By Philip Poston
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To recap the action thus far: Duy Pham -- the chef who spent several years working the burners at Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax Avenue), then shocked the hell out of everyone with his amazing plates at Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), then shocked us again this past spring with a sudden jump to top-dog position at Flow, the quasi-restaurant and lounge at Luna Hotel (1612 Wazee Street) -- has gone and done it again. As was reported here (and everywhere else) last week, Pham gave notice to Luna owner John Hamilton. And as of last Thursday morning, Flow was Pham-less.
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"I gave up a lot to come work at this place," Pham tells me, his voice calm, his sentences clipped and uncharacteristically professional. "I really wanted to make this work. Despite all the rumors, I had no intention to quit. I wanted to avoid quitting, but at the end, I knew there was just no way it was going to work."
But that's only the short version of this story: Creative differences, contrasting concepts, taking the restaurant in a new direction -- spend any time in the business and you'll hear those phrases tossed around as often as a divorce-court judge hears irreconcilable differences, because everyone in the restaurant world wants you to think their relationships always end with a firm handshake and a fond fare-thee-well. No one ever wants to talk about the artistic snit he got himself into, the hard words, the apron torn off in anger and thrown in somebody's face. No, it's always a misunderstanding or conflict of vision that ends a partnership -- never an actual argument, never a bloody dog-pile in the parking lot.
"I want you to know that it wasn't a huge fight," Pham says carefully. "There was no huge blowup. John just wanted to take the place in a new direction."
But there's more to it than that. Lots more. Perhaps the biggest factor leading to this oh-so-politic parting of the ways was that Pham never really had an actual restaurant to cook for. What sold him on going to Luna in the first place was the concept of making Flow -- a space described to him as a lounge that served food -- into a real restaurant. "Going into this, I didn't expect it to be like a nightclub," Pham explains. And when I ask why he thought that -- considering that the place he walked into on his first day sure looked like a nightclub -- he says simply, "Because the owners told me it wasn't going to be like a nightclub."
But no restaurant separate from the lounge/nightclub ever emerged. The owners "never named the restaurant," Pham notes. They never advertised the space as a restaurant, never had a sign. "They never even called it a restaurant." If would-be diners somehow figured out that there was a restaurant downstairs from the street-level bar and were willing to brave the gauntlet of stiletto-heeled, leather-clad, cooler-than-thou hipsterati who seemed to own the place most nights, there was no reservation system. "And that's tough," Pham says.
"Flow was designed to be a dual product," responds Hamilton, "but never designed to be a full-blown restaurant." When he hired Pham, that possibility was discussed -- but with the caveat that Pham's cuisine would have to prove it could support such a concept. "When we met with Duy, we all acknowledged that this may or may not work," he continues. "We were taken by his charm. You know, the pedigree he came with. Duy came to us and said he'd left Opal, and we were kind of mesmerized."
But Hamilton quickly determined that building a place around Pham wouldn't work. "We were lucky we didn't name it," he says. "That was a good move." Because if Hamilton had branded a restaurant specifically for Pham, that restaurant would now be closed, the ovens cold, all the lights turned off. "As a new owner, you know you're going to have to make some adjustments for the market," Hamilton says, sounding altogether less upset by the loss of his name chef than I thought he'd be. "We got a good start, but finally the food was looked at as kind of...I don't know the word. Frou-frou? This was not an inexpensive kitchen to run. Duy was expensive; he had sous chefs and pastry chefs. And if people had been coming back for the food, that would've been great. But they were not coming back for the food."
There's this story about Hamilton that predates Luna's opening, back when Kevin Savoy was still set to be the chef. Hamilton had come to town to test Savoy's proposed menu. He and some of the hotel's management had a little sit-down in the downstairs dining room while Savoy brought out maybe half a dozen courses for them to taste. Granted, the menu was still in flux at this point, the kitchen was still being staffed and stocked, but this was it -- a test dinner for the owner -- and the way I hear it, Savoy's food was good, but a long way from great.
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