Eat, Play, Love: Brothers Daniel and Chris Daniel stay connected to Cal men’s water polo through their family’s cafe

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Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

Clank. Clank. Whoosh. That’s the sound of pizza sliding out of the oven and into the pizza box ready to be sliced into eight pieces. Pop. Pop. The two air holes on top of the box are opened. Somebody’s pizza is ready.

It’s another busy Saturday at Tivoli Caffe.

Inside the cafe, a cloud of Italian smells — basil, marinara sauce, oregano — swirls around the line of customers waiting for their food. Although the Jackson 5 is playing through the cafe’s speakers, it’s faint. Not because the volume’s low, but because of the table chatter from the guests — which varies from Cal athletes to professors to students — and the constant whirring from the big pizza oven in the back kitchen.

But past the tables, past the counter and past the oven are Chris and Daniel Daniel. At one end of the kitchen, Daniel is flipping pans of marinara sauce, sliding pizza in and out of the oven and pouring chicken alfredo with bacon into a to-go box. While Daniel is juggling everything in the kitchen, Chris is loading up cans of soda, boxes of salad and sandwiches onto a cart as he gets ready to cater an event.

These are the Daniel brothers. Both Cal students. Both former Cal water polo players who are in that kitchen every day. And along with their sister Marianna, the brothers spend the majority of their days cooking and answering the seemingly rapid line of orders that are fired at them.

“We have to learn quick here,” Daniel says. “You can’t sit back. We adapt pretty fast. It’s pretty much the only way to survive in this business, because there’s so many people that come in that want to modify everything on the menu pretty much. ‘Oh, can I have this? But minus this. Minus this. Minus this. Actually, can you put that back on and add that then add that?’ So it gets super confusing.”

“They (Chris and Daniel) don’t give up. They don’t take no for an answer. They have a good foundation. We work as a family.”

— George Daniel

As an order of their famous breakfast banana pizza is baking in the oven of Tivoli Caffe, Nancy Daniel, Chris and Daniel’s mother, is working the cash register and cheerfully asking the customers waiting for their food if they need anything else. Like most customers who go to Tivoli Caffe, Nancy knows who they are, what their names are and is interested in knowing how their days went. Her smile never leaves her face.

People come in and are greeted by either founder and father George or his wife, Nancy, and place their order for the chefs in the back kitchen. But for the Daniel family, Tivoli is more than just a restaurant that provides phenomenal service and deals.

“My mom and dad treat everyone like their sons and daughters,” Chris says. “It’s the stuff that nowadays kind of goes way off from a lot of restaurants. The whole purpose is, ‘I want to see you again.’ A lot of people shy away from that nowadays. And that’s what Daniel and I are trying to bring back.”

Tivoli Caffe opened more than three years ago when Chris, the older of the two brothers, enrolled at UC Berkeley to study and play water polo.

It was always George’s dream to open a restaurant. A place where the family business would have a close bond with the community and his children could adopt the morals of family, faith and hard work. He named the cafe after the Italian town where he took Nancy on their first date 35 years before.

Daniel and Chris were immediately put to work in the kitchen when the restaurant opened. Soon after, Daniel followed his brother’s footsteps when he went to college and also joined the Cal water polo team.

“They (Chris and Daniel) don’t give up,” George says. “They don’t take no for an answer. They have a good foundation. We work as a family. They like to eat. We enjoy eating, and what we enjoy, we’d like everybody else to enjoy. That’s very crucial for us.”

It’s 5 a.m. Daniel and Chris have only slept for three hours. But as full-time college students playing Division I water polo and helping their family start a business at the same time, there aren’t enough hours in the day for ample sleeping time.

The brothers wake up to get ready for practice, which starts at 6 a.m. and lasts until 10 a.m. After practice, both hurry to class. After class is finished in the afternoon, they rush back to Tivoli Caffe, where their services are greatly needed.

After spending the majority of the afternoon manning the kitchen, it’s time for class again. And then practice. And then back to work until closing time. After getting home late at night, they spend what little time they have left to do some last-minute studying and homework and try to get settled in bed as soon as possible before the day starts again in just a couple hours.

Chris Daniel cooks in the kitchen of Tivoli Caffe. Michael Drummond / Staff

Chris Daniel cooks in the kitchen of Tivoli Caffe. Michael Drummond / Staff

On some nights, when there is a huge catering order the next day, the Daniel brothers won’t even go back home. Instead, they just stay at the restaurant, sleep maybe an hour and take on the next day.

“It worked out … barely,” Daniel says.

The brothers made it through this busy schedule by taking pride in their work, knowing their efforts were going to the family cause. But they also had help from one of their dad’s original recipes: the banana breakfast pizza, a potassium-filled pie that mixes savory with sweet using cinnamon, cheese, brown sugar and, of course, bananas.

