The most shocking news last week was not that Sean Kelly (of Aubergine, the Biscuit, Clair de Lune and Somethin' Else) had taken a job dunking jalapeño poppers for Mark Berzins and his Little Pub/Little Cantina Company (which owns Senor Rita's, Salty Rita, two Spot Bar & Grill locations, the Three Dogs Tavern, the Irish Hound, the Elm, the Firehouse Bar and Grill, Wyman's No. 5 and Don's Mixed Drinks), turning in his fine-dining card in exchange for a steady paycheck, trading small plates and French/ Mediterranean influences for bar food.
No, the most surprising thing was that the notoriously unplugged Kelly now has a cell phone. And a laptop computer. And an e-mail address. This is the same guy who refused to put a credit-card machine inside Clair de Lune, who had communicated with the outside world (read: suppliers and purveyors) almost exclusively by fax machine, and then only grudgingly. Kelly's not quite a Luddite, but let's just say that I always had the impression that if he could somehow do all of his cooking over an open-pit fire with entrees hung on the end of a pointy stick, he would've tossed his six-burner out on the curb as well. So for Kelly to get a cell and a computer is kind of like a cat going out and buying a spaceship.
Still, when I wanted to talk to Kelly about what has to be one of the biggest jack-moves of the past year, I was able to do so because he has a fucking cell phone.
"Jason, my good man!" he barked into the phone, sounding happy, relaxed and at ease with his decision to take on a new gig. Kelly is now executive chef for all the pubs and restaurants flying the Berzins flag -- though "executive chef" might be stretching it a bit. Currently, he's working out of the office and commissary kitchen located at Senor Rita's (5007 East Colfax Avenue), where most (but not all) of the food for the different operations is prepped, packed and shipped. And he's having fun. Seriously, fun.
When I asked how all this had come down, he told me it had happened the way everything happens in this business -- over coffee, on the loading dock, by the back door. In fact, it was not unlike how he surrendered his Somethin' Else address (1313 East Sixth Avenue) in November to the folks who will soon reopen it as Fruition ("Change of Plans," October 26). "Mark lived right around the corner from Somethin' Else," Kelly explained. "So I'd see him. I'd see him at the coffee shop. This job actually came together about three days after I closed, and we wanted to keep it quiet for a little while."
Which they did, until last week.
"It's been a growing experience, certainly," Kelly continued. "It's different. But when I was closing the restaurant, it was like, 'At this point, what else am I going to accomplish?' I wanted a new challenge, because that's what this is all about, right? Plus, this job gives me time to see my family. I have nights, weekends. I always have an hour sometime in the day where I can get away and have lunch somewhere. And, not like being an owner, you walk out the door and it's done. You don't take it home with you."
Right now, Kelly's primary responsibility is improving the food at all of the company's outlets (except Don's, which doesn't really have food), bringing costs in line and making sure the people get fed and leave satisfied. In the future, he'll be adding to menus, bringing a little more innovation. "Putting it out and making the customer happy is what matters, right? No matter what. That's true at any restaurant," he said. "Not for nothing, but I really feel like I'm helping. And really, this was a restaurant group that needed help. I think everyone knew that. Mark said that to me. He was honest about it right from the start, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to work with him. A little improvement every day. That's all you can ask for, right?"
Well, that and a cell phone.
French twist: Sean Kelly isn't the only big-name chef who recently found himself without a kitchen. Eric Roeder cooked his last shift at the Lure (1434 Blake Street) on January 13, then turned the line and the big hat over to his replacement, Jeremy Roosa, and hit the pavement.
"We had plans for a long time to phase Eric out," said co-owner Johnny Coast when I got him on the phone. "There's no ill will; Eric is a friend of mine. But you know, we wanted to open big here with a big-name chef. He helped us through those first couple months. But Eric's deal is Eric's deal."
And "Eric's deal" is the heavy, classical French food for which he's been known around town for years, particularly at the nearby Bistro VendÔme, food that apparently didn't work at the Lure. "Our crowd here, it's younger," Coast explained. "They're more health-conscious. Eric did this heavy, rich, decadent food with all the heavy sauces. Jeremy is a little more our vibe, more hip."
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Hip, in this case, meaning not only well-trained (having done time at Q's, L'Atelier, Black Pearl and Rioja), but willing to do fusion: bar sashimi, Cuban scallops over plantains, international appetizers. Coast told me that Roosa's stamp should be on half the menu by February, with the spring menu representing a complete change. "It'll be high-end. A little more international. Not so much French," he promised.
And in the meantime, the Lure is still offering a 50 percent SIN discount to all service-industry employees on both drinks and grub, good at all hours except happy hour, every day of the week. The way Coast sees it, the deal works better than traditional advertising, because food people know food people, and food people talk. Offering half-drink prices, he figures, should at least get restaurant crews through the door.
But will they remember where they were?