PORT TOWNSEND – Cassandra Garay can’t imagine running her brand new business without “another half,” as she puts it.
Fortunately, she doesn’t have to.
Cassandra, 31, and his wife Lissette Garay, 35, opened the doors to La Cocina – the kitchen, in Spanish – in the midst of pandemic summer # 2.
They moved into Lehani’s former space at 221 Taylor St. in downtown Port Townsend, transforming it amid a widespread shortage of workers.
Now, along with two staff, they’re cooking tortillas, tamales, and, this week, Thanksgiving meal kits.
When the pandemic began, the couple had been together for 12 years and married nearly three. Both have worked in the hospitality industry in Napa Valley, California: Lissette at Robert Mondavi Winery and Cassandra at the Las Alcobas Hotel.
When their industry closed, they also took a break. Questions have surfaced: where are we going in our careers, in our lives?
It turned out they were on their way to Jefferson County, where Cassandra’s parents live.
While Cassandra started an online program to earn her MBA, Lissette learned how to bake bread on her own.
Just over a year ago, they packed their things into a moving truck and drove north to Chimacum, where they now live.
The Garays considered buying a food truck. But there were too many roadblocks, Cassandra said.
Lehani’s old location – sold last year by Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster and her husband Bill LeMaster – was to be their big adventure.
Cassandra, who has since earned her MBA from Western Governors University, is both the front desk manager and social media publicist, while Lissette, whose family is from Sinaloa and Michoacán, Mexico, is the executive chief. She is the patroness of the back room, presiding over an open kitchen.
The couple chose La Cocina as their name not only because they wanted guests to be able to see the cooking take place, but also because the kitchen, in their opinion, is the warmest place.
“I love to cook for people,” said Lissette, who grew up in Salinas, Calif., Known as the salad bowl of the world.
Opening a restaurant in 2021 is much more complicated than she and Cassandra imagined. In September, when La Cocina had been open for about two months, the obligation for restaurateurs to check the vaccination status of customers came into force.
“Honestly this has been a huge obstacle for us,” Lissette said, adding that people had walked through her door in anger.
“Refuse business: it’s difficult. But the law is the law, ”she said.
Cassandra said she has heard customers feel more comfortable dining out with the warrant in place. However, she admitted that when she and Lissette bought the restaurant, they thought at that point “things weren’t going to be as difficult as they are”.
The Garays found other Mexican restaurants in Jefferson County – and other restaurants in general – to be welcoming. Meeting and speaking Spanish with the owners of Hacienda Tizapan in Port Townsend, said Lissette, was heartwarming.
“It’s important to support each other,” she said of the hotel community.
As they looked towards Thanksgiving, there was no question in the couple’s mind as to how to celebrate. Lissette’s family has always had mole turkey (MOH-lay), the earthy and spicy sauce from Mexico.
“Both of my grandmothers are great cooks and chefs,” she said, adding that her family was quite proud of her home cooking. “I want to give people a taste of what I grew up eating. I want to give them something special.
This Thanksgiving take-out kit, La Cocina is a turkey with mole, mashed potatoes and gravy, roasted vegetables and fresh corn tortillas.
Lissette and her team also bake a pumpkin cheesecake and offer tamales, posoles and conchas to complement it.
The Garay’s place is also a little different from its local counterparts in that it offers breakfast.
Lissette has trained her staff in making a silky hollandaise sauce – a life skill that will come in handy for them, she believes.
“I have a huge passion for breakfast,” added Lissette.
This meal was also a specialty of Lehani; Lissette and Cassandra hope their establishment will last at least as long as its predecessor.
The couple received help and moral support from many sources, including their parents and the Center for Inclusive Entrepreneurship, a non-profit organization providing assistance to rural start-ups.
The two are also pushed from the inside, having set the bar.
“We’re both older siblings and the first of our families to go to college,” Cassandra said.
“We have to be the example,” added Lissette, that the dream of a business – a business combining the skills and style of owners – can be realized.
Jefferson County Senior Reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]