PORT TOWNSEND — Cassandra Garay can’t imagine running her brand-new business without “another half,” as she puts it.
Happily, she doesn’t have to.
Cassandra, 31, and her wife Lissette Garay, 35, opened the doors of La Cocina — the kitchen, in Spanish — in the middle of pandemic summer No. 2.
They moved into the former Lehani’s space at 221 Taylor St. in downtown Port Townsend, transforming it amid a widespread worker shortage.
Now, with two staff members, they cook made-from-scratch tortillas, tamales and, this week, Thanksgiving meal kits.
When the pandemic began, the couple had been together 12 years and married almost three. Both worked in the hospitality industry in Napa Valley, Calif.: Lissette at Robert Mondavi Winery and Cassandra at the Las Alcobas hotel.
When their industry shut down, they paused too. Questions came to the surface: Where are we going in our careers, in our lives?
As it turned out, they were going to Jefferson County, where Cassandra’s parents live.
While Cassandra began an online program to earn her master’s degree in business administration, Lissette taught herself to bake bread.
Just about a year ago, they packed their belongings into a moving truck and drove north to Chimacum, where they now reside.
The Garays considered buying a food truck. But there were too many road blocks, Cassandra said.
Lehani’s old location — sold last year by Lynn Hamlin-LeMaster and husband Bill LeMaster — was to be their big adventure.
Cassandra, who has since completed her MBA from Western Governors University, is both the front-of-the-house manager and the social media publicist, while Lissette, whose family comes from Sinaloa and Michoacán, Mexico, is executive chef. She’s the back-of-the-house boss, presiding over an open kitchen.
The pair chose La Cocina as their name not only because they wanted guests to be able to see the cooking going on, but also because the kitchen, to their minds, is the warmest place.
“I love cooking for people,” said Lissette, who grew up in Salinas, Calif., known as the salad bowl of the world.
Opening a restaurant in 2021 is far more complicated than she and Cassandra imagined. In September, when La Cocina had been open about two months, the requirement for restaurateurs to verify guests’ vaccination status went into effect.
“That, honestly, has been a high hurdle for us,” Lissette said, adding that people have angrily walked out her door.
“To turn away business: That’s tough. But the law is the law,” she said.
Cassandra said she’s heard from patrons who feel more comfortable dining out with the mandate in place. She admitted, however, that when she and Lissette purchased the restaurant, they thought that by this time, “things were not going to be as difficult as they are.”
The Garays have found other Mexican restaurants in Jefferson County — and other restaurants in general — to be welcoming. Meeting and speaking Spanish with the owners of Port Townsend’s Hacienda Tizapan, Lissette said, has warmed her heart.
“It’s important to support each other,” she said of the hospitality community.
As they looked toward Thanksgiving, there was no question in the couple’s mind about how to celebrate. Lissette’s family has always had turkey with mole (MOH-lay), the earthy, spicy sauce of Mexico.
“Both of my grandmothers are great cooks and chefs,” she said, adding her family is quite prideful about their home cooking. “I want to give people a taste of what I grew up eating. I want to give them something special.”
This Thanksgiving, La Cocina’s takeout kit is a turkey with mole, mashed potatoes and gravy, roasted vegetables and fresh corn tortillas.
Lissette and crew are also baking pumpkin cheesecake and offering tamales, posole and conchas as add-ons.
The Garays’ place is also a bit different from its local counterparts in that it offers breakfast.
Lissette has schooled her staff on how to make a silken Hollandaise sauce — a life skill that will serve them well, she believes.
“I have a huge passion for breakfast,” Lissette added.
This meal was also a Lehani’s specialty; Lissette and Cassandra hope their establishment will be at least as long-lived as its predecessor.
The couple has received help and moral support from many sources, including their parents and the Center for Inclusive Entrepreneurship, a nonprofit organization offering assistance to rural startup businesses.
The two are also driven from within, having set a bar for themselves.
“We’re both eldest siblings, and the first in our families to go to college,” Cassandra said.
“We have to be the example,” added Lissette, that the dream of a business — one blending the owners’ skills and style — can be realized.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]