Movers and fixers
There are reasons certain chefs can't seem to stay put.
“I’m not going to move. No, this is it. This is the place I want to stay, to retire, to be there, to enjoy my life.” Those were Dudley Nieto’s words in May 2008, on the opening of Eivissa, his ambitious Old Town tapas restaurant. Nieto had acquired a reputation for never staying in one place for too long—between Chicago (Adobo Grill, Zapatista, Xel-Ha, Zocalo) and New York (Rosa Mexicano, Dos Caminos), he’s opened nearly a dozen restaurants in the past decade—but he was adamant about Eivissa being his permanent home.
Two months ago, Nieto and Eivissa parted ways.
As restaurants rapidly open and close, it’s common for chefs to scurry from one to the next. But some chefs seem to have made a career of restaurant-hopping. They lend a hand to friends, pay the bills with consulting projects, step in to “fix” a failing restaurant. And then they leave (whether willingly or not) as quickly as they arrived, leaving an indelible mark on the restaurant—and the city’s restaurant scene.
So why’d Nieto disappear this time? In contrast to the positive reception for the now-closed Xel-Ha, Eivissa’s reviews were a train wreck. For Nieto, this move—and the many that have preceded it—bespeak a personal pride. “I believe in the integrity of the chef, and when that is affected, you have to make a decision,” Nieto says. “Our views of the restaurant in the long term changed,” he explains, referring to the owners. He chalks much of that shift up to the way the recession has changed diners’ habits. Now he’s back to his old ways, revamping the menu at San Gabriel (which he opened in 2004), consulting on projects in New York and Philadelphia and planning a small, regional Mexican, street-food restaurant.
When a chef moves, something considerable is often left behind: a menu. And a kitchen team with varying degrees of fluency in carrying it out. “The basis…of Adobo Grill, Zapatista, Rosa Mexicano, Dos Caminos and San Gabriel…is my menus. In one part, I feel proud,” he says, but “in another way, I think sometimes people don’t realize…these are recipes I brought from my people.” John Manion, who recently left Goose Island Brewpub after revamping its menu, says of leaving his signature pork sliders and rabbit rillettes behind, “I have mixed feelings…[but] it’s not really proprietary.”
Since the 2007 closing of Mas, the Nuevo Latino restaurant he ran for ten years, Manion has been known nearly as much for stove-hopping as for the actual food he turns out. “It was never my goal to be a restaurant doctor,” says Manion. “Ideally, a month after we closed Mas, I would have been a chef somewhere else.” Instead, he was brought on for a six-month stint opening Old Oak Tap, where he was tasked with realizing the owners’ “very specific” vision for bar food. He helped reconceptualize Milk & Honey Bake Shop into Cipollina, and then he was plucked to take over the kitchen at Goose Island. “Goose Island was definitely ‘fixing,’” Manion explains—but it wasn’t as extensive a menu overhaul as he had anticipated, due in part, Manion says, to the 20-year-old pub’s established culture. “The reality is you have a lot of people who go there who are addicted to nacho cheese,” he says. “So while I can improve and upgrade the food there, it would never be exactly what I wanted it to be.” Thus when his friend Howard Natinsky asked him to come on board at Branch 27, Manion was all for it—as long as he could start from scratch.
Manion’s and Nieto’s principles are a luxury afforded to a small group of well-established, well-connected chefs—yet neither would claim there’s much glamour in the lack of job security and creative control in chefsulting. Andy Motto is another chef whose name has popped up unexpectedly—and for brief periods—around town in the past few years, and the frequent movement has hardly been elective. “I always thought Le Lan would be my home forever,” says Motto, who opened Arun Sampanthavivat and Roland Liccioni’s restaurant as the chef de cuisine in 2004. Three years later, “the owners and I weren’t seeing eye to eye on the future of the restaurant,” and Motto felt it was time to leave. (He was replaced by Bill Kim.) Experienced but out of a job and “pretty well beat down,” Motto found work as a consultant for Art Smith’s Table 52, and he cooked part-time at Old Town Brasserie. When Liccioni left OTB for Miramar, Motto stepped into his shoes for five “interesting” months. “I thought I was doing some really good food there,” he says, but he soon found himself, once again, out of a job. After answering a Craigslist ad for an open chef position at Quince (the restaurant formerly known as Trio), Motto took his liquid-cauliflower ravioli and replaced Pete Balodimas at the Evanston inn. “I’ve been nothing but supported here,” he says. “Professionally, this is a whole new feeling for me.” Still, there’s a tentativeness in Motto’s voice, and he worries that despite a four-star review from TOC, no other critics have reviewed the restaurant. However much he loves calling Quince his home, perhaps Motto’s already too keenly aware that nothing last forever.