Cooking Up a Storm
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."
Samuel provokes a certain schizophrenia from some of his harshest detractors as well. They excoriate his character with damning anecdotes. Then they invariably finish the conversation declaring how much they like Samuel personally, what a great guy he is once you get to know him.
"Avner gets a really bad rap," says Travis Fancher, a waiter at Star Canyon who worked with Samuel at the Fairmont. "You say 'Avner Samuel,' people really don't respond to that in a positive way."
Contradiction also seems a constant in Samuel's life. He says he detests Dallas for what it has done to him, but he can't seem to tear himself away. Certainly his family ties have much to do with this: He has a wife, two ex-wives, and three children (one from each marriage) living in the area.
Yet some other force seems to hold him here. Perhaps it is an intense need to regain the renown he once held at the Mansion; to prove to this city that his success wasn't a fluke.
"I'm bitter over what happened over the last few years...I always hooked up with these people that were very wrong," bristles Samuel. "They promised me the whole world, and nothing came out of it. They always wanted to feed off my name."
But if Samuel feels others burned him, a crowd of partners, investors, and restaurant personnel who worked under him feel stung by him as well. (Some of Samuel's harshest critics, not surprisingly, are those who invested in his failed ventures.) There are also lawsuits and allegations of wrongdoing dangerously flirting with the criminal. Some even question his long-celebrated talent, saying that most of his menu creations over the last few years are little more than cleverly repackaged reruns of his successes at restaurants such as Avner's (on McKinney) and Yellow.
What drives this complicated man who simultaneously seduces, confuses, and infuriates those who cross his path? "There's a lot of pain," muses Fancher. "I don't know the source of the pain, why there's pain. But the guy has had a really painful life. He's very sensitive about certain things, about his childhood. The way he came up."
Samuel's account of his youth may be a calculated play for sympathy, but it is genuinely compelling nonetheless. He was born in Jerusalem in 1956, the oldest in a family that would eventually include six brothers and one sister.
In the late 1940s, his father, an Iraqi Jew, fled Baghdad after the Iraqi government declared martial law and initiated a systematic persecution of Jews following the establishment of the state of Israel. The Jewish movement located him in Tehran, Iran, and urged him to come to Israel to help lay the groundwork for the new Jewish state. At age 18, he reluctantly moved to Jerusalem and began a new life.
Samuel's mother, a Kurdish Jew, was often left to fend for the family on her own as her husband abandoned them for long periods. She sometimes held down three jobs to support her children. He says that when his father was around, he was routinely subjected to physical abuse.
Samuel had barely completed the third grade when he was forced to quit school to help run the household. He began working outside the home at age 11, and his long career in commercial kitchens began at 13.
"I had no choice. I was a hungry boy," says Samuel. "I also realized working there that no matter where I'd go, I'd never be hungry again. I was absolutely tired of being hungry. And I remember when we had no food. For days."
Not only would he always have something to eat, but he could move around and easily obtain work despite his lack of education. "It looked like a pretty good deal to me," he says.
He also realized that sharply honed culinary skills could be his ticket out of Israel to a better life in Europe or America. A stint in the Israeli army, where Samuel says he felt ostracized because of his Iraqi heritage and his mixed feelings concerning the plight of the Palestinians, confirmed his desire to leave Israel.
He attended culinary school in Jerusalem while he worked and saved money. In 1975, he purchased a one-way ticket to London. Unable to speak English and with only 200 pounds in his pocket, he eventually found work as a cook for a Jewish family that hosted dinners for potential benefactors of Israel.
From there he traveled to Paris, again without the corresponding language skills, and enrolled in a one-year program at La Varenne, a private culinary school.
After graduation, he stayed in Paris for a few years working in small restaurants and living with his wife (whom he married in Jerusalem in 1976) and young daughter. In 1979, he received a letter from a woman with whom he had once worked in a Jerusalem wedding hall, urging him to come to Deerfield Beach, Florida, to help her and her husband open a small hotel.
