Group of One
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."
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?
"It's hard for family to work together," Jim said, grudgingly.
In any event, as of now, no new chef has been hired by the Sullivan Group. Kleinman said no last week; he already has a pretty cool gig as chef de cuisine at O's Steak and Seafood at the Westin Westminster. As for Guard, he's already on the prowl for a space of his own, a concept of his own, something that will let him be the boss, free and clear. He was planning on breaking the news to his guys the night after we talked. He's trying hard to make the transition as painless as possible.
"These are my guys, you know? My comrades. And if I'm going to war, these guys are coming with me," Guard said. "No one gets left behind."
Weird science: Had he taken the Sullivan gig, Kleinman would have been involved with three active restaurants and another in the works, a possible hotel/golf course/resort in Mexico, maybe another hotel in Cherry Creek. But you know what Sullivan couldn't offer Kleinman?
"Liquid nitrogen," Kleinman told me, a slightly crazed, mad-scientist quiver of maniacal excitement giving his voice a giggling edge. "I just got my liquid nitrogen in yesterday..."
Liquid nitrogen, air compressors, bags of isomalt, seaweed alginate and vats of calcium chloride: These are the tools that Kleinman is using to work some very serious culinary magic at O's. And he knows that without the power (and money and tolerance and need for culinary theatrics) of a major hotel chain behind him, he probably wouldn't get to play with the stuff that is currently defining his approach to cuisine.
Is it molecular gastronomy? Yes. Have I said in the past that molecular gastronomy is a chump's game — more theater than cookery, more about ego than cuisine? Again, yes. And I have fallen in and out of love with the work of Ferran Adria from El Bulli, Grant Achatz from Alinea, Hervé This (who literally wrote the book on molecular gastronomy with Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor) and the myriad other practitioners so many times that I can't even remember who I like and who I don't anymore. Popcorn made with lasers, bacon on a swing, extruded noodles made of God knows what, and all the other alchemical flummery of chem-lab cuisine alternately gets me hot and leaves me cold — sometimes chafing against my classicist predilections, sometimes speaking straight to my inner geek and making me want to chuck all this writing bullshit, dig out my whites and buy myself a laser of my own.
But something Kleinman said while we were talking brought all of the science, the slide rules, the bizarre, crossing geometries of chemistry and cuisine out of the laboratory and into the dining room where they belong. "We all know how to cook," he told me. "We all know what good flavors are. It's just cool to have all these new techniques and cooking mediums — to have the chance to learn all this stuff — because it brings some of the mystery back, you know? I mean, today, everybody thinks they can cook. They watch the Food Network, and they see chefs working, and now they all think they can do it themselves, that anyone can go into any restaurant and critique it. But with this, now I'm doing things that not everyone can do — something mysterious or magical. And the biggest thrill, the thing I want to do, is to walk it out and just have people go 'Wow!'"
The night before we spoke, Kleinman's wow had been isomalt lightbulbs garnishing his crispy coconut ice cream: tubes of isomalt, blown like glass, rising above the dessert and just waiting to be shattered, to rain down in pieces atop the ice cream. And with liquid nitrogen now in hand, Kleinman will be able to do instant sorbets, tableside liquid-nitrogen ice cream, flash-frozen quenelles and whatever else Mr. Wizard gets it in his head to do. "Everyone knows what a grilled steak looks like," he said. "Everyone barbecues. But not everyone gets to do this. And you know, some of the old guys, the old-school cooks, they say, 'Oh, this is all going to go away. This is just a fad.' But I don't think so."
Kleinman learned some of his new tricks from the same El Bulli cookbooks that I raved about five months ago ("Cook's Shelf," January 4). "I pick one recipe a day," he told me. On the regular menu, his smoked sturgeon served with a green-apple-and-onion salad, dressed with carrot and cardamom caviar, is a trick straight out of Adria's playbook, with cardamom-spiced carrot juice mixed with alginate and dripped with an eyedropper into a bath of calcium chloride to form tiny caviar pearls. Other inspirations came from a two-week stint down in Fort Lauderdale, where the Starwood chain (which owns the Westin Westminster) sent Kleinman to help with the opening of the new St. Regis there.
"This shit was so cool," Kleinman said, describing the tartare app of tomato gelée, cumber gelée, tuna tartare, poached shrimp, micro watercress and sriracha foam. "It was in a small tube about one inch long sitting on a small block of ice. You just pick it up and suck it out. The other dish was deconstructed Coke using liquid nitrogen to make the bubbles."
You, too, can check out Kleinman's weird science at the Westin, where five nights a week at Unwind, Kleinman and his guys give cooking demos for the guests and anyone else who happens to wander by. Right now he's doing oysters — how to shuck 'em, how to eat 'em and what to drink while you're snacking. The Unwind events have been going for the past several months, and Kleinman can't even imagine what he'll be able to do in the future as he becomes more proficient and better versed in the techniques of molecular gastronomy. But in the meantime, he'll be doing liquid-nitrogen demos with the freezy juice that just came in, more tricks with isomalt, more caviar experiments — all the magic and mystery and applied chemistry of the modern kitchen.
Leftovers: For culinary expertise that's a little less Blade Runner than Kleinman's Unwind demos, Yvonne Lo — formerly of the restaurant Y.Lo Epicure in Cherry Creek — is giving Asian fusion cooking classes at the commercial kitchen at 3462 Larimer Street where she now runs her Y.Lo Epicure catering operation. Lo was born and raised in Hong Kong, came to the States about twelve years ago, and has been cooking for more than a decade. "I'm not a chef," she told me, "but I've been in the industry a long time. I'm really concentrating on the food here, not all the fluff around it."
The hook for her classes is that every recipe she uses — from black-pepper beef and Peking duck wraps to candied and caramelized sesame bananas — is constructed from ingredients that can be found in a regular grocery store. "Approachable" is the word Lo uses, describing her food as "American cuisine with an Asian influence." Right now she's offering one class a month, on the second Wednesday, with the next one scheduled for June 13. Details are available at www.yloepicure.com.
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