meet nicole: chicago restaurateur and catering expert

This weekend is 2016 Wedding No. 10—my cousin Josh and his lovely fiancé Katherine. Their reception will be held in the Drake Hotel—very fancy and very classic “Chicago.” I am sure the food will be decadent, but truthfully I’m most excited to see the inside of the Drake. I’ve been living downtown for going on 5 years and I’ve never set foot inside the iconic hotel—though I’ve often gazed at it nestled between the other skyscrapers while lying in the sand on Oak Street beach. I’ve always loved it because it reminds me simultaneously of my hometown, Chicago, and my alma mater, Drake University, although the two share nothing but the name.

Alysse and I have also been talking a ton about her wedding plans for next year. *Happy dance!* For her venue, she has decided on a gorgeous outdoor affair under a big tent on rolling hills in Milwaukee’s Grant Park, made even more deliciously fun with her favorite foods grown by some of her favorite people, plus flower crowns and vegetable bouquets. The vision in my head in picturesquely Alysse. And I can’t wait.

Naturally, all of this wedding attending and planning has me thinking about the possibilities for my own someday, so what better person to interview during my “year of weddings” than Nicole Outrequin Quaisser—co-owner of LM Restaurant Group. Besides owning restaurants such as Troquet and Brasserie by LM with her husband, Nicole also runs a catering business and manages event spaces such as Lacuna Lofts, a trendy venue in Pilsen that is a wedding favorite—and I can see why! Everywhere you look, there is a unique piece of art or perfectly placed detail to appreciate. No surface is off limits—even some of the doors are adorned with works of art.

The icing on the wedding cake: Nicole is from Germany but launched her catering career here in Chicago—at none other than the Drake Hotel.

Nicole O Q, LM Restaurant, People with Panache

On apprenticeships: “It’s a different approach in Germany. You work for 3 months and you go to school for 3 months. You actually get to work every single department at the hotel and get to know everything from the ground up. You learn everything else at school, but when you’re done, you’ve actually done it already, you haven’t just learned it in theory.”

People with Panache: How did you get into the restaurant and catering business?

Nicole Outrequin Quaisser: I was 4 years old when my dad opened his first restaurant. I was born and raised in Germany, and I grew into the business pretty early. At 8, I was helping to bartend for major events—obviously the law was different then—and as a teenager, I hated it. Basically I said, I will never go into this industry.

My dad said, “Do me one favor before you make your final decision: Do an internship in one of the greatest hotels in the city.” I said I would, and I was hooked after three weeks. I did an official apprenticeship for 3 years and finished with a hotel management degree. I worked there a couple of years, and I left Germany when I was 21 years old.

PWP: Where did you go?

NOQ: I had figured out my English wasn’t good enough for the industry, so I went to England. I worked for Hilton International there for 18 months—and I had told my mom I would be back in three.

Then I got transferred to New York City. I was there for the first bombing of the World Trade Center. The Vista Hotel, where I worked, was right between the Twin Towers and was actually where the truck parked with the bomb in it the first time around. It blew through our ballrooms and locker rooms. We had one casualty. The hotel was so badly damaged, I couldn’t continue working there, so they shipped me out to Guam in the South Pacific. I worked there for a while, but then there was a huge earthquake, 8.2, in the same year. It badly structurally damaged the hotel, so it closed, and Hilton sent me to the Drake Hotel here in Chicago in 1993. I loved it right away, and my catering career pretty much started from there.

PWP: Wow—what a run. What did you do at the Drake?

NOQ: I ended up being the director of catering convention services and took care of all of the large events for almost 10 years. That’s where my passion for catering came into play.

PWP: What do you love the most about it?

NOQ: I really enjoyed learning about all of the events, weddings and the sales process—that’s always been more of my passion than the actual execution. I really like initially making people excited about the venue and the actual day and seeing in their eyes: “Wow, this is the place! This is where I want to get married.”

Lacuna Lofts, People with Panache

Lacuna Lofts event space. The roof has a breathtaking view! Nicole on her favorite pastime: “Horseback riding is my biggest passion besides my work and my family. And it’s a confidence builder for people. Horses can be intimidating, but if you can overcome that and work with the horse—it’s a big commitment. It’s a sport that needs a lot of yourself to be one with the horse, to overcome the fear, know this animal could literally crush you. Business is a little bit the same thing. The business could crush you at any time, so how do you make yourself one with the business?”

I don’t have many degrees to show off, but I truly enjoy what I’m doing. It doesn’t matter what kind of business is coming in, I treat them like they’re the only ones. It’s a personal approach to everything. It’s all about if you’re passionate about what you do.

PWP: Then when did you open LM Restaurant Group?

NOQ: After 9 years at the Drake and revamping the Mid-America Club’s catering business in between, I started a position managing a very high-end retirement community. October 15 was my first day there and the same day my husband and I opened our first restaurant—LM Restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Square.

PWP: Wait—why did you have a full-time job if you were opening a restaurant?

NOQ: Opening your own business in the hospitality industry can go either way—we were obviously pretty sure we had the right concept, but you never know how your audience will take it. We have two kids, and we wanted to make sure our household income was secure, so my husband focused on opening LM with our executive chef at the time, and I helped with private dining and some catering while working at the retirement community.

Three years in, we started growing and opened three more restaurants. That’s when I joined the company full time. My husband is more of the culinary, accounting, operations side, and I’m more of the sales and relationship-building person.

PWP: You two make such a great team! What’s next for LM?

NOQ: We believe we want our own venues—we specialize in that because we took our own experiences out of the hotel business into the off-premise catering market. With our own home, we can create the same experience, with very detailed service aspects. It’s a more full-service approach to off-premise catering—without being stuffy about it.

PWP: What’s the inspiration behind your restaurants?

NOQ: In the beginning, all of our restaurants were a modern take on French—not stuffy, white tablecloths, but modern, lighter, cleaner food. We had this big problem: People consider French food to be expensive and only for special occasions. We wanted to prove that even French people don’t only go to fine dining restaurants—French people eat their own food on a daily basis. That’s how we did Brasserie by LM and Troquet—approachable and affordable French food.

PWP: How have your European backgrounds influenced your work today?

NOQ: People always say about Germans that we’re really by the book and detailed on things. I think that carries through now to how we do our processes. I’m really big on making sure everybody has the right tools to do things. In the long term, it makes everybody’s life so much easier.

PWP: If you had to share a piece of wisdom or insight about how you got this far, what would you say?

NOQ: I’m a very driven person. Not trying to do my best is not necessarily an option for me. I always feel like I need to hire people who could eventually take my job and do what I do, with this passion. In the end, that’s the only way I can ensure everybody operates more or less with the inspiration that I have for my company. I’m really proud of the team we put together.

We can’t wait to dine with Nicole at one of LM’s lovely locations. Make a reservation here!

[Photos by Kate.]

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