Tim Bando was 30 years old and working the front of the house at the long-gone Piccolo Mondo when he decided to switch to cooking. Not your typical career path, but Bando isn't your typical chef.
Before he landed his own place at Theory in Tremont back in the day, Bando worked alongside a Murderer's Row of notable Cleveland chefs.
"I cooked with Michael [Symon] at the Caxton when there was Michael, a dishwasher and me," he says.
He went on to work at a slew of other places, including Ray's Place in Kent, Herb's Tavern in Rocky River and Giovanni's in Beachwood. Bando lists the crew of line cooks who worked at Moxie during its early years while he and Doug Katz were co-executive chefs. They weren't all there at the same time, but rather over a period of a few years. Karen Small, Tim Connors, Jonathon Bennett and Eric Williams all worked on that illustrious line.
Bando worked in so many places around Cleveland during the 80s and 90s, if you didn't cross paths with him, you might be the only one.
And then he set out for New York, where he enjoyed success, brushes with fame, and money. Which is why there was an unsettling mystery surrounding Bando's return to Northeast Ohio about six months ago.
There's no doubt he enjoyed his work in Amagansett, New York, located between East Hampton and Mantauk, where he had two restaurants: Meeting House and Exile Bar & Grill.
Meeting House was a place with notable distinction -- Paul McCartney wandered in before the opening to inquire about the place. Bando later closed Exile to open Tremont in the East Village. Tremont won the 2012 James Beard Semifinalist Award for Best New Restaurant, and has been reviewed in the New York Times "Dining and Wine" section. Former majority Browns owner and billionaire Randy Lerner was one of his New York investors.
"The restaurant biz is brutal. You have to be all in. It's hard for a family with four children," he says.
Bando's kids are ages 14, 8, 6 and 5.
"I'm having cocktails with Matthew Broderick at my home -- a sign of success for me." he recalls. "And my wife is upstairs dealing with a sick kid."
He knew he was not handling the balancing act of family and work well. But nothing prepared him for his wife's announcement: She was taking the kids and moving back to Cleveland, where she could at least rely on family for help.
Bando observes: "Success is getting to work at 8 or 9am and working until midnight or 1 a.m., every day."
Those hours provide little time to spend with family. The balance was off in his life. And even partying with Ferris Bueller didn't help bridge the gap.
Bando jokingly describes his life as a series of mid-life crises. This particular crisis was his moment of clarity. He followed his wife back home, quietly, and spent some months mending his marriage and his relationship with his children. Then, he started working at Premier Produce with Tony Anselmo, a distant cousin. All the while, he kept his ears open.
From there he went to Crop Bistro for a few months. But, as Bando says, "They were well-staffed." He was once again itching to be in the drivers' seat.
After considering some offers, he decided to go to work for Dan Deagan, owner of Deagan's Kitchen & Bar. They were doing a brisk trade with Executive Chef Demetrios Atheneos. Unfortunately, for all of its popularity, Deagan's wasn't making a profit. Deagan was looking for someone who could cut costs while advancing the spot's reputation as a dining destination.
Timing is everything. Tim Bando was ready to take charge once again. He accepted Deagan's offer.
Bando mentioned he hates to work in big restaurants; Deagan's is a big restaurant. "Take from that what you will."
The truth is, Deagan's affords him a better ratio between his hours at work and home. It provides an outlet for his culinary creativity but also a juggling act that is sustainable. At some future date, he might do something again, either with a partner or on his own, but for now he's happy.
And ready to speak out.
"There is something I need to say, and I want it known publicly," Bando says. "We have a serious problem in this industry with alcoholism. Everyone whom this news would affect directly in my life already knows about my own battle. I want to talk about it for the young people in the industry. Anthony Bourdain talked about it in his book, Kitchen Confidential. He may have intended it as a warning. But I fear it's had the opposite effect."
Bando expanded on his ongoing struggle and how innocently it started. "You have a drink with one of your favorite customers. Then at the end of the shift you have a round or two with the staff. It is always there. And at some point I was no longer in charge," he says. "Years go by and the checks and balances were no longer there. My priorities were out of whack."
He has to own his actions, and get it out in the open to raise awareness of this problem for the sake of the young in this difficult industry. For now, Bando has been able to sustain his daunting juggling act and does not for a moment underestimate the battle ahead of him.
He has also changed his definition of success, and it can be summed up in one word: balance.
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