It all started — where else? — at a restaurant.
“I was at a business meeting at a restaurant one day, and I met this chef. We struck up a conversation,” said Ashley Polston, a Pittsburg State alumna and Lamar, Mo., native.
That conversation quickly blossomed. Soon, Polston began dating that chef. Now, the two are engaged. Together, the two have opened a highly successful restaurant in Morgan Hill, Calif., about 20 minutes outside San José, Calif.
“I do the event planning, marketing, Twitter and Facebook. He does the food side,” Polston said.
But the chef isn’t just any chef. And Polston isn’t just any restaurant co-owner.
Polston went to school at Pittsburg State in, of all things, justice studies. She later got her law degree at Washburn University School of Law. In fact, she interned with recently retired Judge Donald Noland.
At one point, her travels took her to Europe as part of a professional women’s softball team that traveled the continent for a couple years. She thought she’d try her hand at being a sports/entertainment lawyer in California, but was working in below-cost fuel sales litigation before she met her future fiancé.
That chef that she struck up a conversation with happened to be Salvatore Calisi. Calisi comes from a career in New York City, where he worked as a sous chef for such restaurateurs as Charlie Palmer at Aureole, Rocco DiSpirito at Union Pacific and under Executive Chef Scott Bryan at the three-star restaurant Veritas.
Before he and Polston opened up Odeum, Calisi received the Michelin Star for his work as executive chef at Dio Deka in Los Gatos, Calif., an honor that a chef can take with them anywhere in the world.
“I love food. I used to have a food blog and a travel blog,” Polston said. “I’m a big foodies. But his hours were always into the 1-2 a.m. hours. My hours were 7:30-5. We always thought it would be great to open our own restaurant. After he got the Michelin Star, we thought we could springboard that to launch our restaurant from there.”
The two searched for a good spot for a restaurant and eventually found an old granary in Morgan Hill. Polston said the interior has a combination of rustic, brick and warm colors. The two took to it for different reasons.
“As a New Yorker, he brought to California, he liked the industry of it, and the exposed pipes. But growing up in Missouri, I liked the silos that makes it feel like home for me,” Polston said.
The restaurant, named Odeum, opened in the summer of 2011, and has skyrocketed from there. The pair haven’t advertised much — really only on social media — but the word of mouth has been magnificent.
Page 2 of 2 - “People started calling in. Different newspapers started reviewing us. Soon, most of the weekends, we were sold out. It happened, and it surprised us a bit,” Polston said. “We never had a doubt. When we did this, we said we wanted to do it well. The community has really supported us.”
They truly have. The restaurant has its own garden orchard, which supplies figs, plums, tomatoes, zucchini and herbs straight from garden to plate.
Furthermore, after striking up a conversation with a customer one day, the customer mentioned that they ran Chialla Farms, which grow vegetables for, among other groups, Campbell’s Soup.
“They invited us to their farm, and the next thing you know, they’ve set us up a strip so we can bring in fresh produce all the time, and be able to use it when things are in season. People really love that, and it’s important to them, and it’s important to us,” Polston said.
Similar arrangements have been forged from the get-go with local wineries.
“There was a young guy, about 30-32, and he came 11 times in the first seven days. He said he loved the place, and couldn’t get enough. He said he had a winery. His wine is now on our list. He brings every one of his clients here for meetings. Any way we can support the community, we will. We’ve put a lot of local wines on our list, and we’ll continue to do that,” she said.
The hard work is paying off. Odeum was named 2012 Best Food in San José and Silicon Valley by OpenTable, an online food and reservation website. The first year they had only been open about six months and took eighth. Now, the restaurant has already reached No. 1.
Polston talked about how she and Calisi look for the best of the best servers and house staff, trying to create an atmosphere where customers are known on a first-name basis, with suggestions fit to their likes and dislikes.
While it’s busy co-owning an award-winning restaurant, Polston said she still uses her law degree as more a boutique estate planner.
“Sometimes, the idea of creating a will is intimidating,” she said. “Instead of making people come into an office, I make house calls. That allows me to be a bit more flexible and juggle the restaurant end of it.”
Odeum was just featured in KRON-TV 4 San Francisco’s “Dine and Dish” segment, a one-hour drive for the news station.
“It was cool to be featured on that. They don’t pick just anybody. They pick unique and interesting places,” Polston said.
Polston’s parents, Mike and Barb, live in Lamar, Mo.