"So I said sure," he says. "Stupid me. Jump on a plane, one-way ticket with no money. And I left a wife and a kid behind in Paris." He showed up at Miami International Airport without a return ticket or immigration papers and was immediately thrown in jail. The next morning, as officials were preparing to deport him, the woman convinced a judge to issue Samuel a two-week visa so he could complete an application for a work visa.
Samuel then moved his family to Jerusalem, where he waited for a visa. He returned to the States a year later, only to discover that the woman and her husband had sold their hotel. So he and his family moved in with them until he landed a position at the Boca Raton Hotel and Club, which was about to open The Beach Club.
The hotel's executive chef, who was French, took an instant liking to Samuel and was impressed with his classical training. He offered him a position as chef of the hotel's Gourmet Room for $450 a week. "I wouldn't even make this the whole month in Europe," Samuel says. "Something had to be wrong, or maybe this job was way too big for me."
Samuel also was charged with teaching interns from the Culinary Institute of America, a prospect that terrified him. "As the chef of the gourmet room, I couldn't speak English," admits Samuel, who today is fluent in five languages. "So every two minutes, I would run to the executive chef's office and ask, 'How you say this? How you say that?' And he'd say, 'Avner, you need to learn English, or I'm going to have to find another chef.'"
But Samuel's talents caught the eye of the hotel's managing director, Alex De Toth. In 1981, after De Toth was tapped to head the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, he brought Samuel with him to work in the hotel's kitchen, quickly appointing him executive sous chef. At the time, French chef Christian Chemin headed the Mansion's kitchen, and the 21 Club in New York managed the restaurant. It had a staid menu featuring things like prime rib, roasted chicken, and potato skins.
"When I got to the Mansion, it kind of surprised me because the cooking for such an incredible hotel was so ancient," Samuel recalls. "And I said, 'Oh my God. Here is my vehicle. Now I really can do some stuff.'"
Robert Zimmer, then president of Rosewood Property Co., parent of the Mansion, brought in California celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck as a consultant to upgrade the Mansion's menu. But Chemin had difficulty adapting to Puck's California sensibilities, while Samuel reveled in his innovative approach.
"Whenever we tried to develop new menus, [Samuel] was very flexible," says De Toth, who now owns two Italian restaurants in Northern California. "He was not a high-powered, high-strung executive chef with a big ego...He was open-minded, and he loved new ideas. That is how he became successful."
"I think [Chemin] felt a little intimidated by Wolfgang Puck's food, that California, eclectic cuisine," adds Charles De France, who also came to the Mansion from Boca Raton shortly after Samuel and now heads the food-service operation for a school district near Los Angeles.
When it became clear that Chemin was not going to successfully absorb the menu changes Rosewood had in mind, Samuel replaced him.
"I was left alone to do whatever I wanted," Samuel says. "So it was a very experimental period. Today I look back, and oh my God, how could we serve that stuff? But we did because people were hungry for new stuff."
During this period, the foundations of Southwestern cuisine began to take shape, Samuel says. His role in its formation was due largely to the influence of Puck, who urged him to use the freshest possible ingredients and to experiment relentlessly.
Samuel's working relationship with Puck grew close. So much so, that Puck brought him to his Los Angeles restaurant Spago to help create and prepare the menu for Madonna's and Sean Penn's Malibu wedding in 1985. Through his trips to California, he noticed Puck incorporating ingredients such as black beans and jalapenos, which were staples in Texas. "I thought, it's great what Wolfgang did for California. Maybe Avner can start something here," Samuel remembers. "I came back from those trips--I was hungry to find out what's around me. And I kind of stumbled onto [Southwestern cuisine] because I started using catfish at the Mansion, black beans."
In addition to Samuel, several other key players were simultaneously working to forge the style, including Stephan Pyles, Robert Del Grande of Annie's Cafe in Houston, Dean Fearing of the Mansion, and cookbook author Anne Greer, who is largely credited with isolating and defining the cuisine.
