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.
"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.
Hamilton was diplomatic. He had Savoy sit down, beers were opened, and they each discussed their particular visions for the menu, reminiscing about good meals they'd eaten elsewhere. Then Hamilton vanished upstairs. When he returned, it was with a portable grill (which he happened to be lugging around with him), his own personal raclette (a sort of automatic cheese-melter) and various fondue-related accessories. He then sent the chef scurrying back into the kitchen for ingredients while he stood there in the middle of the dining room cooking a second meal (sage chicken, herb-rubbed tenderloin done Swiss style, with cheese melted over the top) that, if the rumors are to be believed, blew Savoy's test menu away.
Savoy was gone the next day. Pham was installed shortly thereafter -- with Savoy taking over for Pham at Opal (Bite Me, April 24) and Hamilton having proved to all and sundry that even if he would later seem like a man who didn't know exactly what he wanted, he was definitely a man who knew what he liked.
What he liked was fondue. "A kind of nouveau fondue," he says. Something that people could sit down and share over drinks. Something high-end and surprising, but not high-priced or intimidating. "We were trying to meet the market and get a return on our investment," Hamilton explains, devolving momentarily into business-speak. "But you know what? Mostly, we were doing it for fun."
And I think the biggest mistake that Hamilton made -- a rookie's error for sure, but the only one of many for which he is entirely to blame -- was letting himself be talked out of a good idea that he believed in. Hamilton knew fondue. He understood it. He'd done his research. He had an idea that was new to Lodo (the closest fondue joint is La Fondue, at 1040 15th Street), and a firm, clear vision of what he wanted for his space (this would be so much more than a plain fondue joint), but he let other people tell him it was a bad one. Worse, he listened. So goodbye fondue, hello Pham.
Flash forward to August. Dollars aren't exactly, uh, flowing into the dining room (there were nights when the kitchen did ten covers), and things are beginning to fall apart. It's been my experience -- long and painfully earned -- that what separates the rookie owners from the veterans is a veteran's ability to meet doubt and trouble the way a bull does: He puts his head down, digs in deep and charges straight ahead. He doesn't freak out and change concepts at the first sign of calamity. He doesn't add a lunch buffet or a Sunday brunch or a catering wing when things start going bad, and he doesn't do away with those things if they're already there. The veteran owner simply soldiers on.
New owners do exactly the opposite: What? People aren't coming in to try our $125 prix fixe steak-and-lobster dinner? Quick! Now we're a Japanese steakhouse, so get the staff busy making origami cranes! The changes may start small (Well, maybe it was the hand soap in the bathrooms that was turning people off... ), but they gradually vacillate more and more wildly (Okay, last week's Japanese-steakhouse plan didn't work, so now we'll add a breakfast buffet and be a soul-food restaurant) until, eventually, they shake themselves right out of business.
In Hamilton's case, such a drastic end is unlikely. Luna still looks great, the hotel portion is doing well, the upstairs creperie Velocity seems mercifully untouched by these troubles, and the bar never fails to draw in the nightcrawlers. But with Flow, Hamilton's still suffering for this one early mistake, and everything that's come after has been "readjustment" in Hamilton's words, "damage control" in mine.
Before things in the kitchen turned terminal, Pham says, Hamilton offered him a deal in which he and then-general manager Brian Shorter could rent the Flow space themselves, do with it what they wanted, pay the rent, and free Hamilton up to concentrate on the hotel side of the business. After Pham and Shorter turned Hamilton down, he went looking elsewhere for restaurant groups that might be interested. Execs from Typhoon, an Asian-fusion restaurant out of Portland, Oregon, came to look at the space, and while they didn't bite, they did say it was ideally suited for an Asian restaurant.
Asian restaurant...says the first-time owner's inner monologue. Why didn't I think of that?
As Pham remembers it: "So Hamilton said, 'Duy! How about a pan-Asian menu? You can do that, right?' But I've never cooked Pan-Asian food before. I've never wanted to."
