Group of One

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"I think you're reporting on rumors here, Jason. I don't know who you heard this from, but — "

"Troy."

"Troy told you that?"

"Yes."

Silence.

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.

Apparently so.

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."

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan