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'Bye hun, off to work with my ex'
Even after they divorced, these couples decided to keep running their business together
By Pam DeFiglio | Daily Herald Staff

Chefs/business partners Gale Gand and Rick Tramonto both remarried after their divorce seven years ago and say they're lucky their new spouses understand their still very close relationship.

 

Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Richard Ditton and Elaine Hodgson, who divorced in 1998, still head up their company together. They also work closely with Elaine's husband.

 

Gilber R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

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Published: 11/20/2007 12:05 AM

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The school counselor had seen a lot of kids reeling from their parents' bitter divorces.

So she thought Gio Tramonto, then a first-grader in her weekly discussion group, seemed to be handling his parents' divorce a little too well.

"The counselor said, 'Your son is under the illusion that you and your ex-husband are friends and business partners, you work together, you get along,'" recalls Gio's mother, award-winning Food Network chef Gale Gand. "And I said, 'It's really true.'"

Yes, some couples who have built a business together are able to keep up the working relationship even after marriages dissolve.

Gale Gand and her ex, celebrity chef Rick Tramonto, divorced seven years ago, and both have remarried. But they remain "culinary partners" and co-own four restaurants, including three in Wheeling and Chicago's fine-dining gem Tru.

"I'm with Gale daily. We never separate work and home," says Tramonto. "We'll call each other two or three times a day and talk about our son, work, our new books coming out, schedules -- so it all kind of blurs together."

Work and life blur together for Elaine Hodgson and Richard Ditton as well. They also chose to co-lead their company, which makes the popular arcade game Golden Tee Golf, after their divorce nine years ago.

But it's not just the two of them who interact daily in their Arlington Heights office. Elaine's new husband, Larry Hodgson, is a top executive in the company, Incredible Technologies, and they all work closely together.

They even live four doors down from each other in Deer Park.

Cooperation like that can be rare in divorces. In some cases, former spouses can't even be in the same room for important events in a child's life, like a graduation or wedding.

When a business is involved, usually the work relationship ends with the divorce, says Carol Patinkin, executive director of The Lilac Tree, an Evanston non-profit that supports women going through divorce.

"Obviously, these two couples have a tremendous financial incentive to keep the business together, since they both are the business," Patinkin points out.

"Not everyone can do that. But it's great these couples have been able to respect each other and move forward with their goals. It demonstrates that people can work together after divorce, whether co-parenting or in another relationship."

The right mix

And these couples work well together.

"Rick's a terrific culinary partner," says Gand, explaining his leadership qualities and her creative ideas complement each other.

Tramonto agrees. "The best part about this culinary relationship is that we've made the journey together -- traveling all over the world, writing books together, doing TV shows, opening restaurants together, having a child together," he says.

The two met in the kitchen of a hotel restaurant in Rochester, N.Y., Tramonto's hometown, in 1979 when he was only 17. (Gand, who grew up in Deerfield, is seven years older.) A couple of years later, both fired up with the dream of great cooking, they left to make their mark on Manhattan.

After six years, they got married and, when Gand got homesick for Chicago, came back.

In the early 1990s, their careers took off and accolades from the press and national awards rolled in. The duo became golden in the fine-dining world.

Within a few years, however, stress took a toll on their marriage.

"There comes a point where you're working 15 hours a day, six days a week, and then you come home and sit up in bed, talking about the restaurant," says Tramonto. "There was so much going on."

Gand remembers wishing Tramonto would cut back on work to spend more time with her and their son.

"After two or three years, I felt like a single mom. We had to change, but we couldn't change enough," she says.

They divorced in 2000, when Gio was 3½. It came at a time when they were starting up Tru.

"We didn't tell the staff for six or eight months," Gand says. "Then we made an announcement and said, 'We split up months ago but we just didn't want to scare you guys.'"

With the staff confident that Tramonto and Gand could work together, they were able to focus on making the restaurant a success.

In 2002, Tramonto married Eileen Carroll, whom he had known since he was 15. Carroll had been close friends with both Gand and Tramonto throughout the years, and had even served as a bridesmaid at their wedding.

