Chefs leave. It’s inevitable. They leave to open their own restaurants. They’re fired. They leave the industry entirely. In the past two years, some of my favorite chefs have left L.A. restaurants. Since I’m in a small (but increasingly large) circle of people who obsessively track restaurant news, I’ve noticed, but how much does the general public care about these changes?
Brian Dunsmoor and front of house partner Jonathan Strader left The Hart & The Hunter in the Palihotel to launch Ladies’ Gunboat Society at Flores in what is now Japantown, and subsequently left that project to open Hatchet Hall in Culver City. Kris Tominaga, Dunsmoor’s co-chef at The Hart & The Hunter, left to open Cadet with Jeff Weinstein in Santa Monica. Daniel Mattern and Roxana Jullapat, the all-star duo behind Cooks County, left to pursue other projects.
Of course some departures are more glaring. The entire opening team from Superba Food + Bread, including executive chef Jason Travi, pastry chef Lincoln Carson, and bread baker Jonathan Eng, are all gone after less than a year in business.
Ricardo Zarate is no longer affiliated with any of the L.A. restaurants he co-founded. Mo-Chica and Paiche have gone out of business, and what happens to Picca’s menu in the future remains unclear.
I haven’t rushed back to any of the restaurants where I was a semi-regular, but does the general public change their dining choices when chefs leave? In the case of Superba, the restaurant and bakery could probably survive on vibe alone, and if new chef Jennifer Toomey continues to take advantage of the markets to top toasts and fill the rotisserie, the restaurant should remain a neighborhood favorite. Cooks County has a pleasant enough setting, and if new chef Trevor Rocco sticks with the seasons, it would take a tremendous feat to reach the heights that Mattern and Jullapat achieved, but the restaurant will probably be just fine. Picca’s remaining owners brought in executive chef Josh Drew to plug the hole, and he’s certainly talented, with a longtime run as Farmshop’s chef de cuisine, though he is not a Lima native like Zarate.
Of course, restaurants cannot survive on chefs alone. It’s also worth considering the contributions of staffs and the restaurateurs who lead them. Superba owner Paul Hibler already has a long, successful track record with concepts like Pitfire Pizza, where no branches have gone out of business. At Cooks County, the operating partner is Claudio Blotta, a wine and service pro who also runs neighborhood hits barbrix and All ‘Acqua. One of the people backing Picca is Bill Chait, who’s been on a nearly unrivaled hot streak by partnering on places like Republique, Petty Cash Taqueria, Bestia and Sotto. If anybody can keep Picca’s momentum going, it’s probably him.
In L.A., we must also consider related examples. For instance, when talented chef Matthew Accarrino left Craft to work at SPQR in San Francisco, it’s not like Tom Colicchio closed his Century City outpost. John Keenan deftly filled the chef de cuisine position to start, and the restaurant is still rolling at the base of CAA headquarters under Ray England’s seasonal culinary direction.
Yes, we live in an era that celebrates name brand chefs, and those chefs have the power to help drive people to restaurants in droves. Most people still choose restaurants based on what’s nearby, inviting, affordable and of course flavorful. The replacements at places like Cooks County, Superba Food + Bread and Picca could very well be capable chefs. However, can they match the specific visions of the opening chefs? Should they even attempt to mirror what was already in place? From there, it’s up to diners to decide whether those chefs are meeting or exceeding original expectations. Ultimately, these chef changes are still relatively fresh, and it’s too early to see what will happen to their bottom lines.
What do you think? How important is it for a restaurant to have a name chef?