One Tree, Many Branches
Scott Woods (center) doesn’t look like the godfather of fine dining in Warsaw.
He’s got a baseball cap and a goofy grin and still sports the island vibe he imported from St. Thomas to the northern Indiana city. It started with Spikes Beach Grill, a sports bar alongside sand volleyball courts on the east side of town, and grew into Noa Noa Wood Grill & Sushi Bar, which opened in 2000.
The family tree of those who got their start from Woods is sprawling, but four other guys, now in their early 30s, have places serving fine food. They’ve been told to get real jobs, but opted for the food business—and they do it splendidly.
Caleb France, who went to work for Woods as a 16-year-old in 1998 and stayed until 2004, now owns Cerulean and its locations in Warsaw and Indianapolis. He also owns Light Rail Café and Roaster (far right).
Gabe Rager showed up in 2000 as a 17-year-old and though he’s tried to leave the food business several times, now he’s chef/owner of the Curbside food trailer (second from left).
Jason Brown came in 2001 when he was 16 and is chef/owner of One Ten Craft Meatery, Warsaw (second from right).
Andrew Jones was 19 when he worked at Noa Noa and Spikes in 2002–03. He’s getting ready to open Rua and Rua Events (far left).
The five gathered at Noa Noa on a Monday in July for the first time since they worked together.
The told their best stories about each other. They laughed and told tales for several hours. This is an abridged version of that interview.
On the early days at Spikes
Caleb: We would go to the arcade here in town. We’d play one of the racing games. Whoever would lose would have to run the grill. Because it was hot as hell. It was like 180° in there. It was a setup guy, a grill guy and a dish guy. The best job was dishes, and that was by hand. We would do 400 covers [plates] a night at Spikes.
Scott: We’d have our staff meetings in the freezer. There was only three of us. There was no air conditioning to speak of. It was so hot.
Andrew: It was worse going into the walk-in because when you came out, it was way worse.
On hiring Jason Brown
Scott: We’re, like, a year into this, roughly. An employee walked out on me on a Friday night. We’ve just been getting our asses handed to us and he doesn’t show up on a Friday night. Noa was a lot smaller then. Was that the night you came in?
Jason: Yeah. I was 16½ going on 17. I’d just gotten my license. I’d come in with my family. My dad, being who he is, says “We need to get this kid a job.” He makes a sarcastic comment to our server. She says, “Can he cook?” My dad says, “I’m sure he can figure it out.” She goes into the kitchen, comes back and says, “Scott says show up Monday.” I show up Monday. It’s, like, an eight-minute meeting because Scott has, like, 30 other things to do. He says show up Tuesday. I show up Tuesday night, run the line with him. From that point on.
Scott: I remember his dad said, “Can you get him a job?” I said, “I need, like, 10 people right now.”
On hiring teenagers and learning with them
Jason: I don’t know what the hell you were doing as an owner. I look back now and say there’s no way I’m getting a 16-year-old standing next to me in the kitchen. You hired four of us.
Caleb: Fifteen years ago, there wasn’t even a Food Channel. We didn’t know anything.
Scott: That little time we had was magical. We either bonded together or we were going to die.
Caleb: It was fun, though.
Caleb: There’s this magical moment where owners and employees are like one. We hung out together. We went to casinos together. We were like a team. As owners, you realize there’s a point you can’t really do that anymore.
• Butternut Squash Soup Recipe •
Courtesy of Caleb France – click here for the full recipe
Scott: It was all new. I didn’t know what I was doing.
Jason: You had an idea.
Scott: I had an idea. We were cooking like we were cooking at home. I remember working with [Caleb] figuring out how these plates are going to look and what are people going to think. I remember Gabe coming along. He was artistic with the plate. I remember thinking he’s got an eye. There are people who are painters. You [Gabe] would actually take way too long. “Stop it. It’s done.”
Caleb: The reason we’re all sitting here is when you work for someone who isn’t classically trained you learn how to work hard.
Andrew: None of us went to school for this. Why would you need to?
Jason: All of us have a degree from Woods Academy.
Scott: These days, nobody trains them to work. I have CIA [Culinary Institute of America] guys coming in here. They have no idea how to work.
Jason: At least for me, what I derived from working with you and Gabe and Andrew and everybody else was the love for food. What food can do for people. Everybody’s got a different technique. If you look at five of the spots, we’re all doing very independent, but trying to do the same thing, which is serve people passion, love and quality.
Caleb: Here’s the thing: We learned how to cook. There isn’t a place in the world anymore, unless you pay $50,000 to go to culinary school, where you can learn how to cook. It wasn’t repetition. It wasn’t follow this recipe. It was taste this, try this.
Scott: They literally figured it out with me. The crazy thing was we opened up this restaurant and, on the first night, we’re standing beside each other and are, like, “Crap. Eight million people just came in.” It was awful. It was awful. We had people stacked up so deep. We only sat 60 or so. We had to figure it out.
On the first Workers’ Comp claim
Andrew Jones cut his finger and headed for the urgent care facility.
