Hot in the Kitchen 

As Cleveland's food scene explodes, more chefs are getting burned

By all appearances, Giovanna Mingroni was living a chef's dream. In the mid-1990s, she snagged a coveted entry-level role at the celebrated Zuni Café in San Francisco. Five short years later, she had scratched her way up the ladder to the No. 2 spot, right behind chef and co-owner Judy Rodgers. Meanwhile, over in Oakland, Mingroni's then-husband, Mark Daverio, was working alongside another giant of California cuisine, Paul Bertolli of Oliveto.

When it came time to open their first restaurant, the duo embarked on a six-month research tour of Italy, where they ate and drank everything they could get their hands on. Then they settled in Cleveland, not far from Daverio's native Akron.

"We definitely took the fast track," Mingroni says today. "We had similar philosophies about food and a strong image of what kind of restaurant we wanted to have. Though we were a little nervous that it would not take off in Cleveland."

But take off it did. Opened in 2000, Battuto Ristorante brought fresh, seasonal Italian cuisine to Little Italy, a neighborhood in desperate need of a culinary upgrade at the time. Soon, Battuto was garnering glowing critical reviews and topping reader-poll rankings. More important, the restaurant had cultivated a fervently loyal fan base that filled the house for seven delicious years.

And then it all went south — fast.

"Our regulars who used to come in once a week started to come in once a month," explains Mingroni. The onset of the Great Recession hurt most restaurateurs, but especially those who relied heavily on pricey fine and imported ingredients. Rather than drastically change their restaurant — which would have meant changing who they were, and what they believed in as chefs — the couple made the ultimate choice.

"We decided that we couldn't serve the kind of food we were preparing to the kind of clientele we were serving and make it more affordable," says Mingroni. And so Battuto closed its doors.

"We were miserable," she adds. "We're still sad."

Mingroni and Daverio's plight is no different from that of countless other chef-owners across Northeast Ohio and across the country. A withering economy colliding with an eternally challenging industry created a hurricane of heartbreak. But while numerous chefs packed up their knives, funny white hats in hand, and headed off to the next available opening, just as many packed it in for good. Things have changed, say some chefs, making it nearly impossible to succeed as a solo flyer.

Restaurants like Battuto are a relic of another era, says Mingroni. Neighborhood bôites with small menus, costly tabs, and no bar business are being rubbed out by outsized eateries with more seats, lower prices, and boisterous bars.

And then there's the consolidation of power. "Fewer people are doing more. Now, there are chefs running two, three, and four restaurants," says Mingroni. "And we struggled with one!"

One chef-owner who isn't rushing back to the range is Parker Bosley, who for 14 years ran the groundbreaking Ohio City bistro Parker's. Growing up on a family farm, Bosley naturally gravitated toward using the farm-fresh foods of his youth in his commercial kitchen. Up till then, if a restaurant's food wasn't airlifted from a snooty French market on the Champs Elysées, it wasn't worth swallowing. Bosley's insistence on local, seasonal, and sustainable products — even when it was maddeningly inconvenient to do so — unintentionally birthed the farm-to-table movement in Cleveland and beyond.

After decades devoted to cooking and teaching, Bosley was done, ready to move on to the next chapter of his life. In early 2007, he sold the business and building, and went back to what he knows and loves: Ohio farming. These days, at the mature age of 72, Bosley battles urban sprawl by helping small farmers become economically sustainable by distributing their goods to a wider audience. He bristles at the idea of ever again toiling in a professional kitchen. "Incredibly hard work" he calls it, and why would he want that again?

Bosley's legacy includes not only helping launch the North Union Farmers Market, but also the careers of numerous local chefs, among them Karen Small of Flying Fig, Andy Strizak of Spice of Life Catering, and Mike Mariola of South Market Bistro in Wooster. Slow, deliberate, and serious edification was of great consequence to Bosley; it's an approach that seems at odds with today's young chefs on the fast track to restaurant ownership.

"If you go to school to become a chef, the goal seems to be to have a place of your own," Bosley says. "I think it would be helpful if we put a little more emphasis on perfecting your craft. Being a great chef does not mean you need to be the chef patron, the chef owner. You can be really good and grow by working for someone else."

"Economically speaking," he adds, "restaurant ownership is really a tough row to hoe, as they say." Indeed, margins are razor-thin, and what revenue an owner does bring in immediately goes out in the form of rent, payroll, food, taxes, and utilities. What's left over after that goes to the plumber, the electrician, and the marketing budget. The only way to make ends meet, many chefs learn pretty fast, is to do as much of the labor themselves as possible.