But while Samuel's creative juices were stimulated and the Mansion garnered several awards and wide acclaim with his menu, those around him say his personality underwent a profound change. "At the Mansion, his ego took off really big...his ego quadrupled," asserts De France. "He was actually halfway decent when he was the sous chef at the Boca. But then he was like, 'I'm the chef at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. Fuck everybody else.'"
De Toth says his young executive chef had poor people skills. "He could get a little crazy once in while when it came to the handling of the staff," he says. "There were occasions when he stepped out of line and he needed to be counseled."
Samuel doesn't dispute that he became increasingly abrasive as his responsibilities at the Mansion grew. But he suggests that the reason for his anger and arrogance stemmed not from an inflated ego, but from the struggle to conceal his deficiencies from his superiors and coworkers.
"Do you know how many things I've had to hide in my life?" he shouts. "I couldn't write and read English. I had to manage a $10 million operation. How can you do this without writing and reading? How can you read your memos? How can you write your memos? So the pressure was not only cooking."
Despite these challenges, Samuel's performance at the Mansion impressed Rosewood executives. In 1985 they chose him to organize and lead the kitchen at Rosewood's newest property, the Hotel Crescent Court.
He was fired before the hotel ever opened.
Controversy surrounds his ouster. Samuel says that he has never been given a satisfactory explanation. De Toth says it was due to a personality clash between Samuel and Rosewood President Robert Zimmer. Others say he flunked a crucial menu tasting with Zimmer. But Samuel insists their relationship was never contentious.
Instead, he believes he was undermined by then-Crescent Managing Director Jan Mastriner, with whom he once worked in Israel. Samuel says Mastriner, who is currently living in South Africa and could not be reached for comment, was incensed that this "little boy from Israel, with no education, became who he became."
Upon returning from an international culinary research trip, Samuel received word from Mastriner that under no circumstances would he be admitted on the hotel's executive committee, a position Samuel says he was promised before he accepted the position. An argument ensued, and shortly thereafter Samuel was let go.
"[Mastriner] is a guy that, if I saw him today, I would spit in his face," Samuel says. "Because that really changed the rest of my life when it comes to this profession. I lost my enthusiasm...I started drinking, and I never drank in my entire life. Ever.
"From that day, I never recovered."
If Samuel's departure from Rosewood didn't begin a downward trend, the experience seemed to fuel and sustain Samuel's now-infamous volatility, propelling his professional life through a wild ride of instability spanning more than a dozen restaurants in as many years.
At this juncture, it was not only Samuel's professional life that was in turmoil. His personal life was in a shambles as well. Within months of his break with the Crescent, his marriage to his first wife, Catherine, ended after almost 10 years. Some who worked with him at the Mansion believe the personal problems leading to the collapse of his marriage had as much to do with his abrasiveness as job pressures.
But Samuel seemed to recover quickly. In November 1985, Senior Vice President Helmut Knipp appointed him executive chef of the Lincoln Hotel (now the Doubletree) and charged him with reorganizing the hotel's restaurants, which included the Spinnaker and the Terrace Cafe. He was also asked to develop the menu for a new showpiece restaurant, Crockett's. Then, abruptly in April 1986, just before Crockett's was to open, Samuel was gone.
One chef who worked with him at the Lincoln says he was fired after he traveled to Paris with his girlfriend, ostensibly on business, and racked up huge expenses. But Samuel insists the Lincoln blindsided him by bringing in a chef consultant to evaluate his menu just before Crockett's opening, and he quit in anger. Knipp, who now lives in Hong Kong, says he doesn't recall the reason for the split.
At any rate, Samuel regrets his hasty departure from the Lincoln. "They gave me everything I wanted," he recalls. "I had a free hand. But I didn't know how to appreciate it because I was so angry inside." Crockett's opened with Samuel's menu, but not his cooking.
