By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
When word came down a couple of weeks ago that Leigh Sullivan, daughter of Jim Sullivan, was leaving her father's eponymous restaurant group (which currently consists of Ocean, Nine75 and Oscar's, and has almost as many shuttered concepts to its credit), I thought it was a little strange, but not entirely surprising. Leigh had been the Sullivan spinmeister for some time, handling a flood of nasty press during both the opening and closing of Mao (Jim's totalitarian-themed Chinese restaurant) and the sudden death of the Emogene Patisserie concept. She hadn't had an easy time of it, and I could certainly understand why she might need a break. When I talked to her shortly after she made the announcement, we made some Victoria Gotti jokes, traded a few secrets about the bad old days, and that, I figured, was that.
In the days following Leigh's departure, I learned that Sullivan Group COO and manager George Eder, who'd come over from Capital Grille, was also out. Eder had been with the Sullivan Group for more than two years — which, depending on how you look at it, was either a long tour in a bad position or a short run in a good one. "It was time for me to grow as a professional and as an individual," Eder told me when I got him on the phone, adding that there was no bad blood, no hard feelings, and that he'd talked with Jim Sullivan some time ago about leaving (his last day is slated for June 15). "The group is still very solid," Eder continued. "I promised Jim that I wouldn't leave unless everything was running smoothly."
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With Eder's notice on file, Jim Sullivan went to the top drawer to find a replacement — bringing on another veteran steakhouse guy, Dan Foster, formerly of the Palm.
After I heard about Eder, I called Leigh back to ask if his departure was just coincidence, or part of a more serious cull. Her very politic response: "Sorry. I'm no longer with the Sullivan Restaurant Group. As much as I'd like to talk to you, I can't."
Which meant I couldn't ask her about the rumors that Jim Sullivan was also shopping for a new chef to replace Sullivan Group executive chef Troy Guard — who happens to be Leigh's husband. So I called Troy, who told me that he had no earthly idea what I was talking about. "You know I'm not going to lie to you," Guard said. "I'm not going anywhere."
Really? Then why were Eder and Jim Sullivan putting in calls to guys like Ian Kleinman (a former Sullivan Group soldier who'd taken his leave about a year ago), asking whether they'd be interested in coming on in Guard's place?
A few days later, I got a call from Guard, who said he wanted to talk. "I gave Jim three months' notice," he began. "Starting June 1."
I asked Guard when, exactly, he'd given his notice. "Look," he replied, "we'd been talking for a long time about this and that. I'm looking to do my own thing, and even with Jim as a partner, it wasn't my own thing, okay? At the end of the day, he's still the boss and I'm not. And I know I'm being kind of politic about this, but this is a family thing. And you know how it is with friends and family. No matter what happens, they're still your friends and family."
"But you are leaving?" I asked.
"Yes. Three months is what I thought I owed Jim. By the end of the summer, I'm going to be gone."
"Can you tell me why? What made you decide it was time to move on?"
"It's just time for me to do my own thing."
"Okay, but now with Leigh gone and George gone and you gone, isn't that kind of gutting the group?"
Guard paused, apparently long enough to come up with an appropriately tactful answer to that. "Look," he said. "To me, we were the heart and soul of these places. It's our butts that are in here every day. It's our blood. It's our tears. It's our work and sweat that make this place rock and roll."
"And now you're all gone."
Oh, but wait. Jim Sullivan had a rather different take on the sudden surge in high-level resignations at the Sullivan Group. When I called him on Monday afternoon (after several conversations with former employees, current employees and everyone mentioned above) to get his comment on all the above-the-line losses — but in particular, about the loss of Guard — he told me: "I was unaware of Troy leaving."
"I think you're reporting on rumors here, Jason. I don't know who you heard this from, but — "
"Troy told you that?"
According to Jim, Guard (who is a partner at Nine75 and remains one — at least for now) had expressed interest in doing "a deal of his own that I would support and invest in." But as far as Jim was willing to admit, Guard wasn't going anywhere. Eder, he said, was only "on a six-month sabbatical" and would be back, "probably to open the Nine75 in Scottsdale." As for Kleinman (who is not the only chef that the Sullivan Group has approached), Jim explained that he was merely being looked at to replace the Oscar's chef who'd also bailed out of his post in the last week or so. And Leigh?