Andrew: Scott, you told me one time you cut your finger almost off, it was dangling, and it’ll grow back. That’s what you told me. And I insisted, “No I’m going in.” I ended up getting a tetanus shot, the whole deal. I thought I was going to get fired, that was it. I was, like, “I just started here. I’m not getting lockjaw because of this guy.”
Scott: $428, I think. And he comes back with a Band-Aid, no stitches. The Band-Aid’s what killed me.
Andrew: After being gone two hours, missing the rush. I appreciate that, Scott. I don’t have lockjaw.
On how Scott Woods never sits
Caleb: One thing about Scott: He never sat down. I’ll never forget it to this day.
Scott: I still try not to.
Andrew: He’s a leaner.
Caleb: He might lean and drink rum and cokes, but he never sat down.
Scott: That was after.
Caleb: And if you sat down, you felt like shit because he wasn’t.
Jason: The only time I ever saw Scott sit was after a shift, he’d go out in the lobby where you have all the chairs and you’d line them up and you’d just lay there...
Scott: After we were closed.
Jason: This was after we were closed. With a beer in your hand, and you would just lay there. I’d be, like, “Scott, just go home.” And he’d say, “I’m just going to lay here for a minute.”
Scott: We have, like, 20 people now in that kitchen. We were doing covers with three.
Caleb: We had a two-man line some nights. There used to not be a fish guy.
Jason: The kids I talk to now that work here, I tell them, “You don’t even know what’s work.” You’ve got, like, one guy to handle the tongs, one guy to handle the spatula. The whole program’s divvied out.
Caleb: We used to fillet those damn walleyes to order. After, like, a year, we’d say “Can we fillet, like, eight of these beforehand?” I used to play, like, “How many can I get in that fryer? Can I get eight?”
Andrew: They’d come out shaped like a fryer basket.
On how they were in battle together
Scott: It’s sort of like we’re in war. It’s sort of us against them. And the servers are in the middle.
Jason: Every day, kitchen staff, you have to prepare yourself for the onslaught of what’s about to happen. You have to be geared up at 4:45. You should be standing there saying “Let’s roll” and “I’m ready for this.” And if you lose the battle, it’s because you only prepped eight walleyes and you sold 30. It’s the battle you do for whoever’s standing next to you for the next 4½ hours. ... It was completely like a battle. It was war.
• Stone Duck Recipe •
Courtesy of Jason Brown – click here for the full recipe
Gabe: That’s the fun part.
Scott: That really is the fun part. Surviving.
Gabe: It’s still fun. I like it. I get pissed and I throw things. Sometimes I’m embarrassed. The next day I’m, like, “I really messed up that night” and I try to do better. You’re so overwhelmed and you’re so busy. When you know you’re not doing a good job, you get pissed. When ticket times are more than what they should be, that’s when you yell at people.
Scott: You stop many times. And all you guys have been there. You do one at a time. Quality first. Just make sure it’s good. You give up on the timing. Well, can’t win that war. Just get the food out.
Everybody here will tell you Scott taught them how to cook. That’s obvious. Scott taught me how to lead the people you work with, to care about who they were, deep down. It was people over profit here.
On what they learned from Scott Woods
Gabe: I learned how to grill from Scott. He was the grill guy. He was the leader of the kitchen. To fill that position was crazy. I remember one night, I walked out and I was crying.
Scott: It was such a pressure cooker in here.
Gabe: I really learned how to grill from Scott just by watching him. Grilling fish is an incredibly hard thing to do. You ever try to grill a walleye? It’s hard.
Caleb: Imagine you take a bowl of rice and grill it.
Scott: These guys had no training.
Gabe: To grill over a wood grill, Scott was, like, the first to do that and it’s awesome. When Scott would flip over a fish, it was awesome.
Scott: If you jumped on the grill back there, be ready.
Gabe: You had to call tickets and you had to cut fish and you had to grill.
Scott: It was insane.
Caleb: Everybody here will tell you Scott taught them how to cook. That’s obvious. Scott taught me how to lead the people you work with, to care about who they were, deep down. It was people over profit here.
Gabe: That’s for sure.
• Flatbread with Pumpkin Hummus Recipe •
Courtesy of Gabe Rager – click here for the full recipe
Jason: I took away from Scott very heavily the idea of very simple, colorful plating. Scott’s plates are not overly artistic. Caleb’s stuff is very artistic. Gabe’s stuff is very artistic. The nuts and bolts of what Scott did on plating was make sure your customer walks out of here with a full stomach. Make sure when they walk out of here they feel like they got what they paid for. Now, he cheated on concepts. We’d put four or five ounces of mashed potatoes, white rice in the center of the plate; that costs nickels and pennies. Then we put four ounces of vegetables. That costs me 12 cents. Then I charge $32 for eight ounces of fish. And you go “That’s fantastic.” Every one of these to-go boxes that walk out of here walk out with an ounce of fish and nickels and pennies.
Scott: I’m old school. You get your money’s worth. My dad said to make sure they get their money’s worth. They’ll come back.
Caleb: Unless you’re Chicago, you’ve got to fill them up. That’s Scott Woods 101.
