Hot in the Kitchen 

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

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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.

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