In late spring 1986, Samuel teamed with former Mansion cocktail lounge manager Wayne Broadwell--who was fired this month from his job as maitre d' at the Mansion--to launch the Plaza Cafe on Oak Lawn. His tenure there was tumultuous, marked by a volatile personal relationship with co-chef Juanita King, to whom Samuel later became engaged. By the fall, Samuel was forced out of the Plaza, and he left Dallas for Houston and Europe. His relationship with King later fizzled.
In spring 1987, Samuel resurfaced in Dallas as chef of the Fairmont's Pyramid Room, where he revamped the menu, incorporating Southwest influences into the Pyramid's classic French cuisine.
By most accounts, Samuel's tenure at the Fairmont was relatively tranquil, and in 1989, he was appointed executive chef of the hotel. "But I was not satisfied, because in my mind, I was chef of one of the top 10 hotels [The Mansion] in the world," he says. "And even though the Fairmont was great...it's still not it."
A short time after he was appointed Fairmont's executive chef, Samuel got a call from a headhunter representing a hotel in London that was looking to hire a Rosewood chef. The hotel was the Churchill, and Samuel was appointed executive chef of the then-21-year-old property. He resigned his position and moved to London with his new wife, Amy, whom he met at the Fairmont.
Samuel Americanized Churchill's menu and, overseeing a kitchen staff hailing from India, Bangladesh, and Egypt, speckled it with Asian and African touches. "I took the city by storm," he boasts. "CNN came to interview the GM and said, 'Who is this guy?' And he said, 'Well, we brought this guy in from America. He came and threw three grenades in the kitchen and picked up the survivors.' It was such a high."
Ten months later, the Churchill moved him to its sister property in Hong Kong, the Park Lane, to open an American restaurant in the hotel. After the restaurant was running, the company planned to move him to Sydney, where he would be the opening chef for a new hotel there. But Samuel had difficulty working with the Chinese cooks under his direction. One of his missions was to break their habit of liberally using MSG. "I wasn't able to. No way in hell," he says.
Homesick after two months in Hong Kong, Samuel returned to Dallas with the intention of opening his own restaurant, and in late 1991, he launched Avner's in Chateau Plaza with a $17,000 personal investment. Avner's opened to critical acclaim and was named one of the top new restaurants in the nation by John Moriani of Esquire in 1992. But it burned out quickly, closing just 18 months later.
Samuel's volatile temperament seemed to play a pivotal role in the demise of Avner's. He routinely berated customers and was intolerant of complaints directed at his food.
In a sense, this is understandable, given his training in France, where chefs are easily insulted and have no patience for those who don't understand cuisine. Samuel says he was once thrown out of a two-star (Guide Michelin stars out of a possible three) restaurant in Paris for ordering a club sandwich. "I wasn't mad," he says, "because the chef was right...The chef is God."
This attitude--coupled with relentless pressure to turn tables after the positive reviews led to long lines and bulging crowds at his tiny 50-seat restaurant--eventually spelled disaster. "He treated guests like dirt," says Franki Kovacic, who along with his wife, Gabriela, sold Samuel the restaurant he later turned into Avner's; was guarantor on his lease; and helped him establish credit with suppliers. "He would say, 'Well, if you don't like it, just get the hell out. We have three other people waiting.'"
Felix Agillon, once a chef at Avner's and now a chef in California, says two elderly women once came into the restaurant and ordered only soup and salad. Samuel charged them for entrees, explaining that while they hadn't ordered main courses, they still occupied his table and dirtied his dishes. "At the end, he was losing control of the situation as far as treating guests," says Agillon. "After being so busy, everything was starting to fall apart. His temper in the dining room was damaging our business."
But it was more than just his temperament with guests that created problems. Described by many as a womanizer with a shockingly crass method of wooing, Samuel's behavior toward female employees generated turmoil as well. "He passed the line with women," recalls Agillon. "He took it a little too far."
One of Samuel's financial backers in Avner's said he was constantly working to defuse potential sexual harassment lawsuits. "If the girls don't go Avner's way, they will not get on the schedule," he says. "That's Avner. He's always after women. His hands will always go."