“I was a really big sugar fiend,” Daniel says. “So before the game, I would just turn on the pizza oven. It’s really popular. That one’s killer. I just eat that. OK, I have enough sugar in me. Next thing you know I’m in the game. Score a goal. Then go back to work.”

This lifestyle, however, wouldn’t last.

In the summer of 2013, Daniel was playing in a contest with the New York Athletic Club, a team filled with international Olympic-level players. The player lined up against Daniel was a Romanian Olympian, a player bigger than Daniel who did not hesitate to play physically.

“He kept on shoving me and randomly punching me and stupid stuff,” Daniel says.

Then, Daniel got fed up.

“I knew this one Romanian word,” Daniel says. “So, next thing you know, I’m saying this very vulgar Romanian word in his ear.”

Then, according to Daniel, the Romanian punched him in the temple, leaving Daniel with a concussion.

About six months later, in January 2014, Chris and Daniel took a trip to Idaho to help a friend move packages. But the temperature in Idaho in the winter can drop down to very dangerous levels. Levels capable of producing black ice — thin, transparent ice that is particularly slippery.

While carrying his friend’s belongings, Chris stumbled on top of a patch of black ice and landed awkwardly on his left ankle. It was broken.

Neither of the two have made it back into the pool since.

Chris’ ankle is still in recovery. Daniel, after nearly two months of failed concussion tests, was finally cleared, but the concussion has continued to cause problems.

“I just did not feel right,” Daniel says. “So I pretty much told my coach if I’m not going to be 100 percent, I don’t want to waste your time or my time. Or the team’s time.”

“Me not playing doesn’t mean anything. I still feel a part of that team, even when they’re winning games now.”

— Chris Daniel

Even though the injuries stopped them from going back into the pool and playing, it did highlight the most important value for Chris and Daniel: family.

“There are lot of factors you can’t control,” Nancy says. “God has a plan for all of us, and we’re along for the ride. And it’s up to us to work hard. He wants us to work together.”

As soon as Chris flew back from Idaho, his father sent him back to work in the restaurant. The doctor specifically stated that Chris had to keep his ankle up and not walk on it. So Chris worked the cash register.

“My dad just threw me right back into work,” Chris says. “He was like ‘You got to work your job. It builds character.’ ”

Now, neither of the Daniel brothers are listed on the water polo roster. They no longer wake up at 5 a.m. to go to practice, but that doesn’t make the workload any easier. With the restaurant growing in popularity more and more with each passing semester, the family is constantly kept busy at work.

But even though Chris and Daniel technically aren’t on the team, in a way they still are. Only now, they’re contributing in a different way.

“Me not playing doesn’t mean anything,” Chris says. “I still feel a part of that team, even when they’re winning games now.”

Instead of scoring goals and dialing up the pressure on defense, Chris and Daniel dial up the pressure in the kitchen. And their work serves people beyond the water polo community. Whenever any Cal athletic team such as water polo, gymnastics, or football needs a postgame or postpractice meal, the Daniel brothers are there.

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Daniel Daniel tosses pizza dough. Michael Drummond / Senior Staff

“They gave a lot to Cal water polo,” says coach Kirk Everist. “It’s really fun to see them thrive in there. They’re really just hard-working kids that gave a lot to our program and now are focusing on their academics and focusing on their family business. But they’re kids that we as a team and as a staff continue to be in touch with a lot. Just the other day, I was having a piece of pizza and chatting with both of them and their mom and dad.”

Daniel and Chris aren’t teammates in the pool anymore, but they’re still teammates. Only now, they’re teammates in the kitchen.

“When we have a last-minute catering, everybody becomes very focused,” Nancy says. “It’s been an honor to see them work together. Because when it gets really tough and we have a lot to get out, everyone just focuses. Marianna will do one, and Daniel will do one, and Christopher will do another. They’re just all like a finely tuned machine.”

In the past 3.5 years, Chris and Daniel have been met with all kinds of opposition. But the injuries, the 2o-plus-hour days, and the endless list of orders that always come their way haven’t stopped them from providing top-notch service to the Berkeley community.

Tivoli is basically their second home — arguably their first. If they aren’t in class, they’ll most likely be found behind the scenes, behind the counter, behind the oven, doing what they do best — working as a team.

“I want to build this place and just keep it going,” Daniel says.

“It’s awesome working here,” Chris says. “We don’t mind spending hours upon hours here, because we know it’s going to go to a good cause sooner or later. Hard work does pay off. It’s just a matter of when and how long.”

Richard Lee covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].

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