True, Pham is Asian -- Vietnamese, actually. And he's a chef. So people put two and two together and figure, "Hey, I'll bet that kid makes one mean noodle bowl." Trouble is, Pham is a French-trained chef. A young French-trained chef -- he's 29 -- but one with fifteen years of nouveau and classical experience under his belt. He's dabbled in Asian cuisines here and there, playing around with ingredients and single dishes, but that's not what he's good at. "I wouldn't know how to do it, even if I wanted to," Pham says, exasperated. "I just want to do what I know. I just want to cook. "
Responds Hamilton: "We gave him the opportunity to move on or make some radical changes. But as you probably know, he doesn't like having anything to do with Asian cuisines. It was like trying to put a square peg in a round hole." Or, more accurately, like trying to put a French chef in an Asian kitchen. So shortly after Hamilton announced his decision to go pan-Asian, concentrating on smaller plates and lower prices, Pham gave his notice. Then, shortly after Pham gave his notice, most of the rest of the kitchen put in their notices. In the last two weeks of Pham's employment, a new general manager, Scott Tallman, was brought on, insisted that nothing was going to be changing at Flow and was then summarily dismissed three days later, after a disastrous trip up to Portland, Oregon, to visit with Hamilton. And now negotiations with the management of Tuk Tuk are under way, in anticipation of the fast-casual Thai-wrap place taking over restaurant and bar operations at Luna. That sounds redundant, given that BD's Mongolian Barbecue is right next door, at 1620 Wazee Street, but according to Hamilton, Flow will not actually become a Tuk Tuk; instead, the family behind the local mini-chain will install staff in the kitchen and create a whole new board of fare only "related" to Tuk Tuk's Thai cuisine.
"Noodle bowls, tuna burgers and lasagna," Pham says, when I get him on the blower again last week. "But it's not my problem anymore, because I am gone." He sounds stressed. He sounds a little crazed. He's been talked into staying through the day because tonight is the cast party for Urinetown, and everything has to go smoothly.
But everything does not go smoothly -- and I know, because I am there to see it. A hundred people are expected -- a hundred hard-drinking press and theater people coming down off the applause high of opening night -- and they'll be drinking for three full hours, but the manager ordered only one case of white wine, and not nearly enough red or champagne. This necessitates a desperate eleventh-hour phone call to the distributor and a desperate eleventh-hour delivery to the bar. Pham starts cooking for his final night of service around noon. "I want to go out right," he says, so he does iced whole shrimp, slow-cooked prime, sides, sauces -- the whole nine. And then he starts drinking, which is understandable since it's his last night, and with a buffet, the hard work is done as soon as the Sternos are lit. And he keeps drinking. The food is fantastic, because, no matter what else is happening, the food is always fantastic when Pham is cooking, but I catch him early, out on the patio having a smoke, and he's shitfaced. As far as he's concerned, his night is over -- only it's not, because drunk or sober, a chef is on duty until the lights are out and all the chairs are on the table.
Pham goes back inside, but later I find him across the street at Dixons doing shots of Jägermeister and fielding cell-phone calls from his crew. Trays are going out, chef. What are we doing about dessert, chef? The crew is rolling in and out of the kitchen. Because no one's there to watch over them, one of the chafing dishes goes into the buffet line without a liner and starts to burn, filling the room with the smell of scorching rosemary, an aroma like low-grade pot smoke. Pham makes his way back into the kitchen, but leaves again shortly after. One of his friends steps in to fill a hole on the line and juliennes his own fingers with a chef's knife. An ambulance is called and discreetly spirits him away to the emergency room. By 11:30, the servers are short-pouring the wine just to make it through the night. By midnight, there is no one in the kitchen.
Come October 1, there will be a new crew and a new menu in place at Flow, courtesy of Tuk Tuk and the remains of Pham's former staff. Things will begin all over again. Starting September 21, Duy Pham will be back at Opal guest-chefing, doing Sunday night prix fixe dinners by reservation only. He'll jet out to Napa to do some catering, maybe teach a few classes at cooking schools around town, look for a job. "I want to pick the right place this time," he says. No more of this square-peg bullshit, no more of this Asian stuff, no more bouncing from house to house to house. He just needs to find a place where he can do his thing, where he can do what he's best at, where he can cook. If he could have anything right now, that would be it. "I want to find a house where I can relax and have some longevity," he tells me. "I want a home."
Leftovers: The Bistro Adde Brewster/Adde's/Bistro 250 space at 250 Steele Street has landed in the hands of the good folks from Seven 30 South (730 South University Boulevard). It will be another nuevo-Latino place and tequila bar, with a good name considering the space's subterranean environs: Agave Underground.
Zenga -- Tamayo owner Richard Sandoval's soon-to-open spot at 15th and Raven streets -- will give another twist to Latin food. With chef Troy Guard (formerly of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore) behind the stoves, the eatery will be trying a new sort of fusion: Latino-Asian.
If reading about Jack-n-Grill put you in the mood for more humble Latino fare, don't forget to pack your earplugs. The three-year-old eatery is expanding, and while you can't see the construction from inside, you sure can hear it outside. When all is finished (around the beginning of December, hopes owner Jack Martinez), the restaurant will sport thirty more tables, a full bar and an enclosed, heated patio.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.