Samuel denies ever mistreating his female employees. But Kirsten Schmidt, a food runner and hostess at Yellow, where Samuel once worked, recently filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him and Yellow owner T.J. Mand alleging that Samuel made advances toward her in early 1995. She claims that after she rejected his entreaties, she was fired.
The suit charges that Samuel repeatedly asked her out, put his arm around her waist, and one night tried to feed her blueberries in the kitchen. When she resisted, he forced a single blueberry between her lips. She also states that her manager told her that the only reason she was hired was because Samuel wanted to go out with her.
Samuel says that contrary to what the suit states, he never hired or fired Schmidt or any other server at Yellow. He maintains that the suit, which is pending, was cooked up by Schmidt and her lawyer, John P. Knouse, as an attempt to settle legal fees related to a criminal charge filed against her in Austin. In fact, Schmidt was arrested and charged with passing a bad check in Travis County in early 1994. But the case was dismissed when she completed a hot-check-writing class shortly after the alleged incident at Yellow. Calls to Schmidt and her lawyer for comment were not returned.
A short time after Avner's closed, Samuel's wife, Amy, filed for divorce on grounds of "cruel treatment." The split was so bitter, she asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order to keep him away from her, and he was later held in contempt of court and threatened with jail for failure to pay child support.
The collapse of Avner's and his marriage drove him into a state of deep reflection. He traveled to Israel for an extended stay to try to get a handle on his incessant anger and re-establish a relationship with his father, with whom he hadn't spoken in years.
In spring 1994, Samuel resurfaced again in Dallas as chef-manager of Da Spot, a Deep Ellum jazz club-restaurant launched by Denver health-care entrepreneur Dan Campbell. He spent lavishly on the venue, racking up $600,000 in design costs. "[Campbell] put in an elevator that was $30,000, just to get the food from downstairs to the second floor," says Samuel. The company signed top jazz talent for thousands of dollars while charging nothing at the door. Just four months after Da Spot opened, the landlord locked them out of the building for failure to make rent payments.
But Samuel quickly landed a position with the Oriental Mandarin to head the kitchen in a hotel the firm was planning to open in Mexico City. Four days before Samuel was scheduled to leave for Mexico, T.J. Mand approached him with an offer to partner with him in Yellow on McKinney. Mand, the owner of a successful typewriter and computer ribbon company in Leonard, was married to Samuel's first wife, Catherine, at the time. "[Samuel] came to me once and said, 'I've got Catherine by the balls,'" said a former business associate of Samuel's. "'When I divorced Catherine, she took me to the laundry. And now they're investing all of this money, and I'm going to get it all back.' Avner always makes his money."
Yellow opened in late 1994 to critical acclaim. But by the following summer, Samuel was gone. He left, he says, to take some time off and reassess his career path.
Several weeks later, he read in the paper that Executive Chef Kent Rathbun had left the Melrose Hotel, and he decided on a lark to interview for the position. To his surprise, he was hired. But after less than four months on the job and a few days before he was to introduce a new menu in the hotel's Landmark restaurant, he was gone. Assistant General Manager Scott Shoenberger says the parting incident occurred during a meeting in his office to plan, with other managers, the rollout of Avner's cuisine.
The discussion quickly shifted to Samuel's curt treatment of the restaurant staff, a few of whom were preparing to quit. "I'd already had a couple of discussions with Avner about his disposition..." Shoenberger says. "I don't deal with old-style European chefs that scream and yell and use a lot of profanity when they work in the kitchen."
But the exchange escalated into a cussing match. Characterizing the confrontation as an inexcusable display of unprofessionalism, Samuel says Shoenberger dressed him down in front of his co-workers. He claims he went straight to the personnel office to report the incident.
Shoenberger disputes this account, saying that after he confronted him about his treatment of the staff, Samuel threw a pencil across on the table and told him to "stick this up your [ass]," before walking out. Shoenberger says he called a meeting with Samuel in the personnel office immediately following the outburst.
