Sitting down to discuss her career a few hours before a Thursday evening rush at The Belfry, celebrity chef and entrepreneur Celina Tio is all business. She’s heard (and answered) every biographical question before.
Yet Tio’s eyes gleam and a smile quickly spreads across her face when the conversation turns to her customers at the Grand Boulevard pub in the Crossroads.
“It’s really an honor to be a part of people’s lives,” she said, reflecting on experiences shared by diners through the years — first dates, engagement parties, birth announcements, family dinners over a roasted pig — as meaningful moments set in her restaurants.
Tio built her foodie following with TV appearances on shows like “Top Chef Masters” and “Iron Chef America,” but her profile in Kansas City has been on the rise since her days as executive chef at The American restaurant. She left in 2008 to launch her own neighborhood fine dining space in Brookside.
“When I opened Julian, right or wrong, I became the brand. I became the reason why people came there,” Tio elaborated Wednesday night at Rockhurst University’s “Meet the Makers” event.
She ultimately embraced the idea — and her fans — as part of the popular restaurant’s draw, she said.
“Sometimes people would ask, ‘What do people think of when they go to Julian?’ Well, if you dined there, I’m approachable and I’d chat with you. They’d say, ‘That’s the wrong answer.’ Well, no. That’s the answer.”
Though Julian closed in June 2017 when its lease was up, Tio’s passion had already evolved from merely cooking to engaging with her guests and building customer relationships. The change also allowed her to shift her focus to the more casual Belfry full-time.
“I’m here every day. I run food, I visit with guests, sit with guests, I have a drink with guests,” she said. “I just help wherever I can. That part is still fun for me.”
Simmering beneath comfort
Tio’s path to The Belfry wasn’t guaranteed, the Philadelphia-raised chef said.
After winning a James Beard Award in 2007 while still at The American, people wondered what she was going to do next, Tio said.
“My passion was all about food and beverage, but I wanted to do more,” she said. “I had been at The American for six years and it was comfortable. But you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations if you want great things to happen.”
Her father questioned the wisdom of striking out on her own, she said. Amid the economic downturn of 2008, Tio was considering leaving a stable job to open Julian.
“I said, ‘I can’t wait until the timing is right because it may not ever be right. I’m just going for it. If it’s wrong, I’ll fail … and I’ll fail quickly,’” she said. “Because with restaurants, if they’re going to fail, they fail fast.”
Tio pushed forward, launching the restaurant in September 2009.
“I certainly had no investments. I had a dad loan, and I did everything on my own for eight years,” she said.
Julian not only survived; it thrived — giving Tio the financial stability to purchase the building at 16th and Grand, which ultimately would become The Belfry.
Staying in Kansas City was an easy choice, she said.
“I was confident that I had built enough of a following here. A lot of people asked, ‘Why didn’t you go back to Philadelphia?’ Well, I made a name for myself — a reputation and market — in Kansas City and you wouldn’t be able to do what I did in Philadelphia because liquor laws are entirely different,” she said. “People visit Philadelphia, but like every single restaurant is BYOB because you have to pay half million to a million dollars to get a liquor license. There’s just not the same as asking your neighbors if it’s cool.”
A daily taste of failure
Success doesn’t appear overnight, Tio emphasized.
“You have to be confident in yourself and be willing to take a risk,” she said. “People who are successful out there? That didn’t just happen by accident. It wasn’t like I made one attempt and I was hugely successful and that’s not how it goes down.”
Failure is a key ingredient.
“If everything goes perfectly all the time, when something does happen, it probably would be catastrophic,” she said.
Little things go wrong every day and an entrepreneur simply must roll with it, she added.
“And in this business, somebody said — I didn’t come up with this, but I love it; it’s so funny — ‘It’s not life or death. It’s just lunch or dinner,’” Tio said. “Now, granted, it’s a little bit more serious for me because I own the entire thing. But when you’re behind the line or whatever, and you’re freaking out … you know, it’s just somebody’s dinner. We can make it better. If we screw it up, we’ll make it better.”
“Now, if you screw up and you don’t go out of your way to make it better, then that’s a whole separate issue.”