independent eatery. Of course, there were high points. “I didn't have to answer to anyone. I could pretty much do whatever I wanted.”
Sandusky Wine Merchant
On her first morning of freedom in the spring of 2017, Shock was up early helping Bertschi launch a retail wine shop in his hometown of Sandusky. The duo's decades-long partnership has almost always been a union of their personal and professional lives. At Alana's, Bertschi operated the restaurant's well-respected wine program.
The new business, called the Sandusky Wine Merchant, sits in a historic building with rear windows that overlook Sandusky Bay on the Lake Erie waterfront. Shock shuttles between the couple's homes in Sandusky and Columbus for work in both locations.
One Saturday afternoon, I visit Bertschi at the wine shop, where he appears happy and relaxed. He tells me how he and Shock watched, with interest, as his hometown redeveloped its historic downtown, finally stumbling upon a perfect, and available, space for a wine shop at 211 W. Water St.
“We were scouting it out for a couple of years before we even sold the restaurant,” Bertschi says. With a great package of incentives for small business owners, the city of Sandusky made the decision to open the shop an easy one. “I couldn't not pursue it,” he says. “We still had the restaurant, and we didn't have a buyer yet, but I had to follow up on this because it was the ideal location.”
Bertschi, who runs the wine shop solo most days, tells me that he doesn't miss the day-to-day grind of owning a restaurant and dealing with the worries of equipment failures and no-show employees. “This is a lot less stressful,” he says. “That's what we were shooting for.”
The Heavy Stuff
On the morning Shock and I meet at Lucky's Market, she tells me that she's planning on stopping by the pool to swim a few laps, a favorite pastime. Shortly after she closed Alana's, Shock ventured out for the same activity one warm April day. Wearing cut-offs and flip-flops, she took a COTA bus for a short trip to the pool.
When she returned home, she found her Clintonville house on fire. A gas leak in the kitchen had caused an explosion. Her kitchen and the bathroom above were destroyed, and there was smoke damage to the rest of the interior. She also lost one of two cats that day. Shock rented an apartment in Olentangy Village and spent the following months navigating the worlds of insurance adjusters and a home renovation.
The day after her house fire, another stunning development: Shock received a letter in the mail from her biological mother, a woman named Judy who resides in Toledo. At birth, Shock was adopted by a large family in nearby Defiance. Shock had never sought out her biological family; however, shortly after the letter arrived she agreed to meet Judy for pizza in Sandusky. “She was a butcher,” Shock tells me, still surprised by the culinary gene that passed from mother to child. “Weird, huh?”
During this time, Shock also traveled to Belize, where a friend had arranged for her to teach a monthlong cooking class for the kitchen staff of an ecolodge resort in the Cayo District. “It's in the boonies, in the middle of nowhere. No TV, internet or phone,” Shock says. “I just checked out. Went bird-watching and hiking when I wasn't in the kitchen.”
After what she calls a “healing” time in the tropics, Shock returned home to Ohio, jobless and restless. Living mostly in Sandusky, the experienced chef began to make calls. “I was like, ‘Hey, if you get a line cook or bartender that calls off, you call me and I'll be there in 20 minutes.' It was just to keep busy,” she says.
Shock traveled back to Columbus regularly to keep tabs on the progress of her home renovation. While in town, she helped friends at Jorgensen Farms fine-tune their farm-to-table events center. She also took a side gig cooking private meals for a slew of former Alana's regulars.
Roller Coasters, Picnics and Pop-Ups
By mid-2018, Shock was working an assortment of culinary odd jobs while savoring an adventurous summer by Lake Erie. Perhaps the most perplexing: She took a job bartending at the TGI Fridays at Cedar Point, a northern Ohio amusement park. Dumbfounded, I ask one of Columbus' most acclaimed chefs why. “Because I really like roller coasters,” she says, as if the answer isn't obvious.