Contrary to news reports at the time, Samuel insists he wasn't fired. But Shoenberger differs here too. "He did not leave on his own accord," he explains. "He called me back the next day and asked for his job back...but there was no way I was going to allow him to come back."
He was unemployed for the next few months until he ran into Eric Kimmel--partner in the defunct Joint on Turtle Creek--one evening at Star Canyon. "I said, 'You know, the best chef in town would make the best hamburger,'" recalls Kimmel. "'The bottom line is, if you're a great chef, it's easy to make $30 entrees. But can you make a really good burger?'" Kimmel intrigued Samuel with his pitch, and he later met with Larry Klinghoffer, owner of Malibu Tan and a partner in the Joint, who convinced him to head the kitchen of this hip pool hall serving burgers and upscale appetizers.
A phenomenally successful venue in its first few months, the Joint sank after just over a year because of differences in direction and management philosophy among the partners.
But Samuel was gone just a few months after Kimmel persuaded him to come on board. Mand had been paying him frequent visits at the Joint urging him to come back to Yellow, whose fortunes had been sagging since Mand opened a second restaurant, Americana, in late 1995.
Samuel agreed. But when he returned, he found Yellow in a shambles. "The walk-in [cooler] didn't even work," says Samuel. "I'm surprised nobody got killed, from food poisoning or something like that."
He persuaded Mand to shut down for a week to renovate. But the newly refurbished Yellow lasted just four months, closing for good in June 1997 after forfeiting its charter of incorporation for non-payment of franchise taxes the previous February. Samuel attributes Yellow's gradual demise to Mand's drinking. Mand, who had a string of drunken driving convictions in Dallas and Collin counties, is currently serving a two-year sentence in the Bradshaw State Jail in Henderson on two drunken driving convictions.
Again, Samuel moved quickly into a new position. While still at Yellow, he got a phone call from Bahman Ayrom, owner of Addison Cafe, Cafe Highland Park, Bolero Mediterranean Grill, and Farfallo, offering Samuel the opportunity to revamp his dated restaurants. Samuel joined Boerkel Inc., Ayrom's company, and reopened Bolero as Okeanos to critical acclaim, and Farfallo as Avner at Preston to a lukewarm critical reception. A rift developed between Ayrom and Samuel shortly after Avner opened. And just eight weeks later, the second incarnation of a restaurant named Avner was on the ash heap of Dallas culinary history.
There are numerous reasons proffered to explain Samuel's professional instability. But most seem to center on his personal volatility and erratic professional behavior aimed at customers, business partners, and vendors alike. "He was always a screamer and a yeller when under pressure," says Wayne Broadwell, who was partners with Samuel at the Plaza Cafe. "When under pressure, he loses it...He's a wild man."
According to Broadwell, Samuel's violent behavior at the Plaza had a single source: his mercurial relationship with his co-chef, Juanita King. But if the dynamic of their relationship was unusual, its inception was even stranger.
According to Samuel, King, who is related to aprominent Houston family, had an obsession with him to the point that she enrolled in a European cooking school in hopes that she might someday work with him. Samuel recalls that the first time he went to her house, he discovered a pile of his press clips on her table. He was smitten by the intense interest from this woman from an upper-crust Texas family.
Samuel first hired King while at the Lincoln Hotel. "They found out that this girl he put in as sous chef didn't even know how to cook an egg," says Agillon, who also worked with Samuel at Lincoln. And Samuel admits that while her cooking skills were not to his standards, he hired her anyway. "I was absolutely infatuated with that woman," he says. "Nobody ever treated me like this. But...I was absolutely dumb when it came to life. American life."
Samuel's fights with King, who could not be reached for comment, grew so intense, they reverberated into the Plaza Cafe dining room, and the restaurant was having problems retaining staff because of his outbursts. It wasn't long before Broadwell decided he had enough. So he changed all of the restaurant's locks. Samuel was livid and threatened to drive his Porsche through the front doors.
"I would have done it," Samuel admits. "He gave me a partnership on paper, and when he wanted me out, he was supposed to pay me $15,000. But he never paid me."
