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Last Man Standing

Meat and potatoes of Denver’s restaurant scene.

Remember The Restaurant, the reality show that crashed Rocco DiSpirito's career? Remember all the pissing and moaning about how Rocco seemed to spend all his time zipping around on his Vespa and tongue-kissing B-list celebs while his restaurant fell to pieces? Yeah, well, as anyone who's had any dealings with those upper echelons of celebrity chefdom can tell you, the real un-reality to The Restaurant was not how little time Rocco spent in his own kitchen, but how much.

When you've reached a certain level of fame -- a level where your name alone is enough to assemble the money, attract the staff and get a restaurant open in a market like Manhattan -- you're no longer a chef, you're a pusher, and your product is your name. Book signings, Today appearances, Food Network clusterfucks and charity events -- those are the job. Meanwhile, making the meatballs gets left to your team of presumably well-trained prep mercenaries.

Richard Sandoval is in the super-chef club. Six cities, nine restaurants, hundreds of employees -- that puts him in the big league. But so far, he's the only celebrity chef to open a serious restaurant in Denver -- three of them, actually, including La Sandía, which I review this week. And this prompts the question: Why haven't other big names come to town?

Closed Location

Imagine that you're one of those multi-unit chef/owners, sitting in your offices in Manhattan. You're surrounded by paperwork -- P&Ls on your various outposts, stock and labor numbers, one-sheet reports on the previous night's business that tell you how many tables got turned on the upper westside, the bar numbers from San Francisco, the latest bad news from your boîte in Madrid, whatever. You've got three months' worth of Gourmet and Food & Wine stacked up, galleys from your new cookbook that you have to look over, a slew of requests from charities wanting a piece of you. It's Wednesday, so there's the New York Times food section open on your desk; food sections from the Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago papers, maybe the Times of London or whatever paper Americans read in Paris, are stacked up near the door. You've got three calls on hold from high-volume purveyors who want your business and your manager at the new L.A. bistro on another crying about a staff walkout last night.

Still, today is a good day. For months, you've been working to put together the money for a new restaurant. You've got a solid concept, a blooded staff poised to come up through your other outlets (which is what caused the troubles in L.A. in the first place -- none of them were ready, and now they feel overlooked and abandoned), a menu that you just know is going to blow everyone away, and last night you finally convinced your silent partners -- the money guys in the expensive suits and sensible haircuts who wouldn't know a gaufrette from a gelée but can read business plans and F&B numbers like voodoo women seeing the future in spit and chicken blood -- that the time is right to expand again. All those guys care about is the balance sheet; they expect a return on their investments -- a dependable, regular return right after month six. In a way, getting in bed with them is worse than just taking that friend's advice and throwing in with one of the big restaurant groups, with their impersonal crowds of shareholders or mobs of small-time investors. The restaurant groups can take a hit now and then and still recover, and the shareholders each own only a little piece of you. But your guys? They know where you live...

Anyway, hands were shaken, and suddenly you have a nice chunk of development capital available: $2.5 million. Not a huge chunk, but enough to get the job done. You hope.

Today's business? Finding a home for your new restaurant. You've already got Manhattan covered with two addresses: upper west and lower east. L.A. will take care of itself, provided your manager can talk the staff back into the kitchen. That trampy starlet OD'ing in the bathroom two months back was tragic, sure, but the press was great. The bistro in San Francisco? It's been almost a year, but you're starting to get some traction. Madrid is a disaster, but who could have predicted how offended the Spanish would get over a fusion-paella restaurant?

If this were two years ago, Las Vegas would have been the natural choice for a new spot. But now everyone is in Las Vegas and no one is doing all that well. Miami is hot, but Miami has always been hot. There's D.C., of course. A lot of guys are moving into D.C. Big money, big crowds, good supply chain. Bouncing between New York and D.C. is easy enough -- not like flying to Madrid. You've always sorta wanted a place in Tokyo, but with $2.5 million, Tokyo is so far out of your price range that it's not worth thinking about. Philadelphia might work, though. It's almost as good as D.C. Better, in some ways.

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