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One-woman kitchen | Norfolk restaurant adapts to keep business alive during pandemic

Rina Estero is used to a small staff. It's what gives the Norfolk eatery its charm. But perhaps nothing as small as being the kitchen's only cook.

NORFOLK, Va. — Throwbacks from the 1980's are the music of choice when you step inside the Nouvelle Restaurant in Norfolk.

The classic tunes keep the kitchen moving, and every dish that comes from it are straight from the heart and creativity of head chef Rina Estero. 

The flavors and tastes from the casual-but-upscale eatery on Colley Avenue blend French techniques with Estero's Filipino background.

"Growing up in the Philippines has definitely shaped my way of cooking, and how I treat food. We don't have huge refrigerators, huge freezers," Estero told 13News Now.

Like many small businesses across the country, the restaurant's past is one of humble beginnings. Estero and her husband Luke Brigham met in college, both with a passion for cooking. 

They eventually combined their life savings into what would be their first joint venture together in the Nouvelle Restaurant. 

Estero is used to a small staff: it's what gives the Norfolk eatery its charm. But perhaps nothing as small as nowadays being the kitchen's only cook.

"I used to have two sous chefs, line cook for prep and dishwasher, and now it's just me," she told 13News Now.

A one woman kitchen

Like restaurants everywhere, the pandemic forced a months-long closure for Nouvelle in 2020. As a result, the outbreak cost the restaurant most of its employees, which have now become a luxury for the family-run business. 

"A lot of our employees had to go on unemployment because we had to close, and it was difficult to get them back because they were making more on unemployment," Estero said. 

The staff is now more bare-boned than ever before. There are now a handful of employees: a bartender and hostess. 

Every night, her husband Luke comes from his regular 9-5 job to help run the front of the restaurant. When she can, their daughter, Brooke, helps them out.

That still leaves Estero cooking every dine-in and take out order by herself in the kitchen. On an average Saturday night, she said the business can run between 20-30 covers (tables and takeout orders) a night.

"I'm really, really fast, a ninja," Estero laughed. "No, really."

In a sit-down interview with 13News Now, they said they're now slowly recovering, but with big changes. Estero enjoys the challenge, but knows there is also no other option.

It's what's needed to keep the restaurant afloat. 

“It is stressful. But I enjoy It, I just don’t enjoy it because I don’t feel like it’s my best work because I’m rushed to do it.”

Estero and Brigham are thankful for the customers they still have, which they credit for helping them survive the pandemic. 

As for what's next, Estero said when the restaurant gets to the point where they can afford another employee, the next hire will most likely be a line cook for her to train. 

“It’s a whole different beast, trying to manage a beautiful plate for the diners here, and also still make it pretty in a box.”

Until then, Estero will continue to be a one woman kitchen, hoping for the best. 

"Everything is up in the air right now. None of us have an idea how it'll look next year," she said. "We're just hoping things pan out more stable."

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