Matt Lewis, the chef at Capital Grille at the UniversityTown Center, has a special relationship with his mother, Leah Lewis. Leah watched with trepidation as her father taught Matt to chop onions, carrots and celery at the age of two. Little Matt stood on a chair or knelt on a stool with his tiny hands, following along with his grandfather’s larger ones. Leah herself learned to cook from her grandmother and she stifled her maternal fear as she recognized the value in these generational bonding sessions that extended beyond that of mere cooking lessons. There’s a tradition of strong Texan cooks in the Lewis family. Leah soon relaxed enough to enjoy watching her son as he experimented in the kitchen, and she delighted in cooking with him and his younger sister, Lindsay, when her schedule as a working mom permitted. Leah remembers Matt’s favorite dishes as a youngster were her macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches. “He loved to be in the kitchen, but he was a jock,” Leah says. “His father, Mark, and I were surprised when he came home one day and announced that he wanted to be a chef.”

Matt’s independent spirit and drive to succeed can certainly be attributed to watching his mother live her life. Leah believes in setting goals according to the milestones in her life. At 30, she had her last child, and at 40, she tried her hand at television and print modeling. At 50, she wanted to live on an island, so she and her husband relocated to St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Matt completed his culinary degree at the Art Institute of Colorado, and decided he wanted to learn about Caribbean flavors, so he followed his parents to the island. When Matt moved to Sarasota almost nine years ago, he worked as a hotel chef for a large hospitality group. His new venture as chef-partner at The Capital Grille has been exceptionally well-received. Besides perfectly cooked steaks and seafood, the restaurant has added four new gourmet burgers to the lunch menu featuring Wagyu beef, the highest quality beef in the United States. Matt’s mother couldn’t bear to be away from her son, and the advent of grandsons, Ethan and Evan, encouraged her to join him in Sarasota. Leah has eight grandbabies in total, but she’s still following her own dreams as well. At 60, she’s decided to become an independent travel consultant. She relishes the challenge and credits Matt for being an inspiration to her, too. “I’m very proud of him,” she says. “We’ve laughed, cried and conquered together. He’s my hero.” Matt has a high-pressure job at a fine dining restaurant. At work he is exacting, but he appreciates the opportunity to be creative with daily specials. At home he’s continuing the Lewis tradition with his own sons whenever he can. Five-year-old Ethan loves to chop and prep, and four-year-old Evan “loves to eat.”

Knickole Barger was born and raised in Sarasota and graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School in 1998 before heading to Florida State University to study business administration. Knickole worked as a nanny in college and waited tables to supplement her income. Knickole’s father, Knick, is not just her namesake. Since 2002, the two have been business partners in two family ventures: Youbar Builders and Knick’s Tavern and Grill. Knickole splits her time between acting as general manager of the restaurant and vice president of the building company. She’s also the mother to a precocious ray of sunshine named Katherine, who is three years old going on 30. Katherine favors beat-up cowboy boots and princess dresses, and when I visit the two at their home in Sarasota, Katherine takes me on a high-spirited tour of her backyard, carrying a cucumber that she’s eating like an apple. Mother and daughter go on date nights to Walt’s Fish Market and bike rides around town, as well as camping in Myakka and regular photo shoots with “Aunt Kathryn,” local photographer Kathryn Brass-Piper. Growing up in the restaurant business has gifted Katherine with a discerning palate. One of her favorite dishes at the family restaurant (and one of ours) is the Blackened Calamari, which is sautéed in a lemon lime beurre blanc. Katherine suggests wearing the rings on your fingers before eating them. My mom and I stopped by Knick’s Tavern for dinner on a foggy Monday night in Sarasota and the cozy restaurant was packed. I remarked to Knickole that the space reminded me of the bar in Cheers. Knickole grinned and confided, “That’s what we were going for.” She is exceedingly proud of the quality of ingredients used at Knick’s Tavern and Grill, including certified Angus beef and produce from local company Big Apple Market. Knickole turned 35 this year and she’s a testament to the idea that women these days can have it all. She’s a successful business owner, a dedicated parent, a loyal and beloved friend, and she’s proud to be doing it all in the community that she was raised in.

Eric Bein, the chef and owner of Station 400, was born on a military base in North Carolina. His family moved to Sarasota when he was seven years old and he graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School in 1999. Eric attended culinary school at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York. His parents were hesitant when he first presented them with his plan to be a chef. Eric’s grandparents owned a restaurant called The Place in the ‘70s, which was located at the corner of Fruitville and Beneva Roads, so his parents were aware of the pitfalls of the restaurant industry. But Eric demonstrated the values that his parents taught him of respect, decorum and professionalism during his tenure at culinary school, and they began to warm up to the idea. Eric intended to spend his career climbing the ladder of restaurant success in hardscrabble New York City, but he began to feel burnt out by the rat race and decided to come back to Sarasota to regroup and refocus. He took a vacation job as a cook at the restaurant that is now Station 400. It was here that Eric began to relax his serious approach to life; he even fraternized with co-workers, a previously self-imposed rule broken, handily, when he met the beautiful, talented and effervescent Ellie Rinchich. Besides being a server, Ellie was the lead singer of a local band, and a naturally warm and intuitive people person. Ellie and Eric soon became inseparable, and when the restaurant closed down in 2009, they decided to buy it and make it a restaurant that they could be proud of. Eric did not set out to run a breakfast and lunch restaurant in Downtown Sarasota. He marvels at the course that his life has taken from bachelor trying to make it in the big city to family man and successful restaurateur in the small city. Eric and Ellie’s wedding reception was held at the downtown location of Station 400 where they met and fell in love. Eric attributes a lot of the early success to Ellie, “She was the face of the restaurant, and she’s so engaging and hospitable.” There were, of course, challenges to being newlyweds and new business partners, but the couple found an easy rhythm and opened a second location in Lakewood Ranch in 2011. The couple’s second daughter, Clara, is only a few months old, and eldest daughter, Mayla, is almost four. Ellie, still a performer, sang the national anthem at a Baltimore Oriole’s game for the second year in a row and she’s still helping husband Eric with the two Station 400 locations.

Matt Lewis is inspired by his mother’s indomitable spirit and Southern hospitality, and he uses that inspiration to craft exceptional meals both at home for his family and at The Capital Grille for discerning patrons. Knickole Barger has three fulfilling careers, the most important of which is being a stellar role model for a curious and independent young woman sure to grow up to make her family proud. Eric Bein is lucky enough that his partner in life, the mother of his children, is also his savvy partner in business. We salute the mothers in our lives and we’re very grateful to celebrate them. SRQ

Photos by Evan Sigmund