Few chefs, perhaps, comprehend the brutal economic realities of ownership better than Donna Chriszt. Like Bosley and Mingroni, Chriszt toiled in the kitchens of other owners' restaurants before striking out on her own. During stints as chef at Marlin Kaplan's now-closed Pig Heaven and Marlin restaurants, she developed a loyal following, all the while cultivating her signature robustly-flavored, globally-inspired cuisine. Craving her own show, Chriszt opened Jeso in 1997 on Cleveland's near West Side. Critical acclaim — even an invitation to cook at New York's lofty James Beard House — followed, as did an ambitious push to open a second restaurant, J Café, a year later.

Chriszt nearly got whiplash when her culinary empire turned 180 degrees in near-record time. She relinquished her post at Jeso to focus on J Café, then was left with no job at all when a business partnership soured. Both restaurants closed soon after. Less than a year later, a slightly older, wiser Chriszt gambled it all again on Oz, one of Tremont's earliest contemporary bistros. Once again her work drew raves, but the numbers never added up.

"When I was running Oz, the restaurant was busy, but we didn't have enough capital to sustain the business, so I never paid myself," she explains. "First you can't make the car payment. Then you're behind on your mortgage. Before long it all rolls into one big mess." Chriszt sold the business just over a year later.

The chef is still cooking these days, heading up the kitchen at the newly minted Fountain in Moreland Hills. But thankfully for Chriszt, she is an employee rather than a proprietor.

"I honestly don't want to own a restaurant anymore," she says. "Finally, I get to just be in the kitchen and cook and not worry about anything else. I haven't had a regular paycheck in 15 years. It's very nice being able to pay my bills, to buy the couch I've needed for 10 years."

Money — or a lack thereof — is far from the only drawback of a life lived behind the swinging doors. Free time is also quick to evaporate. Chefs young and old, employee or owner, routinely pull down 12- to 14-hour days five or six times per week. That doesn't leave a whole lot of time for fun, family — and especially sanity.

"Our industry is uniquely challenged in that regard," explains Brian Doyle, a chef who has worked in numerous Cleveland-area restaurants. After receiving a degree in culinary arts, Doyle worked his way up the ranks to executive chef, holding down the top post at the Fulton Bar and Grill and Jack's Steakhouse. Following nearly 20 years of brutal hours and zero flexibility — often at the expense of time spent with his wife and two sons — Doyle seemed hell-bent to leave the grind behind.

"I left because of a desire to have a more flexible schedule," he says. "To be with my family in a more present way." After a few years as a caterer and private chef, Doyle recently launched Sow Food, a farm-to-table catering company that relies almost exclusively on locally sourced foods.

"Now, if I need to take a day off, I can," he says. "I can go on vacation without clearing it with anybody first."

For every chef who fails at restaurant ownership, there seems to be a dozen more who never even get the opportunity to try. Banks aren't eager to loan money to untested talent in an industry notorious for failure. And with the average restaurant start-up cost estimated at $400,000, it's no wonder we're seeing an influx of cheaper-to-launch food trucks.

"You have to find a partner or an investor who believes in you. People are willing to throw money at talent," explains Randy Kelly, partner in ABC Tavern, XYZ, and the soon-to-open Viaduct Lounge. "It's the same here as it is anywhere; there is no bank that will lend you the money. This is one of the highest failure-rate businesses there is."

Kelly and his wife-partner, Linda Syrek, were fortunate to team up a couple years back with Alan Glazen, a deep-pocketed fan of their work. After their first joint venture, ABC in Ohio City, took off, Glazen was eager to replicate the formula in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. Their method of taking over modest, long-neglected places in blooming markets and spiffing them up is paying off. When Viaduct opens this fall in the former Ponte Vecchio space, the team will be operating three restaurants within two miles of one another.

In an industry as notorious for high turnover as it is for failure, finding and keeping talent is always a priority. Employed chefs eager to make a name for themselves routinely jump ship for offers to "retool" existing places or take a flyer on an as-yet-unopened restaurant. To counter that, owners have few weapons at their disposal.

"A long time ago we realized we can't pull all of this stuff off ourselves — we gotta have good help," says Kelly. "And the only way you're going to get 'em and keep 'em is to take care of 'em."