Gand married Jimmy Seidita in 2003; they have twin daughters, who are now 4.

Both Gand and Tramonto give a lot of credit to their new spouses for making the relationships so amicable.

"My husband is OK that I work with my ex, and Rick's wife is OK that he works with his ex," says Gand.

Tramonto agrees. "It's hard to say, 'I'm going to Vegas to cook with my ex-wife.' But I don't have to say that because she knows. She gets it."

Gand sometimes goes out to lunch with Eileen Tramonto and they sometimes travel together with Rick for a cooking gig. When Gand remarried, Rick cooked for the reception. The two families have even celebrated holidays together.

Last year they launched their newest restaurants -- Osteria di Tramonto, Tramonto's Steak & Seafood and RT Lounge -- in Wheeling.

Tramonto and Gand share joint custody of their son, now 11. He spends a few days a week at each household -- hers in Riverwoods, his in Vernon Hills.

Gand and Tramonto feel they have the best of both worlds.

"We loved our friendship, each other and our careers, but maybe not our marriage," says Tramonto. "We kept the good parts."

Staying connected

Back in 1978 at Purdue University, Richard Ditton was trying to help his shy friend, who wanted a date with a pretty brunette.

"She was beautiful, full of energy and intelligent, with the brightest, happiest, most intelligent eyes," he says.

With that kind of perception, it's no surprise he forgot about the friend and began dating her himself.

They married a year later. Armed with her degree in biochemistry and his in math and computer science, they experimented with various jobs in the science field, including the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Searching for a better career fit, Elaine accepted a job in Des Plaines.

They discovered Chicago was home to lots of video game companies, and Richard began working in that industry. Soon, Elaine joined him.

Around 1983, home video games were taking off.

That started a time of change for them. In 1985, they had a baby, Christopher; in 1986 they started a company from their bedroom.

"Elaine would do business deals and the baby would sit on my lap," recalls Richard.

The company grew to six employees and moved into an office in 1988. A second son, Ben, arrived in 1990.

Sarah was born in 1996, and by 1997, they were up to about 50 employees and enjoying success.

But something else happened around that time, too.

"We had grown apart in terms of the heart," says Elaine.

She and Larry Hodgson, a key executive in the company, developed feelings for each other. In 1998, Elaine and Richard divorced.

Nine years later, Elaine is able to talk about it.

"This choice was right for me," she says. "My relationship with Richard wasn't as strong as I wanted it to be. I fell in love with someone else."

But she still doesn't like the idea of divorce. "It's a failure of commitment, and I'm not proud of my failure," she says.

It was a route to get to where she is now, she adds, but not a route she liked.

"I'm happy now, but I'm not happy I caused the hurt I did, to Richard, the kids and the worry I gave people here," she explains.

The divorce caused painful moments for everyone.

"Normally I feel like I'm in control of things, but I had no control," recalls Richard. "I was afraid the employees were going to bail."

Both Elaine and Richard say they tried to act in the best interests of their children and their employees.

"I sat down with them (Elaine and Larry) at a restaurant and asked them to stay with the company," says Richard. "It was the only way the company could survive."

Elaine says that when emotions were raw, she quit for a day. But then she committed to making the company work.

Today, she says, Richard and Larry get along fine, both in the business and in personal life. The company employs 120 and is thriving.

"They've come to an understanding," she adds. "I don't think you can erase hurt, but respect and friendship can happen to supplant the hurt."

Richard remarried, but it didn't last.

"It's hard to say, 'Bye honey, I'm going to spend the next eight hours with my ex,'" he says wryly.

Elaine married Larry and became Elaine Hodgson. Elaine and Richard each take the kids, who are now a sixth-grader, a high school senior and a college student, for a week at a time.

On the business side, Elaine and Richard still run the company together. Larry serves as a key executive.

"I think it will continue to be an amicable relationship," Elaine predicts. "The friendships will grow stronger as the hurt gets even more put away.

"We're all going to be connected for a long time."