I just got the news twenty minutes ago. Ian Kleinman buzzed my cell shortly after.
"So, you're unemployed, brother," I said. "Congratulations, I guess."
"Yeah, well, not completely unemployed," Ian said, laughing. "But yeah."
Yesterday, Ian was let go from his gig as chef and chief liquid nitrogen wrangler at O's Steak and Seafood at the Westin Westminster -- a normal, boring hotel posting that he somehow managed to turn into one of the coolest jobs in the country, one where he was essentially given free rein by his corporate bosses to get weird and play around with molecular gastronomy.
I wrote about Ian and his molecular-tasting menu a couple of years ago in a huge, blow-out piece for Westword. Steven Shaw of eGullet raved about Ian and his menu when he got a chance to stop by while the International Association of Culinary Professionals was in town this past spring. And in between, Ian got to teach, he got to lecture and, most important, he got to cook--exactly what he wanted, in exactly the way he wanted.
"We did 103 tasting menus in Westminster, Colorado," he said, with no small amount of pride in his voice. Tasting menus that included everything from Guinness gelee and s'mores spring rolls to seared balsamic vinegar, frozen whiskey, food pills and grape caviar. In a restaurant that, for all intents and purposes, was nothing more than a hotel steakhouse.
But that's done now. Ian explained that, with recent changes in management, O's had been "turned into a hotel restaurant," and that wasn't something he liked. "To go from where we were to having the hamburger be the number-one seller?" he asked. That was just crazy.
"I had a feeling that my time wasn't going to be long there for about a year," he told me. And then yesterday, "I showed up, they tapped me on the shoulder, led me down to human resources..."
He was laid off, part of a round of lay-offs that was actually the second round of lay-offs to hit the hotel in the last several months.
Still, Ian isn't bitter. He isn't even angry. "That was the place that I found a different side to cooking," he said, the place where he got to teach himself to play with liquid nitrogen and make food do tricks that food was never supposed to do. It was the place that backed him when he decided to try and bring one of the most cutting-edge styles of cooking to what is essentially a business traveler's hotel in the middle of nowhere. And he's thankful for that, for every opportunity he was given. "All of it, man," he said. "And no matter what, it's all there on the blog."
That would be Ian's Food102 blog, which he began when he first started getting into molecular gastronomy. If you haven't checked it out, do: It's a more-or-less complete record of every single experiment, every single plate, every single preparation he's attempted over the last several years, complete with menus for all 103 tasting dinners. It's all there, from injectable sauces to hover bacon.
After all that, the next question was an obvious one: What's next?
"Well, I'm going to throw my kids in some piles of leaves," Ian told me. He's going to take some time. Relax. Recover. Get to know his family again. And in the meantime, he already has a gig consulting with the guys at H Burger, which is due to open sometime next year in the SugarCube building at 16th and Blake.
"It's a step away from doing the molecular stuff," he said. "There won't be a tasting menu every week."
He's also looking at doing some catering, maybe more consulting, helping out some of his friends in their kitchens. That, he figured, ought to hold him through the beginning of next year. And after that?
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"I'm working on a project," he said. And when I asked him what said project might be, exactly?
"Something fun," was all he would say. No name, no space, no details other than that it would be "anti-corporate" and that it would get him back into a place where he could be creative again.
Honestly, Ian didn't really want to talk at all about the future. Right now, he's just happy he doesn't have to make the drive to Westminster tomorrow, glad that he's got some time to hang out around the house and be with his family. "I'm the happiest I've been in a while," he said.
And for the moment, that seems to be enough.