Kelly says that he pays his line cooks $13 an hour instead of the customary $9 or $10. That works out to approximately $40,000 a year, comparable to the salary of a respectably paid chef elsewhere. Longtime employees, like manager Dave Hridel, are rewarded with profit sharing and equity positions.

"We've had almost zero turnover since we opened ABC," in late 2009, Kelly reports.

Any chef who is planning — or hoping — to open her own place must first ask a key question: Are there even enough customers to support my dream? In a city like Cleveland, where the headlines serve up variations on the theme of population loss, that query holds particular import.

One successful chef has been asking himself that question year after year. And the answer every time has been a resounding "So far, so good!"

When Zack Bruell unveils Cowell & Hubbard this fall in PlayhouseSquare, it will be his fifth restaurant, all of which are located within Cleveland city limits. All told, when that restaurant opens its doors, Bruell will oversee 600-plus seats and roughly 250 employees. More than any other operator in town, Bruell wonders just how many diners his and other restaurateurs' places can support.

"That is definitely the question," he admits. "I am not sure. But I do know that some things are happening that will move Cleveland forward. The city is at a tipping point – in a positive way."

Bruell finds reasons for optimism in high-profile projects like the Medical Mart and convention center, development on the east bank of the Flats, and the casino. "As these things progress," he says, "we'll have more hotels open in the city. Plus, people want to move downtown these days. There is a waiting list for downtown condos."

Bruell, too, has tasted failure as well as success as a chef-owner. His near-legendary restaurants Z's and Z Contemporary Cuisine were the toast of the town when they operated here in the late 1980s and early 1990s, respectively. If you ask Bruell, he'll tell you that he single-handedly introduced Cleveland to California cuisine, a marriage of fresh ingredients and French technique that he picked up while working at the famed Michael's in Santa Monica.

But when Bruell shuttered Z Contemporary Cuisine in 1995, he found himself suddenly out of a job. Foregoing ownership for employment, he took an executive chef position with the locally based Ken Stewart restaurant group, with whom he worked until 2004.

As quickly as Bruell's fortunes had changed for the worse, they turned again in the new millennium. First there was Parallax in Tremont, his cool-as-a-cuke Asian seafood house, which he followed with Table 45 at the InterContinental Hotel, the globally eclectic eatery that put a fresh face on the formerly staid Classics restaurant next to Cleveland Clinic. Bruell's next oeuvre, L'Albatros in University Circle, quickly became one of the city's most beloved bôites thanks to its approachable, habit-forming French bistro fare. Bruell duplicated that success soon after with Chinato, a restaurant that does for Italian cuisine what L'Albatros did for French.

He has settled upon a formula that melds a cosmopolitan but casual atmosphere with big-city service and world-class food. And it's working like nothing else in town.

Rather than fight for a continually shrinking slice of the dining pie, Bruell believes that Cleveland's pie is actually getting fatter. By his own account, the chef's early customer base was limited almost exclusively to residents of Beachwood, Pepper Pike, and Shaker Heights — a small pocket of well-traveled folks with a taste for nouvelle cuisine. Nowadays, his tables are just as likely to be filled with diners from Westlake, Euclid, Akron, and beyond.

It is a trend that local operators like Michael Symon (of Lola, Lolita, B Spot, and Food Network fame), Jonathon Sawyer (Greenhouse Tavern), Eric Williams (Momocho), and Matt Fish (the burgeoning Melt empire) — foodie celebs all — are reporting as well. "Food tourism" — the act of traveling to a destination specifically to experience its grub — is ever on the rise, thanks in no small part to the Food Network and others that constantly profile the dining scenes in towns across America. Cleveland, owing to its robust and well-cultivated scene, is fairing better than most cities in this regard.

Of course, every restaurant cannot and will not thrive in a congested marketplace. Diners vote with their feet and their wallets; where they sit determines who stays and who goes in this restaurant reality show.

"The cream rises to the top," says Bruell, perhaps Cleveland's best example of culinary Darwinism.

Giovanna Mingroni, meanwhile, is among those who have opted to withdraw from the competition altogether. While she misses her regular guests at Battuto, these days she finds equal satisfaction in teaching others how to cook at Cuyahoga Community College and through private classes. Better still, she says, is the newfound balance in each day.

"I was so out of the loop with what's going on in Cleveland," she says. "Now I am more involved in life."

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