Sunday, January 07, 2007

Behind the kitchen doors

A good friend knowing I am always looking for content sent me a line to the following article out of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. I have actually eaten at one of the restaurants mentioned, "Big E's Soul Food" once. It was the best soul food I have had North of the Mason-Dixon Line. I met the chef, Eric "Big E" Allen, and he was about as wide as he was tall, but man could he cook!! I told him if I ever came back I was going to make him teach me how to smoke my own meats so they would turn out as good as his were.

Food fights: A gastronomic soap opera in the Twin Cities

While you're nibbling on seared scallops at your local high-end eatery, a soap opera -- replete with backstabbing, burnout, perhaps even burglary -- might be unfolding in the kitchen.

When Stewart Woodman was named by Food & Wine magazine as one of the nation's best new chefs last June in Aspen, he thought it odd that his prestigious award didn't mention the name of the restaurant where he worked.

The editors at Food & Wine were simply responding to the new reality of an increasingly volatile business: These days, many top chefs have either quit or been fired by the time they pick up their hardware.

Within months, between his appearance on the cover of Food & Wine and a Wall Street Journal profile, Woodman would face the same fate: He was fired Oct. 24 by the owners of Five Restaurant, a year-old critics' darling in south Minneapolis.

Such ignominy is visiting talented Twin Cities chefs more often, underscoring the uncertainty of today's national restaurant scene. Thanks in part to the popularity of cutthroat reality-TV food shows, chefs have risen to the level of news anchors in faux-celebrity rankings. And more than ever, competition and bottom-line thinking run the show.

The resulting brouhahas make the food fight in "Animal House" look like a scrapbooking session. While you're picking at the duck ragu or raving over the pan-seared Star Prairie trout in the dining area of your favorite eatery, "As the Stomach Turns" may be playing out in the kitchen.

Court files show that over the past few years, at least two well-known Minneapolis chefs were arrested (Kevin Cullen and Eric "Big E" Austin), and sexual-harassment claims have been filed against local restaurant principals, along with an allegation of a basement gay-sex dungeon, at least two restraining orders and uncounted lawsuits.

Liens worth $100,000 were placed on one restaurant within months of opening, and the owner blamed its eventual demise on the homeless. One chef served time in the county workhouse for stealing from his restaurant, while another allegedly punched an owner in the mouth.

The nature of the beast(s)

Working in restaurants never has been for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach or the thin of skin. Long hours, demanding customers and difficult co-workers are generally accompanied by middling paychecks. There are legendary tales of stress-relieving after-hours revelry among restaurant workers, and a roll call of those who have gone through rehab would be longer than any wine list in town.

"On any given night, pretty much in any restaurant, somebody is walking out of there that got lambasted," said restaurateur Michael Morse, who formerly owned un deux trois and will open Landmarc Grill early next year.

In keeping with its patina of celebrity, the industry is double-stuffed with egos and attitude.

"There are lots of young people and raging hormones," said Phil Roberts, the high-profile owner of seven area restaurants, including Manny's and Chino Latino. He said that he pines for "a machine about the size of my bedroom that could run restaurants."

Hiring high-quality workers is made tougher by the quantity needed, Roberts said, increasing the likelihood of choosing poorly at even the best-paying spots.

Morse estimated that at a typical high-end restaurant, "the kitchen crew might have 10 people in it. I'm sure there are six or seven who are really committed to it and love it, and then there's three or four mutts that are constantly sticking their fingers in the wheels."

The different mind-sets and the intensity of the work often boil over into harsh words, but rarely violence, most sources said. "You don't see people throwing things at each other so much as someone taking a plate and breaking it on the floor," Morse said. "When customers hear that sound coming from the kitchen, that's usually what's happened."I've seen someone get beaten with a stick in [a kitchen in] Paris," said Woodman, who admitted that poor numbers and management style led to his firing. "I don't think you could get away with doing that here."

Often, restaurateurs' penchant for building mini-empires exacerbates the problems.

"When you spread yourself thin and surround yourself with good people, it works. You hide your faults," said restaurateur David Fhima. "When you don't. ... "

Owners vs. chefs

Bad behavior isn't always confined to behind the scenes. On Valentine's Day 2006, two patrons at Five were dissatisfied with their entrees and sent them back to the kitchen, only to have a sheepish waitress return and say that the chef (Woodman) would not accept them. (When asked to comment, Woodman chuckled and said, "Something along those lines happened, yes, and that's all I have to say about it.")

Bruce (Buzz) Dachis, an original investor in Five, also acknowledged that such incidents happened.

"Some people have good people skills, some don't," said Dachis. "Stewart is an extremely creative talent, no question. But maybe he's lacking a little in other areas. There's some volatility."

The past decade has seen an exponential growth in high-end restaurants, and at most of them, the chefs see themselves as creative virtuosos. But, as Morse notes, "there are certain chefs who are truly artists, and there are some who just have artistic temperaments."

Morse added that as an owner, he would "never again be in a position where I'm dealing with [a] lunatic chef -- unless they had an equal amount of equity." Which makes sense: When the chef doesn't have a sizable ownership stake, that often means two large egos (owner and chef) are at the top of that particular food chain. Inevitably, heads butt -- and sometimes roll.

In one particularly nasty contretemps, Bobino owner Chris Paddock and chef Marianne Miller's four-month union produced a bitter lawsuit larded with accusations of sex, lies and recriminations (see sidebar).

Another chef who has had his share of fracases with owners, Eric Austin (Big E's, Soul City Supper Club), said there is often an unbridgeable rift between the creative talent and the money.

"Every [investment] dollar isn't necessarily a good dollar, and sometimes you find you made a deal with the devil," he said.

When one former financial partner tried to get Austin to teach his cooking style to family members, "I said, 'I see what's going on here, dude,' " said Austin, playing Dudley Do-Right to his perceived Snidely Whiplash. "The only thing missing was the handlebar mustache and the train."

Dachis, a successful real estate investor who got involved in food "because I was bored," doesn't hesitate when asked if he'd invest in restaurants again.

"No, I wouldn't," he said. "I like to keep my financial house in order, and flushing money down the toilet is not consistent with that."

Fortunately for foodies, chefs are a resilient lot -- and there's almost always a landing spot for the talented ones.

"Right now, I take a lot of inspiration from the career of Thomas Keller," Morse said. "He was on the cover of Food & Wine as a best new chef, and I think he was fired from five jobs between that time and when he opened the French Laundry."

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702 Bill Ward • 612-673-7643 •

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briliantdonkey said...

Rather interesting, and for someone who has been in the F&B biz for years, not the LEAST bit surprising.Artistic moodiness,,,,,sounds like about as good of a way as any to describe some of the chefs I have come across over the years.


Lobster Boy said...

That is, perhaps, one of the only benefits in working in a soulless corporate chain - no moody chef.

Lobster Boy