Kevin McCarthy and Eve Montella-Smith, 2002 | Chef-proprietors, Armadillo Café | Personal Best | South Florida
From the outset, these two chefs knew where their combined destinies lay. "On our first date, we talked about opening a restaurant," Montella-Smith remembers. More than 20 years later, the inspired Southwestern cuisine of their Armadillo Café continues to please the palates of South Florida diners. With their long-awaited new location on University Drive in Davie up and running, they need look no further than each other for the reasons they were able to succeed.

"I'm gonna brag on him for a while now," Montella-Smith announces, referring to McCarthy. "He's a fantastically talented technical chef. I was kinda mad about this at first -- technically, I'm not even in his league, but I have my talents too -- and there was a lot of friction."

Of course, combining a romantic relationship and a business partnership brought challenges. "I wouldn't recommend that," Montella-Smith notes dryly, pointing out that they broke up for good in 1993 and are now married to different people. (McCarthy has four children; Montella-Smith has one.) Still, she says, "Kevin and I have a bond that can't be broken. We really watch out for each other, because this business is tough -- physically, emotionally, and financially. But when you're a force of two against the world, that makes a huge difference."

Though he looks back with a mixture of fondness and resentment on the old days (the resentment being reserved mostly for the incessant road construction that plagued the now-closed Griffin Road location), McCarthy is gratified that he and Montella-Smith have remained business partners even after they split up. "It's easy to start in a small place, where we just threw everything we had into it," McCarthy remembers. "We didn't have any money; there was no place to go. It was a nothing-to-lose kind of thing: You take the rear-view mirror off the car and go forward and get better."

Now that they're in a bigger location, with a regular Sunday brunch and lunch service in the planning stages, McCarthy declares, "We've been through the rough years, and now we're seeing the light."

In the nine years they've worked together at the Caldwell, the members of this behind-the-scenes tag team have held various titles, but essentially, Bennett designs the sets and Salzman does the lighting. Their combined efforts have created disparate looks ranging from the lighting-driven textures and fabric backdrops of last year's production of The Laramie Project to the tangible, recognizable details of a bed-and-breakfast in the recent Out of Season.

When asked to describe the mechanics of their work together, both men seem relieved to be acknowledged as a team. "It works best as a total collaboration between all of us," Bennett says, stressing that writers and directors play a significant role in shaping his and Salzman's creations. "When I design scenery, since we've worked together a lot, I know how Tom's going to light it. And when I do something kinda weird, he knows why," he adds with a laugh.

For The Laramie Project, which tells the tale of the Matthew Shepard killing in Wyoming, the inspiration came from an unexpected source. After the creative team brainstormed for a few days without deciding on a visual vocabulary for the show, "we were all at a loss, and then the director [Michael Hall] pulled out this sweater that he'd brought back from a fact-finding mission to Laramie," Salzman recalls. "In this sweater was a color palette, a feeling. Tim went away and designed a new set, and the lighting palette all changed -- based on this sweater.

"In the theater, unlike films, people want to use their imagination in order to be taken to another place," Salzman points out. "Tim and I go for the essence of what a play needs: Sometimes we need to do virtually nothing but stay out of the actors' way; other times, we superimpose ourselves so the sets and lighting almost become another character. But you never know if it's going to work until you do it," Salzman cautions.

"We think we know," Bennett adds. But even full dress rehearsals, he stresses, aren't enough.

"We can't really know until we hear the audience's reaction," Salzman concludes.

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