This Restaurant Veteran Has the Secrets to Survival (and Success)
Forty years on, 1988 Best New Chef Johanne Killeen is far from being finished in the kitchen.
Long before COVID-19 utterly transformed how restaurants operate, Johanne Killeen, chef-owner of Al Forno in Providence, had watched the hospitality industry undergo profound change. “When we opened in 1980, pesto was basically unknown,” Killeen says, laughing. “We contracted a farmer in Little Compton to grow a field of basil for us. That’s how obscure it was—we had to make a special arrangement for pesto!”
Killeen opened Al Forno with her late husband, George Germon, 40 years ago. As graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design, neither had planned to make their careers in the kitchen, but their spot rose to fame nonetheless as the birthplace of grilled pizza—pies flash-grilled at high heat—which drew crowds with its chewy crust. In 1988, Killeen was included in the inaugural class of F&W Best New Chefs (the only woman out of a class of 11 that included Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller). Killeen and Germon would go on to receive a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast in 1993, and Killeen was a semifinalist for the foundation’s Outstanding Chef award in 2018.
In the 40 years that she has led the kitchen at Al Forno, she has coauthored two cookbooks and mentored some of America’s most influential chefs, including 1999 F&W BNC Suzanne Goin. “Johanne and George were obsessed with everything being done to order and with the care and attention to detail you would give if you were cooking for your family and best friends at home,” Goin says. “Johanne was the one we were all—maybe including George!—terrified by because her standards were so high and none of us wanted to disappoint. I remember walking down the hill from college to work and smelling the wood grill and just feeling the joy and disbelief that I actually got to work at Al Forno.”
This year, Killeen is celebrating Al Forno’s four-decade milestone, but she’s also working on a cookbook set to release in early 2022, and she’s developing seasonal recipes for takeout, delivery, and, eventually, dine-in at Al Forno. “When George passed away [in 2015], many people—men, specifically—asked my friends, ‘Well, what’s she going to do now?’ I think they thought I was at home eating bonbons and that I had nothing to do with the restaurant,” she says with a chuckle. “When, really, the first thing I did was meet with my staff and say, ‘Don’t worry; we’re going to continue, and everything’s going to be fine.’”
4 Tips From 4 Decades Of Al Forno
Hire People Who Like Other People
“You [as a business owner] need to be able to notice if something isn’t working and to be flexible and learn from it. For example, George and I established a policy early on that we would only hire nice people. We quickly saw that we could teach somebody to set a table and take orders, but if they weren’t inherently interested in making people happy, then we were starting off with failure.”
Originality Pays Off
“We never followed trends because we always felt that originality was our biggest asset. We felt that we had the ability to create and not follow a crowd of any sort, and I think when you dig down deep into yourself and come up with things from within, you’ll always be ahead of the game. Don’t just think out of the box. Create your own box.”
Set Yourself Up For Success
“So many young chefs feel that one has to have a million-dollar restaurant to open and hit the ground running, with huge debt and not a lot of backup. I’d say to bite off just as much as you can chew, especially at first.”
Know the Business Side of Your Restaurant
“As two art students, we didn’t have any sort of business acumen going in, so if we didn’t know how to do something, one of us would have to figure it out. I wish we had more of an education on that end. It is very important to have some business sense before you start a business.”