Shock tells me that she'd work one night a week at TGI Fridays (what she lovingly calls “Fridays at Fridays”) where she'd pump out drinks as the service bartender for the massive restaurant located at the theme park's on-site resort. She'd arrive early for her shift at the restaurant to ride roller coasters before reporting to duty. (“Steel Vengeance is a life-changing roller coaster,” she says.) “It was a zoo,” she adds, happily. Then she mimics a night behind the bar:
“Order in: 58 frozen daiquiris, 28 shots of Patron. They want them all chilled, so five ice cubes in this blender, five ice cubes in this blender, pour a fifth, then another fifth. Bzzz [imitating the whir of a blender]. The waitress is like, ‘It's cloudy.'I tell her, ‘Not by the time you get to the table, it'll be clear. Here's your bowl of limes. Goodbye.'”
I wondered aloud how one of our region's best chefs felt about working at a chain with food that's the very antithesis of her own. “I packed my lunch every day, let's put it that way,” she tells me.
At the Cedar Point TGI Fridays, she says the kitchen was filled with engineering majors from Turkey and Central and South America who wanted seasonal jobs and had little restaurant experience. Shock says a highlight of the job was bonding with her young co-workers over a shared love of food—but not the mess of Americana on the plates of the kitchen they worked in. “I like Turkish cuisine, and I'm quite good at cooking it, so when I'd pack my lunch and the Turkish kids would say in awe, ‘It's just like home,' I was like, ‘Oh that's such a compliment.'”
That whimsical summer Shock also worked at the Island House restaurant on nearby Kelley's Island. She had her own pop-up on Wednesdays featuring 10 menu offerings. She would take the Jet Express, a high-speed water ferry, to various stops across Lake Erie for work or pleasure. She'd often end her day by meeting up with Bertschi for a picnic, the art of which she says they perfected. After 18 years on her feet in her busy Columbus restaurant, the dreamy lakeside summer was a welcome respite.
Reimagined Pub Food
Shock and I walk from Lucky's Market to the site of Actual Brewing Co.'s new Clintonville brewpub, which sits in the same shopping plaza, at 2808 N. High St. At the time of our visit, Actual was still under construction, with plans to open by the end of 2018. [Actual Brewing Co. now plans to open its Clintonville brewpub in early 2019.] Shock will serve as the brewpub's executive chef and has spent the latter half of 2018 crafting an inventive menu, which will offer “fun stuff like fresh sandwiches, homemade soups and nice salads,” she says.
“There have been a lot of questions regarding the kind of food I'll do at Actual, and I think people are kind of expecting me to do Alana's food here,” she says as we step into the space. “That's not happening. Actual is a good fit for me because it is simplified from what I was doing at Alana's, but there's still free rein with creativity.”
The menu will be largely plant-centric, and thus far, she's successfully avoided including the standard burger and fries as an offering. The food will also be seasonally driven, featuring ingredients from local purveyors—Shock rarely cooks any other way.
Later, by phone, I ask Fred Lee, the founder of Actual, why he selected Shock to lead his brewpub's kitchen. “Why choose the best chef in Columbus?” he responds, rhetorically. “I asked her to fix pub food,” he says. “You go to a pub and you get a potato skin, and it's like a piece of somebody's shoe with bacon bits on top. We all know potatoes can be a lot better.”
Though the Clintonville location is Actual's first foray into the food world, Lee hopes that it won't be its last and that Shock will eventually lead the brewery's kitchen program. “I know she'd be willing to be in the kitchen every day—she's a beast with a work ethic like no one I've ever met—but I want her to have more of an executive position. I hope she's directing and growing young people into awesome chefs,” he says.
While Shock's long-term goal is to operate her own business again, she doesn't want it to be a traditional restaurant. “I haven't really figured it out yet,” she says. “And I don't know where.” Maybe she'll head off to some dreamy exotic locale or the shores up north, but for now Columbus diners can look forward to more of her culinary artistry right here in Clintonville.