By Jim Schutze
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It's 7:30 p.m. on a mid-December evening, two days before the restaurant Avner at Preston is scheduled to close. The caviar bar upstairs is quiet, the dining room downstairs empty but for two guests. The atmosphere--the silence, the untouched settings all perfectly assembled--is haunting. A single server mechanically goes through the motions, concealing any sense of futility she might feel serving guests in a restaurant about to enter its death rattle.
She answers few questions, but says she's not worried about losing her job because Avner Samuel, the internationally recognized Dallas chef for whom the restaurant is named, has promised to help his employees find new positions.
Whatever led to the closing of Samuel's latest venture, it likely wasn't the food, which is stunning. Red and white sashimi with daikon sprouts is fresh and vibrant. Pan-seared ostrich filet on Asian greens is tender, moist, and savory.
But Samuel, who had emerged from the kitchen moments before, stops and projects a piercing, perplexing sneer toward his only customers as he walks back to the kitchen.
A few minutes later, he emerges again wearing a garish red and white leather jacket with an American flag and "USA" emblazoned on the back. It's reminiscent of Evel Knievel, the daredevil who gained fame in the '70s jumping motorcycles over rows of cars and buses.
The comparison is appropriate, for Samuel has spent the better part of his life attempting daring leaps over the limitations imposed by his past, leaps that almost invariably thrust him toward professional disaster. Up to this point, he has always managed a deft escape. This time, however, his luck may have run out.
After a dozen years and work in as many restaurants in Dallas, the man who put the Mansion on Turtle Creek on the culinary map and was arguably the most significant creative force behind Southwestern cuisine wonders if he'll ever work in this city again.
Personal demons, dubious business practices, and an unruly temper have combined to cloud the future of a culinary artist.
"If I were never to cook again, I'd hang myself." Avner Samuel slouches back into a chair, crosses his arms, and looks off into the distance, slowly shaking his head. "Because I don't know what else to do."
His large, dark eyes and disarmingly innocent features belie an intense personality known for its unpredictable gusts of savagery. Except for a slight thinning of his stark black hair just above the forehead and a paunch, his exotic good looks bristle with youthful sensuality. He's crisply dressed in a black turtleneck, dark purple pleated slacks, and black leather shoes.
Samuel's latest restaurant foray with Okeanos and Avner at Preston, like so many others over the last several years, went sour after a few months. Only this time, at 41, he seems to realize that his restless shifting from job to job might be catching up with him.
"I'm ready to go back to work. I need to go back to work for my own mind," he says, shifting his body and leaning over the tabletop. "But who's going to hire me?" He leans back in his chair and stares out the window into the parking lot from a table inside La Madeleine on Preston, where he's been nursing a cup of coffee for nearly an hour. His conversation fluctuates between thoughtful self-examination and spitting defensiveness. It also touches upon a fierce personal distaste for the city of Dallas.
"I see these people today, they feel my cooking is the best in the city. And it makes me very angry inside, because I got nowhere and they did," he snaps, citing the successes of Stephan Pyles of Star Canyon and AquaKnox, and David Holben of the Riviera and Mediterraneo. "And I got nowhere because of who I am."
But who is Avner Samuel? Just the mention of his name elicits both praise and vitriol, often in the same breath. Why, given his erratic track record, have investors and operators been willing to back him time and time again?
"He's a Picasso with food," responds Daryl Ayrom of Boerkel Inc., who with her husband, Bahman, operated Okeanos and Avner at Preston. "My husband thought he had changed. And he really wanted to give him another chance."
"He's superior to most chefs in town," says Adelmo Bancheppi of Adelmo's Ristorante, who worked with Samuel at the Fairmont. "I saw the man make miracles in two seconds. I saw him create plates out of nothing. But his personality killed him."
Almost without exception, throughout his forays with corporate-driven hotels and small, individually owned restaurants, Samuel's personality seems to be his undoing. And he makes no bones about the fact that he is troubled and profoundly angry. Throughout his career, his glaring personal flaws have scorched customers, purveyors, and business partners alike. Some who have experienced the color of his personality go so far as to call him psychotic or schizophrenic.
"He's one of these guys that has five personalities, and all of them are fighting to come out at the same time," Bancheppi says. "When you are a genius, you get close to insanity sometimes."
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