WOMEN IN BUSINESS: Rhonda Nugent has the World on a Platter

FRANKFORT – Combine equal parts location and creativity with solid experience and an appreciation for good food. Add the willingness to work 80 or more hours per week in the summer and a hardworking, knowledgeable staff, and you have Rhonda Nugent’s recipe for restaurant success.

Last year, Nugent purchased the Wharfside–practically an institution in downtown Frankfort since the 1950s–and renamed it Rhonda’s Wharfside. Since then, as chef and owner, she’s been pleasing palates with her international and imaginative, yet traditional, fare.

Dishes like grilled pork chops seasoned with Szechwan pepper salt and topped with spicy caramel sauce; rare yellow fin tuna encrusted with cumin, fennel and whole sesame seeds; or eggplant fettuccini with leeks, shitake mushrooms and bean sprouts in a spicy soy sauce. These dishes give diners something to talk about, which is what it’s all about, according to Nugent.

“There’s nothing better in the world than, ‘This is the best salmon I’ve had in my life,’ especially if you’re having a bad day,” she said. “That keeps you going. That’s the bottom line; it’s what the restaurant business is all about. I didn’t get into this to make tons of money. I enjoy creating new things and making other people happy with food.”

Nugent’s inspirations have been her “upbringing in a family of cooks–my grandmother, aunts and my mother–and being able to travel and see different parts of the world. The combination created my style of cooking: globally-influenced cuisine, taking basic food ideas and applying ingredients found out in the world. My mom cooked with fresh ingredients, and that’s what I stick with.”

But it’s not just the food that keeps diners coming back. The location, with a stunning view of the Betsie Bay waterfront, the simple decor with subtle, whimsical touches, the upbeat staff and solid business plan have all contributed to a successful first year for Rhonda’s Wharfside (this is the restaurant’s second full summer).

Nugent has had solid formal training and experience, too; first at Olivet College, then studying graphic design at the University of Kansas and culinary arts at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.

Wanting to bring some of her new culinary ideas back to the Midwest where she spent much of her childhood, Nugent took a line cook position at Café Zoë in St. Louis, and within six months took over as chef. She was voted one of the Top Ten Chefs in St. Louis and contributed to Great Meals of St. Louis, a cookbook and interactive CD-Rom produced as a benefit for the St. Louis Food Bank.

After spending a summer in northern Michigan in the late 1990s, Nugent felt it was time to own her own restaurant. “I was always thinking about it; I looked at restaurants whenever I came up here.”

The Wharfside was on the market and, armed with a business plan she and her father developed, Nugent made a bid. She closed on the space in mid-May 1999 and spent a feverish month preparing for the mid-June opening.

Nugent has also opened the summer-only Lower Level Café, with umbrella-capped outdoor tables and a café-style menu. Rhonda’s Wharfside also offers catering services and hosts events such as holiday parties, association meetings and family get-togethers. Watch for wine tasting weekends in conjunction with area B&Bs and special wine tasting meals this fall. And she’s not done yet.

“Eventually, I’d like to open something else and maybe get into the food manufacturing process someday.”

Her energy and flair and the sense of enjoyment that comes from doing what she loves keep Nugent going. She recalls coming to the Wharfside to eat as a child with her grandmother and thinking, as a young adult in college, “That would make a great restaurant.”

Now, she says, “It’s fate. This is really what was meant to be. Sometimes I can’t believe it. I’m very blessed, very lucky. The food thing just comes naturally.” BIZNEWS