On cooking fish
Andrew: That’s where I learned to handle protein in general. Most of it was fish. There were burgers, steaks and pork.
Caleb: You could put the five of us guys up against anybody in the country on fish.
Jason: I explain that to people all the time. They say, “Why’d you open a steak place?” Because I cooked fish for 15 years. You give me a sauté pan and a piece of grouper, I’m money. I can do it blindfolded. But for me to cook a medium-rare steak, I gotta try a little bit.
Andrew: You learn how to have finesse with a piece of meat from Scott Woods. I’ve seen so many chefs pick up a piece of meat with tongs and throw it over there. You never did that. There was respect with the piece of meat.
On the time Scott Woods passed out while working
Caleb: I’m working on the line. This is like a two- or three-man line, tops. I’m working pasta, Scott is grilling. He leans over, hits his head, knocks himself out cold.
Scott: Not cold.
Caleb: He’s just laying on the ground. I was, like, “What would Scott want me to do?” It was like a WWJD bracelet in 1999. So I step over him and I start grilling. I’m straddling Woods on the ground and start grilling. He stands up, bloody head, and starts grilling.
On starting with heart and gaining skill
Caleb: Another thing that Scott did that we all do is you hire based on someone’s heart, not on their skill.
Scott: Amen. Always. That’s getting harder to do, though. You can’t find the heart anymore.
Andrew: I would rather take the 16-year-old kid who has the heart, but can’t cook, than someone who has gone to culinary school. You look at this room. None of us went to culinary school. Not that that isn’t valuable. But in Warsaw, Indiana?
Scott: You knew when the grouper sauce broke and you’re going to figure it out.
Jason: I still teach people why sauces break. I don’t know exactly why. I show them a few ways to cheat and tell them next time don’t break it.
Andrew: It forced us to be scrappy and figure it out.
Scott: We were all doing it. I was learning along with you guys. We all forged. We took a different path. We were all on this path and were like we’ve got to figure this out. There were like 55 people waiting to get into this place to judge us and I was like we’ve got to figure out what we’re doing.
On burning the grouper and doing what’s right
Jason: I was early in the program. I’d only been on grill a few weeks.
Scott: But you knew how expensive grouper was.
Jason: We’re in the middle of dinner service. Scott hands me a grouper. I smoke this grouper. I don’t even get close to feasible presentation on this grouper. The bottom of this is solid black.
Scott: The tagline is, “Hey Scott, is this too burnt?” I go, “‘Burnt’ is the key word here. Throw it away.” You didn’t want to throw it away because you knew how expensive it was.
Jason: No, I didn’t. To the point of what we learned from Scott, you always do right. It was going to take another 20 minutes. Be pissed. He was pissed. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that screwed him up, it screwed up the line. At the end of the day, you don’t serve something less than good. You just don’t. You do what’s right.
On why they do what they do
Andrew: I said I’d like to cook. I said I’d like to open a restaurant someday. He said, “Well I hope we change your mind.” Then he says start on Tuesday. Unfortunately, he didn’t change my mind.
Scott: I love these guys. It’s helped the town out so much. It has. If there’s anything I’ve instilled, it’s that choice is good for the city.
Jason: It’s good for people.
Scott: We’re all in this together. We’ve done it before. We know it’s not fun. It’s the life we choose. It’s good for all of us if they can eat at my place, they can go eat at his place, they can try to find his trailer. Choices are good.
Andrew: People eat out more if they have options.
Scott: It turns you into Chicago. It turns you into a great town.
Jason: It turns you into a destination.
Andrew: You don’t come to Warsaw for one restaurant any longer.
Scott: I never think of you guys as competition. I know how hard it is.
Jason: We’re competitive. We’re not in competition.
Caleb: We’re competing against Bennigan’s and Applebee’s.
Andrew: Until we put the chains out of business, we’re not going to stop.
• Warm Barley Salad with Sweet Potato and Savory Cabbage Recipe •
Courtesy of Andrew Jones – click here for the full recipe
Scott: Give ’em the best you can do. It comes back to the customer.
Jason: To me the thing we need to appreciate in Scott, at the end of the day, some kids have a father they follow, some kids have an employer they fall in love with. Scott gave us something we could all fall in love with.
Gabe: He was the first to give us the itch. We are a bunch of hard workers. We care about what we do. We care about our workers.
Scott: When you put it down on the plate, there is no more intimate connection than your customer. They’re going to eat this. They’re going to celebrate their wedding. They’re going to celebrate all these things. You’re going to add on to what they do, whether it’s an anniversary, whatever. You get that. You add to it or subtract from it. So you always try to add to it, what their experience was. Food has elevated itself.
Learn about Scott's culinary roots – and the inspiration for Noa Noa – here!
Noa Noa Wood Grill & Sushi Bar
310 Eastlake Dr.
310 Eastlake Dr.
Spikes Beach Grill
310 Eastlake Dr.
1101 E. Canal St.
1101 E. Canal St.
Winona Lake, IN
212 W. Jefferson St.
One Ten Craft Meatery
110 N. Buffalo St.
110 N. Buffalo St.