By many measures, chef Donna Chriszt's career has been a disaster. At best, it's a reminder that even the most gifted can reach into the jaws of victory and pull out a humiliating defeat. At worst, it's a grim if oft-told tale of ambition outweighing common sense.
While well known, the details remain appropriately gory. Chriszt made a name for herself in the mid-1990s at such trendy-at-the-time spots as Burgess Grand Café, Marlin, and Pig Heaven. Then the 30-year-old decided to strike out on her own. Brilliant start notwithstanding, the plan quickly turned into a rout: Between 1997 and 2001 -- a span of less than four years -- the young hotshot managed to launch, then lose, three different restaurants: Jeso, on Clifton Boulevard; J Café, in Woodmere; and OZ Bar & Bistro, in Tremont.
Lockouts, lawsuits, firings, vicious rumors, and a heaping helping of frustration accompanied her downward spiral. By 2005, the woman that Bon Appétit magazine had once dubbed "one of Cleveland's hip, young chefs" couldn't beg her way into a job in any kitchen in the region.
Yet here she stands on a sunny afternoon at the doorway to Dish Deli & Catering, her tiny new project in Tremont. Open since May in the former Take-a-Bite space across from Lincoln Park, the digs could hardly seem less imposing. But this little foothold marks Chriszt's first public presence in nearly two years.
No, this isn't where she thought she would be 10 years ago. Back then, when national publications like Food & Wine and Restaurant Hospitality were singing her praises, she figured she was on the fast track to culinary stardom: invited to cook at the Beard House in New York, courted by big-city food editors, and considered a smart bet for achieving celebrity status, à la Cleveland's other hip young chef, Michael Symon. (Symon, you may recall, has gone on to fulfill his promise, opening Lola, then Lolita, and most recently Manhattan's Parea.)
At the very least, she figured, she would be running a couple of cool little bistros by now -- maybe one on the East Side, one on the West -- creating the type of stylish, vibrant, global cuisine that got her noticed in the first place: her rare tuna martinis, her fabulous pot stickers, and that famous Voodoo Chicken.
But today, she's just happy to be here, dishing up salads, soups, and sandwiches for the carryout crowd at a small deli -- and doing it within sight of the building that once housed her great and powerful OZ.
Sure, she's bitter. But only a little. She tries to focus on the lessons her path has taught her. "I was young and cocky back then," she admits. "I made a lot of bad decisions. But now, my goal is simple -- I just want to make my customers happy." If selling a pound of pasta salad to a guy in paint-stained work boots is what it takes to spread the joy, then hand Chriszt a serving spoon.
Not that the deli's constantly changing menu ignores her talents. It's composed of notably fresh ingredients, sharply honed seasonings, intense sauces, and even a few old faves -- pot stickers and Voodoo Chicken sandwiches among them.
Pulled pork with peach barbecue sauce on cornbread, a special, harks back to the chef's Pig Heaven days. Turkey meatloaf sandwiches and a Greek cucumber salad are old Take-a-Bite staples. And Asian-accented noodle bowls with ginger-soy dressing have become big sellers.
Chriszt's surprisingly dainty stromboli, wrapped in tender homemade dough, packs a sturdy punch, thanks to a prosciutto, salami, and provolone filling. And crispy eggplant rolls, stuffed with creamy ricotta -- another one of the numerous daily specials -- could compete with any restaurant dish in town; on the side, a thick, robust, and dizzyingly nuanced red sauce adds the gourmet touch.
"I don't have to sell an $18 dish to feel like a chef," she sniffs, motioning toward the deli case. "This tomato-mozzarella salad is my art now. Does it make me less of a chef because it's only $3? Or more of a chef, because anyone can afford to buy it?"
It's a hard-won perspective, developed over what Chriszt admits were "a lot of difficult years.
"I didn't think things through back then. I was young and naive and way too trusting, and it resulted in just a lot of pain and angst. Losing Jeso, being fired from J Café . . . Can you imagine how that felt? But I try not to look back on those mistakes. I try to take them as learning experiences and move on."
Whether Chriszt will ever "move on" and launch another restaurant is a question she greets coolly. While she's firmly tied to Cleveland, she thinks the region's shrinking population and ongoing economic woes, as well as the influx of chain restaurants, make it tough for any new restaurant to succeed. Plus, she says, what little national glory we garner tends to focus on one or two spots. "I love Michael Symon, but it's almost like we're a one-horse town here. There are phenomenal chefs all over this city -- in fact, Michael will tell you that some of them are in his own kitchens! -- but they rarely get recognized. We need to get people to realize that there is good food in this town in places other than Professor Avenue!"
Then there's the ugly issue of financing: Unstable partnerships, unreasonable costs, unimpressive profits, and a lack of capital played major roles in the demise of Chriszt's former restaurants, and she's not eager to head down those paths again. She financed Dish on her own dime, she says, with a second mortgage. With no better financing options, she has no grander plans.
Although . . . She's backpedaling now. A little wine bar would be nice, someday -- or maybe a tiny bistro. "And I always thought it would be fun to have a place that sells hardware on one side and a bakery on the other. I'd call it 'Bread & Bolts,'" she laughs.
But assuming that Dish does well, the more likely scenario sees Chriszt opening a string of delis across the West Side. "I think that's very feasible. And I can't say I really miss being out of the restaurant business; this way, I can sit at night in somebody else's kitchen and have a good time!"
Not that the 40-year-old chef is headed for a rocking chair. Besides racking up 60-hour weeks at the deli, plus catering, she occasionally works as a freelance stylist for professional food photographers and teaches professional culinary classes at Loretta Paganini's ICASI. And for the past seven years, she's volunteered as chef-coordinator for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation's annual "Chef's Fantasy" fund-raiser.
She also watches for signs, she says -- little nudges from the universe she hopes will keep her on the right path, like that phone call from Take-a-Bite's former owner, Joy Harlor, when she was getting ready to sell.
"Frankly, I wasn't even thinking about opening a deli until I heard from Joy. Then it just seemed like maybe this was what I was supposed to be doing. As a matter of fact, that's why I don't regret any of the things that happened in the past. I believe that we're led to the places where we're meant to be, and given a chance to repeat the same mistakes until we finally learn from them.
"I don't always know why, but at this point, I believe the mistakes I made were for a purpose. After all, they brought me here. And now? I couldn't be happier."
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