Several months ago, Brian Laird, who'd been spearheading the burners at Barolo Grill for more than a decade, parted ways, amicably, with Barolo owner Blair Taylor and his venerable Italian restaurant. Laird took a few weeks off to soak up the sun in Hawaii and mull over a new offer -- specifically, to command the kitchen of Russo's Kitchen + Tavern, a new restaurant that was opening at the Vallagio at Inverness, a south suburban retail, restaurant and loft development that's the vision of Peter Kudla, the COO of Metropolitan Homes. At the time, Kudla told me that he was "giving Brian the ability and opportunity to do whatever he wants...and the opportunity to feel the passion -- the juice -- and he can get as creative as he wants."
As "creative as he wants," just as long as Laird adhered to Kudla's silly quirks, stamping his menu with Kudla's self-named matzo ball soup, for example, along with fried calamari, zucchini strips and artichoke chips, all of which are far better suited to Applebee's than a chef-driven restaurant, which is what Kudla, and Mark Dym, the owner of Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, and a partner in the operation, had envisioned when they opened Russo's.
"He definitely has an offer where he could become a potential partner," Dym said in March, just prior to Russo's opening. And since the restaurants at Vallagio, which also include a second Marco's outpost and Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, a restaurant from Parallel 17 owner Mary Nguyen, are owner-operated, Dym reiterated Kudla's claim that the chefs have the freedom to "do their own thing and make their kitchen their own."
Kudla, though, apparently didn't fancy the way that Laird was running the kitchen at Russo's -- not selling enough of those matzo ball soups? -- and fired him just over a week ago.
"In a nutshell, we just didn't see eye to eye -- we just didn't fit," said Laird when I caught up with him yesterday over beers at the Cherry Cricket. "Peter gave me the opportunity to change things -- to change Russo's into a 'joint' -- and I told him I wasn't going to do that, so he fired me."
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And that prompts the question: If you want to run a restaurant with a menu parading a bunch of fried crap, along with burgers and sandwiches that Laird could make with his eyes closed, hands tied behind his knees, then why the hell do you red carpet ride a guy whose culinary pedigree far, far surpasses your needs? "Peter wants a joint-joint -- and that's not what I do, which he knew going into this," notes Laird. "The bottom line is that my idea of food doesn't come from a plastic bag. Food quality, and the caring, preparation and execution of ingredients is a lot more important to me than him, and while my goal was to make this work, that's hard to do when someone is telling you to match the food to the decor."
Laird says that he knew relatively early on that there were issues, but he was determined to stick it out, even if it meant that he had to dumb down his food. "I'm not a quitter, and I seriously gave this all I had, but the chemistry wasn't there, eventually my heart wasn't in it, and we wanted the menu to go in different directions -- I was clearly not the right match for them."
And that's just fine with him. "I'm getting a bunch of things done that I haven't had time to do, I'm chilling -- I even went rock climbing -- and enjoying time with my son, who I hardly got to see at all while I was working," says Laird, who plans to take the summer off entirely. "I've got some ideas that I'm thinking about, and eventually I'll put those into motion, but right now, I just want to get caught up on life."