Life before food service

Restaurant workers find similarities between their showstopping pasts and current dining gigs

What’s one thing that most people don’t know about you?

I recently met a few employees at Le Bilboquet in Buckhead who have remarkable life moments to share. You wouldn’t know of their talents if you saw them in the French restaurant or passed them on the street. But, their past accomplishments inform the way they go about their business today at the restaurant.

Meet a trio who bring to the table a cool head, an artistic hand and a stage presence because of the lives they’ve lived.

Restaurants are zoos, too

Ranier Shaw, 32, is Le Bilboquet’s operations manager. Considering that he tackles accounting, payroll and all things human resources, you might assume he has a business degree. He does not. Rather, he studied wildlife ecology, first at Valdosta State University, then at the University of Florida, where he graduated in 2008.

Shaw took an interest in wildlife early on. Keeping reptiles as pets while growing up in Stockbridge didn’t do much for his high school dating life, but it did help him land a summer internship with Zoo Atlanta, where he worked in the reptile department.

Later, while attending Valdosta State, he got a job as an animal supervisor at nearby Wild Adventures Theme Park, which he describes as a “small-scale Busch Gardens.” There, he looked after alligators and venomous reptiles.

“There were a few close calls,” he said.

Like, that time he had a close encounter with a 14-foot cobra when he came eye to eye with the venomous snake as it spread out its hood in anger and a colleague saved him by yanking the snake away with a hook.

And, there was the 13-foot boa constrictor that managed to wrap its entire body around his arm just before a reptile show was supposed to begin at Wild Adventures. The show was canceled, but Shaw walked away unscathed.

As a reptile lover, Shaw grew a soft spot for Steve Irwin, the Australian zookeeper and TV personality known as the Crocodile Hunter. Shaw even got to meet Irwin before that wildlife warrior died in 2006 from a stingray attack. Shaw’s infatuation with Irwin ran so deep that he even has a tattoo on his left arm dedicated to the man.

Despite his love for wild animals, Shaw never put that wildlife ecology degree to use after he graduated from college. “There’s not a lot of money to be made in that field,” he said. With student loans to pay off and a newborn son to support, Shaw turned to restaurants for employment.

He took a job as a manager at an Applebee’s and later shifted into bartending and managing nightclubs in Atlanta. When Le Bilboquet was nearing its opening in the fall of 2014, Shaw responded to its ad for a bookkeeper. His nightclub management experience was enough to get him the job. Two months later, he was promoted to office manager. Shortly thereafter, he became operations manager and has worked in that role ever since.

These days, the only animals that are part of Shaw’s life are a Great Dane and a Sphynx cat, but Shaw sees many comparisons between handling wild animals and managing a restaurant.

Both wild animals and restaurants can be unpredictable, he said. Dealing with wild animals taught Shaw to pay attention to behavioral patterns, which has served him well as he interacts with Le Bilboquet guests, and even the restaurant’s employees.

The customer isn’t always right, Shaw said, “But it’s my job to make them feel like they are.”

Even when tempers flare.

“Especially in times of conflict, emotions tend to run very high in the restaurant world,” he said. “Through these encounters I’ve had with really dangerous creatures, you tend to keep your emotions and feelings for things at a minimum and under control. When you stop reacting so quickly to things and start getting able to listen and understand what people are saying, you can then adapt and respond to it in a more appropriate way and actually get to the root of whatever the problem is in less time.”

Finding perfect harmony

The woman with the flowing golden locks on the cover of an album titled “Live the Life” is Ilona Knopfler. Once a jazz singer, the now 41-year-old has pretty much put aside the singer life, although once a year you can find her belting out tunes — on Le Bilboquet’s anniversary, when she stands on a table and serenades guests and employees alike with jazz and French oldies.

Knopfler has worked at Le Bilboquet since its opening day, first as its maitre d’ and then as its general manager, a position she has held since May 2016. But her journey to Le Bilboquet is a story unto itself, and she applies what she learned along the way every day at the restaurant.

