Catie Randazzo rediscovers herself, prepares to lead Strongwater kitchen
Following the end of short-lived, much-loved Ambrose & Eve, the chef took time away to navigate depression, reconnect with herself and figure out her next move
In the final months before Ambrose & Eve closed, chef and owner Catie Randazzo said she often operated in “fight or flight panic mode,” determined to make the restaurant work in spite of the challenges brought about by the arrival of COVID-19, which further compounded the difficulties inherent in running a new business.
“I’m an optimist 90 percent of the time; that’s my super power. … And because of that, I really thought I could dig out of it. But the more I looked into it, the more the writing on the wall became clear,” Randazzo said shortly after announcing the restaurant’s closure in December 2020, two years after it opened along High Street in the Brewery District.
In the months that followed, Randazzo said she struggled with a depression rooted in everything from the legal situation surrounding her father, Sam Randazzo, an investor in the restaurant who stepped down from his role as chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio amid an ongoing FBI investigation, to the loss of Ambrose & Eve, which she said had become so entwined with her sense of self that when the restaurant closed, “I lost my self identity … and I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
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Additionally, Randazzo said she felt stung by the circumstances surrounding the departure of chef and former business partner Matthew Heaggans, who helped launch Ambrose & Eve but left the business in May 2020.
“When the pandemic hit, we both had different ideas on how we thought things should proceed. And I found myself in a situation where we did not have a partnership agreement, and it got messy, and it ruined our friendship, which I’m actually very sad about,” Randazzo said. (Heaggans confirmed there was no partnership agreement in place between the two.) “I felt like I’d been betrayed, and this person who was supposed to be my friend and my support system through all of this had just walked away and left me holding the mess. ... As a cautionary tale, for all of you future potential restaurant entrepreneurs, don't put your trust in someone because they're your friend. Get that shit in writing."
Reached by phone, Heaggans said that Ambrose & Eve was already struggling when COVID hit, and he viewed the pandemic as a death blow to the restaurant, arguing at the time that the two should sell the business rather than incur further losses. When Randazzo wanted to press onward, Heaggans said she asked him to step aside. “Which I understood, because she was fully connected to that place, and it was an homage to the people she loved,” Heaggans said of the restaurant, which was named for Randazzo’s grandparents. “As part of that ... I was going to relinquish all of my ownership stake, and relinquish my responsibility to that business. And then things did progress on to be messy.”
Regardless, Heaggans, who now co-owns Preston’s: A Burger Joint, said he wants Randazzo’s next venture to be a success. “I want her to win,” he said. “And I hope whatever she does next is great.”
When Ambrose & Eve shut its doors, it didn’t come with an immediate sense of finality, Randazzo said, with personal closure instead arriving in a series of small moments over the course of nearly a year. One such point occurred when Randazzo walked the nearly empty space for the first time following an equipment auction, and another more recently when she sold the last piece of furniture that had been in the restaurant: a church pew once positioned near the front door for guests waiting to be seated.
“When a business doesn’t exist anymore, or stops existing in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of a crisis, it’s not just done, where you put it to bed and you’re on to the next thing,” Randazzo said. “There was like a year’s worth of shit to dig through.”
As Randazzo sorted through this debris, which included multiple court visits to deal with issues including back taxes and the eatery’s liquor license, she also started to reinvest in herself, determined to rediscover the person that she was prior to tying on a chef's apron.
“I felt depressed, like a failure, like I’d let all of these people down,” said Randazzo, who was helped along in recent months by a strong support group, which included her sister, as well as Dough Mama chef Perrie Wilkof, among others. “Running a business, you lose yourself, or at least I lost myself, and because I was so busy taking care of everybody else for so long, I didn’t take care of myself. So it’s kind of been like, OK, what were the things that brought you joy before you started cooking?”
Recently, in an effort to answer that question, Randazzo enrolled in a drawing class, reconnecting with a childhood pastime. And, gradually, she’s started to return to her love of food, immersing herself in cookbooks by chefs such as Jeremy Fox, Jessica Koslow and Kris Yenbamroong, as well as the restaurant industry podcast “Copper & Heat.”
As this renewal started to take place, Randazzo said the ownership at Strongwater Food and Spirits started to reach out, asking her to take a job as head chef at the Franklinton spot. Initially, Randazzo passed, but the business kept inquiring, refusing to take no for an answer. And as specifics about the position started to emerge, Randazzo warmed to the idea, finally accepting the job, which she will begin in the coming weeks.
“One of the beautiful things, the thing that got me, is they want to put together some education and outreach programs for the community of Franklinton revolving around food,” said Randazzo, who noted that Strongwater has been accommodating of the personal boundaries she has adopted moving into the job, determined to not to lose a sense of self amid the job this time around. “To work with kids, to be able to teach them how to cook and how to utilize ingredients, that’s always been a passion of mine, and hopefully it will make a difference. … But also, I feel like I have something to prove. I didn’t get enough time with Ambrose & Eve, and I didn’t get to do the things I wanted to do with it.”
Expect changes to come slowly to Strongwater, at least at first, as Randazzo takes time not only to learn the skill set of her new team, but also to sit with the space and see how the menu can best serve the neighborhood. (That said, expect an almost immediate debut of the crispy chicken sandwich Randazzo popularized at her food truck, Challah.)
“I think one of the things I’m really good at is just going in and almost just listening to a space and figuring out what’s going to work best rather than going in blindly with what I think it should be,” said Randazzo, who has worked in a consultant role with Emmett’s Cafe and Dempsey’s Food and Spirits over the last year. “I want to get my bearings and figure out what that area needs and what it wants. But I want to create a place where people can come and have a fine-dining meal, but also a burger and fries, if they want, but everyone feels welcome and excited. I want to bring back the vibe that Ambrose had, in a sense, where it felt like family.”