Empire Builders

Jason Rex and Connie Naccarato have opened five locations in four years. Next up: 10 or 12 more.

Sous-chef Justin Braviroff, left, looks on as co-owner Jason Rex garnishes the Muscovy duck at Fraiche. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Sous-chef Justin Braviroff, left, looks on as co-owner Jason Rex garnishes the Muscovy duck at Fraiche.

It’s 10 minutes to 4 pm on a Wednesday, and Justin Braviroff and his crew are hustling.

Brian Brosius, a line cook, is hand-breading onions for onion rings. Braviroff, the sous-chef, is dicing a thickly fatted pancetta and halving Brussels sprouts and Yukon Gold potatoes for a hash that will serve as both the starch and the vegetable for a butter-poached sea bass with red pepper coulis. Jaime Gilman, another line cook, is sauteeing peppers and chasing down black truffles. “Somebody grab me real towels?” Braviroff asks.

“Real towels, chef,” Gilman replies, disappearing. In a moment, Braviroff will pan-fry the pancetta to render off most of the fat, but he pauses now, to answer a server’s question about a very different dish: the buffalo chili cheese fries. “It’s two scoops of chili, fries, another scoop of chili,” Braviroff says.

“Cheese?” the server asks.

“Cheese and green onions,” Braviroff replies.

There are a lot of kinks to work out and a lot of teaching to do when you’re a managing a kitchen that serves a newly opened restaurant. Braviroff’s kitchen serves two.

Out front, Rex’s Burgers & Brew — named for chef/owner Jason Rex — offers scratch-made American comfort food at price points under $10. Around back and down a hallway, at Fraiche, the French-modern entrees start at $18.

Braviroff’s career, beginning with school at Le Cordon Bleu in South Pasadena, Calif., has been all “high-end fine dining,” and mostly French food. “Cooking burgers has been a little bit of a learning curve for me.”

When Jason Rex and Connie Naccarato opened their first restaurant, Scratch, in downtown Spokane, four years ago, the idea for Rex’s was already a decade old. “I’ve had the menu for 14 years,” Rex says. The concept — a shrine to maligned American standards, with a huge menu — needed a lot of space, good visibility and high traffic.

Rex had been eyeing the space occupied by Niko’s, the iconic Spokane Greek joint, for as long as he’d been mulling the concept. He would look out across Post Street at it during two separate stints as head chef at the now-defunct Fugazi. “The foot traffic is incredible,” Rex says, “It has great wine storage, there’s so much space.”

Niko’s had occupied the space for nearly 30 years, so when it closed abruptly in early March, Rex knew he needed to act fast.

Naccarato, though, had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment. “I was in the hospital, dying,” Connie Naccarato says, mock-appalled, “and Jason says, ‘Guess what we’re doing?’” She jokes that he was trying to kill her off, once and for all. The pair pledged to open a restaurant a year for the duration of their partnership, though. They’ve met that goal, with a bar to spare.

The concept for Fraiche was more pragmatic than Rex’s and didn’t gestate as long. “We wanted two revenue streams out of the kitchen,” Rex says. “There aren’t that many French restaurants” in Spokane, Naccarato continues.

Running two restaurants out of one kitchen presents a big monetary upside. “We’re here in the kitchen anyway, so one or two servers are all that’s extra [at Fraiche],” Rex says. After two or three orders of sea bass, you’ve paid for your staffing that night.

This leaves very few quiet minutes, though, and because of the differences between menus, Braviroff says, the food orders are three to four times larger than they are at Scratch. The sous-chef gets to work as early as 1 pm on order days and is lucky to get home before 4:30 am.

It poses a unique challenge for Rex, too. “We have, like, 40 employees, and I’m horrible with names,” he says, “I still make my cooks wear name tags.”

Rex has a mess of reddish blonde hair and a wry smile. His lower lip betrays the slight bulge of someone who chews tobacco. He has an even demeanor and jokes with his staff as he cooks. Jeremy Hansen, the chef/owner of Santé, worked under Rex at Fugazi in the late-’90s. In a relationship that’s now over a decade old, Hansen says he’s never seen Jason get mad. “Maybe once or twice.”

Rex lives in Hayden, Idaho, with his wife and two kids, “two blocks from where I grew up.” He likes it for all the elements that define the suburban Northwest: “Big lots. It’s quiet. It’s small. Lots of trees,” he says during a phone conversation. “Everything’s really close, but you can still walk outside and have a smoke in your boxers. I say that because that’s what I just did.”

It’s also a nice, central location to survey the empire he has built with Naccarato. Rex is up and in Coeur d’Alene by 7:00 most mornings, to do the books and batch credit cards from the night before. He then drives to Spokane to pound and proof dough for the buns and rolls he makes from scratch for Rex’s.

The chefs that Rex hires tend not to leave. Owen Cruz, sous-chef at Scratch Spokane, has been with Rex for 14 years. One chef that did leave, Jeremy Hansen, says Rex had a lasting impact. “Jason opened my eyes to what real food is,” Hansen says, “He showed me what being a chef is. He changed my life.”

Rex also showed what a chef’s motivations are. Satisfying customers is a part of it, Hansen says, but “you’ve got to be a masochist of some sort. You have to like to hurt yourself.”

You also have to like long hours. Above Fraiche and Rex’s, in a corner, past a wine room that holds 1,800 bottles (a relic from Niko’s), is a queen bed covered with a floral quilt comforter. “That’s where I take my naps,” Rex says, smiling a little.

Rex says he has one more concept in him, but, as with Rex’s, he’s looking for the right location. “You know … strip malls,” he says, the upscale kind. The sorts of places that might host a Qdoba, Rex reasons, would be perfect for scratch-prepared fast food. Once the first one goes in, he’d like to open 10-12 locations within five years.

This won’t happen soon, though. Naccarato, at 63, has been given a clean bill of health, but she’s contemplating retirement.

Rex doesn’t think it’ll stick, but he’s still going to give the fast-food idea some time. “I don’t want to kill Connie,” Rex says, pausing, “And I don’t want Connie to kill me.”

Rex’s Burgers & Brews • Daily, 11 am-close • 14 N. Post St • 474-0564 • Fraiche • Tues-Sat, 4 pm–10 pm • 474-0575