She was born in Paris to a pianist father and a showgirl mother. Her parents spent years traveling the globe, performing together onstage. Then, in 1986, when Knopfler was 10 years old, they decided to settle down in Hong Kong and bid adieu to their performing life. Ultimately, they opened four restaurants.

Knopfler lent a hand at her parents’ eateries, but music remained a part of her life. By her late teenage years, she had become known as “the jazz singer in Hong Kong,” she said. At age 18, Knopfler left China to attend the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City.

Later, she signed with Detroit-based Mack Avenue Records and recorded two albums, “Some Kind of Wonderful” in 2003 and “Live the Life” in 2005. She performed at jazz festivals and other music events around the world.

Her full-time singing career came to an end in 2008, but she constantly finds parallels between music and restaurants.

“I think the fundamental similarity between the two is that it transcends all cultural and language barriers. It’s a universal language,” said Knopfler, who is fluent in French and English. “I don’t need to speak your language for us to enjoy music together. I don’t need to speak your language for us to enjoy food and wine together.

“Both the music setting and the restaurant setting are places where you can disconnect from everything else and reconnect with something or someone else. And you have this moment — whether it’s an hour, hour and a half, two hours — of just disconnecting from everything else and being able to put everything on pause. Your life is going to be waiting for you when that time is over. For that one little time, you can have an experience that lifts your heart a little bit.”

Just as in her former life, she strives for harmony as the GM at Le Bilboquet, trying to make the different facets of the dining experience come together seamlessly.

“You can have great food, great service, great atmosphere. But, if you don’t have all three, something’s off.”

Cooking is the complete art

What’s a recipe for winning a pageant? How about an ability to speak four languages, play the piano, dress stylishly and carry oneself well? That’s what garnered Sosthene Kabore the title of Mister Africa USA in 2013. Some five years later, the Ivory Coast-born Kabore, 31, is creating winning recipes as a sous chef at Le Bilboquet.

Kabore was raised in Niger. When he was 14, his family moved to the neighboring West African nation of Burkina Faso. They pushed him to be practical about his education, so he received training in the field of industrial electronics, and, in 2010, came to the U.S. to study architecture at Arizona State University.

But, he quickly found himself unable to afford the tuition. What’s more, he had an artistic side that he wanted to explore — he had always enjoyed drawing, singing, playing the piano and cooking French food with his mother. So, like many aspiring artists, he moved to New York City.

“It’s a town where I could find a job quickly,” he said.

He wound up working at various restaurants in Harlem, Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, working his way up the ladder while reading cookbooks and watching videos of chefs during his off hours.

It was at the now defunct French bistro Cedric that he added front-of-house experience to his resume, working as a floor manager. It was during that time that the smartly dressed Kabore caught the eye of a customer with ties to the Mister Africa USA competition, who suggested that he enter.

Kabore wowed the judges: playing a song that he wrote himself on the piano, dressing in both traditional and modern African costume, and giving a speech regarding the importance of educating young people in “the most hidden parts of Africa” that lack schools.

The victory earned Kabore a trip to Africa, an opportunity to attend a meeting at the United Nations and a visit to the White House. It also led to a few modeling side gigs.

But the kitchen, he realized, is where his inner artist belonged.

“To me, cooking is the complete art,” he said. “You use all five senses to cook. With the piano, I would just use my ears and maybe my touch. But cooking — when the sauce is boiling, you can tell the thickness just by hearing. The plate is like my painting board, where I can express myself like I am drawing. The smelling, the taste — cooking brought all those gifts that I have together.”

Eventually, he tired of New York, so when a chef friend was tapped to open Le Bilboquet in Atlanta, Kabore decided to move here, too.

Some three years later, Kabore continues to lend artistry to the plates at Le Bilboquet and aspires to have a place of his own someday. “I always wanted to open my own restaurant. I’m waiting patiently,” he said.

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