By Gretchen Kurtz
By Cafe Society
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Another one bites the dust: Okay, so I gave the guy a break when he did it at Dandelion, but now uber-chef Kevin Taylor has gone and closed the doors on Nicois (815 17th Street) without any warning to his staff, dropping the hammer just after the big ball dropped on the new year. "Nobody knew we were going to close," reports one newly ex-employee. "None of the staff knew. Not even the executive chef. I don't even think the managers knew."
According to peeved sources, the restaurant -- which had gone through a number of incarnations under Taylor, starting out as Brasserie Z, then becoming Zenith (a resurrection of the restaurant that debuted in the Tivoli in 1987) and finally emerging as Nicois (let's not count the week that it was spelled Nicoise) in August 2001 -- was full for New Year's Eve festivities. Everyone had been called into work, and it was a busy night -- more than 250 covers -- so everyone was making money. Taylor was on hand for the countdown and a champagne toast with his staff, during which he told everyone what a great job they had done in the last year -- and then, sometime shortly after the last table had been cleared and the last stem glass drained, the entire staff was ordered into a "quick meeting."
Says one staffer: "They called everyone into a private dining room that was empty right then, and Kevin made his speech. He said, 'This is it, the last night at Nicois.'"
32156 Castle Court
Evergreen, CO 80439
Region: West Denver Suburbs
And that really was the end. On January 1, the doors remained closed and the lights off; a message on the answering machine thanked people for their patronage over the years and apologized for any inconvenience the closure might cause.
And it's causing plenty: Nicois had been taking reservations for seatings well into January, and there were work schedules for the first two weeks of 2003 posted on the wall. Some staffers report they'd even been told not to take December 31 off if they wanted to keep their jobs.
"That's what's not right about it," one former employee says. "Through December, I had job offers from other restaurants, because everyone was getting busy, you know? But I told them I couldn't take it because I already had a job and couldn't leave without warning. So why should he get to do this? I mean, that's the way things work, right? Two weeks' notice?"
Actually, Taylor did one better this time around. All staff -- floor and kitchen -- at the late, great Nicois have been offered jobs at his other properties, Taylor says, with most of them going to jou jou (in the Hotel Teatro at 1106 14th Street), and Kevin Donovan, Nicois's executive chef, replacing Michael Wood in the top spot at Palettes at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway).
Does this mean that other staffers at the remaining Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group eateries -- Palettes, jou jou and Restaurant Kevin Taylor (also in the Hotel Teatro) -- need to watch their backs if they want to keep their jobs? "It's natural attrition," Taylor says. "Some staff will be leaving after the holidays on their own, some will be getting their notice." He'd been hoping for a better fourth quarter, Taylor explains, but business at Nicois was down 25 percent. By December, he knew the restaurant was going to get the ax -- and he held key positions open at his other restaurants in anticipation of filling them with those left jobless on January 1. After his announcement of Nicois's closing, he adds, "the staff was very supportive."
But for those who spoke with me after Taylor's Night of the Long Knives, "supportive" is not a word that leaps to mind. "Wary" is a better description. "Pissed off" better still. You can't blame employees for feeling that way, but neither can you blame Taylor for closing down a losing property.
"You grow when you're young," Taylor says. "You expand. And then when times get tight..." His voice trails, leaving the inevitable end to the sentence hanging in the air. When times are tight, you shrink. You conserve. You cull the herd.
When I ask why he'd decided -- again -- to surprise his staff with bad news, he says simply, "I've been through it before." He's referring to a similar announcement in early November when he shuttered the struggling Dandelion (1011 Walnut Street in Boulder), inspiring anger and a mutiny by the kitchen crew, which walked off the job before the final weekend. No such fireworks attended this closure. "People were crying," a staffer says. "But I think people expected it. After Dandelion, maybe they saw it coming."
For his part, Taylor concludes: "This is it. I'm forty years old. I've been doing this for 26 years. I no longer have any restaurants that are losing money, and business is actually up at the hotel properties. I'm not looking for any more expansion."
Just a taste:While Taylor retrenches, other chefs continue to strut their stuff. At Q's in the Hotel Boulderado (2115 13 Street in Boulder), chef John Platt puts together a different five-course tasting menu every night. At Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue), chef Marlo Hix prepares a five-course tasting menu every Thursday and Friday for $55, $75 with wine pairing (reservations strongly recommended). Tante Louise's former chef, Duy Pham, offers a personalized tasting menu at the four-month-old Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue, formerly Radex), where he'll come to your table, speak with you and then create a unique spread designed just for your tastes. Everything about Pham's deal is hand-tailored to each diner's predilections rather than pulled off the regular menu, and for the privilege of this personal attention, all you have to do is ask nicely and fork over $65 ($105 if you want Pham to pair wines with each course).