2014 Restaurant of the Year | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

2014 Restaurant of the Year

Zydeco Kitchen and Cocktails

Matt Fox

It is not even yet 10 on a Wednesday morning, but already Zydeco is busy. Steve and Cheri Helt, the husband-wife restaurant owners, have been across the street filming a spot on a local TV show about the upcoming Foodie Crawl, and now they are rushing for another media interview. The back kitchen is busy, filled with a bustling three-person crew cleaning up and preparing for the lunch crowd; REO Speedwagon plays on the speakers above the staff's lively chatter. The place seems as giddy as if this were Day One for a new restaurant. There is no sense that after a decade as one of Bend's most established and favorite restaurants, that any of the new-toy luster has worn off for either Steve or Cheri, or for any of the staff or, for that matter, any of the customers.

It is still more than an hour before the front doors open, but already one couple is waiting outside the door along NW Bond Street.

Steve asks the general manager to open the door, and his wife, Cheri, leans in. "I don't like to see them wait outside," she says, and then calls after the general manager, who already is striding towards the front doors. "Can we let them in?"

She looks out at the couple, waiting in a small enclave that dimples off NW Bond Street and tucks into Zydeco's grand front doors. "In the winter," says Cheri, "there are always old ladies out there, waiting in the freezing snow. We really need a waiting area."

Steve and Cheri pride themselves on the detailed care that they give their restaurant—and to them, that means every aspect of being a restaurant —that the food is exquisite, that customers are comfortable, and that their staff is well taken care of.

"Our passion is for the food ingredients we get," explains Steve, who, along with ownership duties, primarily functions as the executive chef. "The amount of passion we have for food, we try to bring to our service, and the amount of details we try to put into our products," he says, before adding definitively, "I love food!"

His wife adds, "Passion is what separates us. The passionate cooks, passionate suppliers; everyone that surrounds us is passionate about food and serving the best product they can. If the product they are serving is service, they are going to do the best they can."

When the Source considered what it takes to be the Restaurant of the Year, our advisory committee members talked about consistency and service as two important aspects, as important as the quality and cleverness of the food. And, in that conversation, Zydeco was mentioned again and again, about how Steve walks the floor of the restaurant almost every night, checking in with customers, and about how the food served is consistently impressive.

That consistency is built on the Helts' passion. In turn, that unflagging passion has both inspired, as well as been inspired by, a staff that clearly cares about Zydeco—its mission and its success, and by the customers who keep coming back.

"We view this as a family," says Steve. "We are all in this together. It is all one big canoe. We are all passionate about the end result."

To illustrate his point, Steve points out that the restaurant has three staff who have been with them since their first day more than a decade ago—the general manager, who started as a server; the kitchen manager, who started as a cook; and the dishwasher. Moreover, the Helts provide health care for their staff and, last year, opened up 401(k) plans, saying that doing so was part of their vision from the get-go.

"I sometimes feel like I'm a mom for 52 people," smiles Cheri.

When Zydeco started 10 years ago, the mentality about food and fine dining was very different. At the time, Steve was leaving what he calls "corporate life." The couple had met while both students at Michigan State, where Steve had majored in hospitality management. He already had a few years' experience working in restaurants as a teenager, starting as a dishwasher and then promoted to "chip guy," cooking tortilla chips in 50 gallon drums. ("Talk about acne when you are a kid," he says.)

After graduating from Michigan State, the couple moved through 10 cities in 11 years, as Steve managed kitchens for successful midwest steak houses, picking up ideas in New York, Chicago and Atlanta as they moved. The couple cannot point to one single influence, but those cosmopolitan ideas are evident both in Zydeco's food and its fashion sense.

Sophisticatedly beautiful, Zydeco would fit in nicely in New York's Upper Westside or Chicago's Lincoln Park. The restaurant is split down the middle, with an elegant bar on one side, paralleled by a long, slender, natural wood table that co-mingles patrons, while the other half of the restaurant seats its patrons at round booths that promote friendly intimacy, with a subtle bit of exclusivity.

Steve calls it "warm, but upscale."

Cheri adds, "We didn't want to fall down into the super casual, but we didn't want to be fine dining. Our goal is when you walk into our place, you feel comfortable."

"Comfortable in a suit or ski pants," adds Steve.

Although the ambiance is cleverly urbane and unique in Bend, it was the menu—and the mission to serve upscale healthy food, in particular—that was ahead of the curve when they launched 10 years ago.

"When we opened up, and we said 'organic,' people would ask, 'is that flax seed?,' " laughs Steve. "People would asks, 'Oh, is it going to taste good?'"

In the ensuing decade, attitudes about food have shifted radically, as terms like "locally-sourced" have become mainstream concepts, and the number of Farmers' Markets has increased tenfold across the country, even with giant corporations like Wal-Mart selling organic vegetables.

But even now, the Helts keep their health food and healthy attitude toward eating low key. "We have evolved to the point where we feel able to put a vegan banana split on our menu," says Steve, "and people don't freak out about it, and it sells." (The ice cream is made from coconut milk.)

"We like to make vegetables that people like," Sheri adds. "We try to sneak them in." Steve leans back, and adds, "If I can get people excited about Brussels sprouts, then I've done my job."

See the full 2014 Restaurant Guide online here.

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