A Perfect Partnership: The Cook & the Cork Delivers Creative Comfort Fare in Coral Springs

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Boy meets girl. They fall in love. They live happily ever after.

At the Cook & the Cork in Coral Springs, the tale goes a little differently. Chef meets event planner. They build a successful catering empire. They open a restaurant.

Parkland Catering owners Keith Blauschild and Dena Lowell are now partners in life as well as business. While managing staff, shuffling dishes, and filing invoices seven days a week might ruin the magic for some couples, for these two, the food business only seems to fuel their passion. They stare madly into each others' eyes as they inventory crates of tomatoes and stack boxes of noodles. Both agree that their businesses -- and the food they create -- wouldn't exist without their union.

See also: Closer Look: Cook & the Cork in Coral Springs

"It was bashert, like we say in Yiddish. Destiny," says Lowell, a native New Yorker. "I never thought in a million years I'd be doing catering. And in Florida, nonetheless."

The story begins with Lowell, who moved to Coral Springs to be closer to family nearly 15 years ago. She accepted an event planning job at a temple that was looking for someone to launch an in-house catering business. Small world: The chef they'd already chosen to do the catering for the first gig was Blauschild, a childhood friend she'd known growing up in Manhattan. Their fathers had worked together at Madison Square Garden.

While Lowell had pursued a career in New York's fashion world, Blauschild was busy graduating from the Culinary Institute of America. His first job out of school brought him to Miami at 25. A series of jobs then sent him across South Florida's private hotel and country-club industry, running kitchens at institutions like PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens and the Lauderdale Yacht Club. In between positions, Blauschild said yes to a catering gig that would change the course of his career.

"It was only supposed to be a one-time thing," says Lowell. "Catering wasn't even something he needed to do. But he kept taking jobs [with me] because we were an incredible team."

In just over 12 months, the pair took the temple's small catering production from zero to $1.5 million in sales. By the time they realized they were in love, the situation had become a cause for concern. The temple's administrators were worried about the potential for drama; one of them had to go.

Lowell stayed on, while Blauschild accepted a job as sous chef for the Polo Club in Boca Raton.

"But nothing worked without him," said Lowell. "I started taking small jobs on the side, because clients wanted both Keith and I. When we were booking two years out, we knew it was time to start our own company."

In 2006, the duo founded Parkland Catering. Nearly a decade later, they took the next step and opened the Cook & the Cork off Sample Road in June. The name is a reference to Blauschild's other two loves: cooking and wine. Operating Wednesday though Saturday for dinner only, the space doubles as the commissary space for their catering operation.

On a recent Wednesday night before opening, it's business as usual at The Cook & The Cork. Lowell attends to administrative chores while Blauschild helms the kitchen staff. She's the organized, attentive diplomat; he fills the role of calm, collected chef savant. As a dinner guest, you'd never suspect the frenzy going on in the kitchen, preparation for a 500-person catering job the next day. All seems at peace in the restaurant's main dining room, which feels living-room cozy.

It's largely thanks to Lowell, who nabbed the furniture from Michelle Bernstein's now-defunct Sra. Martinez restaurant at auction. She got what was a pricey custom job -- red print booths, carved metal table bases, even the glowing marble-topped bar -- for next to nothing.

This makes a comfy place to sample the menu's dozen or so small plates and six entrées, which rotate seasonally and resemble the Parkland Catering menus. Offering similar dishes at both the restaurant and the catering biz allows Blauschild to buy in bulk, so he can source higher-grade ingredients for a more affordable price: truffles from Italy, foie gras from Hudson Valley, and free-range chicken from specialty purveyors. Everything at the Cook & the Cork is done in-house. Blauschild and his staff dry-age the New York strip steaks, bake the breads, and cure the bacon.

Despite the artisanal touch, it's evident that the restaurant menu is inspired by the catering business. Many of them are familiar, please-everyone dishes that you might see on a wedding menu. But Blaushchild works his creative side, offering a tasty twist on each.

Take the chicken and waffles: It delivers the requisite tender fried chicken breast, waffle, and syrup. But instead of sweet, here you get a touch of spice. Corn waffles are given savory notes with scallion and cilantro, and soaked in a viscid andouille sausage gravy. Their topped off with a dash or two of ancho-chili-infused syrup, offered in a tiny self-serve bottle on the side.

Lobster macaroni and cheese we've seen -- but here it arrives plated like lobster thermidor, elbow noodles and plump shreds of meat stuffed into a lobster's bright-red tail. It's an appealing presentation, but digging noodles from the sharp shell makes for an awkward and frustrating experience. The tarragon-spiced white cheddar sauce makes up for all the trouble, though, walking the line between decadent and indulgent.

And rather than use crisp cuts of tostini to serve foie gras, Blaushchild repurposes French toast with a homemade mushroom brioche bread soaked in egg batter and fried on a hot griddle. Moist and fragrant, it makes the delicate sliver of golden-seared liver seem like an afterthought instead of the main attraction.

The most popular dish -- and the inspiration for countless multi-orders -- is the spare ribs. Fat and tender, they're cooked via sous vide for 24 hours, steam-baked on low heat, and finished on the grill. The sauce, a Korean barbecue-style glaze, is tempered with soy and pear purée. Blauschild is proud of the sauce, formulated to stick to the meat like a lacquer instead of smearing on your hands. The ribs are best when eaten along with the dish's sidekick, a piquant cucumber kimchi.

"Cooking and catering are like jewelry design," said Lowell. "Some people buy plastic beads and string premade stuff together. And then there are people who shape their own molds and carve their own metal. Keith's food is like that. I envision it, and he brings it to life."

The Cook & the Cork is located at 9890 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs. Call 954-227-2665, or visit thecookandthecork.com.

Nicole Danna is a food blogger covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on Clean Plate's Instagram.

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