But Broadwell says that while Samuel had a 49 percent interest in the venture, he had no equity stake. He adds that he never offered to buy out Samuel's share of the partnership, which was given to him in exchange for the use of his name. The dispute, however, prompted Broadwell to hire security guards for protection.
But perhaps the most damning charges leveled against Samuel concern his business practices. Wooing potential backers with his resume and consistent awards of four or more stars from The Dallas Morning News reviewers, Samuel is said to promise critical acclaim and initial high-dollar sales simply with his name. "Avner goes into a restaurant with a bang, makes a buck, and leaves," says a chef who followed on Samuel's heels at one restaurant. "That's his philosophy in restaurants."
But Samuel, as well as one of his former backers, maintains it's the other way around. "If I'm opening a restaurant, I have Avner as an opening chef, get my four stars from Waltrina [Stovall, former restaurant critic of the News], and kick him out and get someone else," explains the backer. "He was being used by people because Waltrina easily gave him the four stars."
Still others say that while Samuel's name may bring short-term success, the long-term impact can be devastating. "Whatever he touches, he puts in the ground," says Kovacic. "All he does is offer himself. And what he offers is not very much. In the end, he milks it, and he moves on."
Franki and Gabriela Kovacic sold Samuel the parent company of Franki's Li'l Europe restaurant in 1992 so that he could open Avner's. Under the terms of the sale, Samuel had 18 months to purchase the stock in the parent company. He also was required to operate a restaurant on the premises through December 31, 1996, the point at which the Kovacics' lease guarantee expired. After the stock transfer, the Kovacics were to receive 2 percent of the restaurant's gross monthly sales payable monthly as a fee for their personal guarantee on the lease.
But Samuel purchased the stock for $60,000 in just three months, then reneged on his agreement to pay the Kovacics their 2 percent cut. He believes the accelerated stock purchase payment relieved him of the monthly obligation. The Kovacics sued Samuel for fraud, breach of contract, and appropriating corporate funds for personal use. In early 1996 they were awarded more than $49,000 in damages that they have yet to collect.
"There's no way they're going to see a dime of it," says Samuel defiantly, who filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy late last year, listing $2,800 in assets and more than $121,000 in liabilities, including a $51,000 claim by his ex-wife, Amy.
But the transaction swirls in still more controversy. Samuel says that he made the $60,000 stock purchase payment out of proceeds from Avner's sales. But one of Samuel's partners, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, says he provided the funds in exchange for 50 percent interest in the restaurant. As Avner's fortunes declined precipitously, the partner proposed buying Samuel's remaining interest for $45,000, which he would raise over a two-month period.
But Samuel couldn't wait. An argument ensued, and the next day Samuel closed Avner's, loaded up all of the restaurant's furnishings and supplies, and sold them in June 1993. Avner's partner then paid $20,000 to cover overdue lease payments and other expenses and was instrumental in the development of Enigma, which opened in the space the following September.
Rumored to be among Samuel's most contentious business relationships, however, are those with vendors. While few suppliers would comment for this article, Samuel admits that several refuse to do business with him. In addition, industry sources allege he has left a trail of unpaid bills. Yet no vendor would confirm the allegation, although Seafood Supply has had a $4,000 judgment against him since 1993.
But they do confirm that he can be difficult to work with, often hammering relentlessly on price. "I'd pick up the phone and say, 'Look, you say $6.50, I say $5.50. You don't want it, I'll send it back. You want it, come change it to $5.50," boasts Samuel. "I could tell the vendors, 'Go to hell. That's how much I'm going to pay you.'"
Some who have worked with him say he constantly pressed vendors for favors as a condition of future business. Other sources contend some of the wine poured at Avner's was demanded gratis from suppliers as a condition for inclusion on the wine list, a violation of Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission regulations. "He would try to work something out with the purveyors on the order of kickbacks," says Felix Agillon. "Or you make a list of everything that was missing, and you weren't really missing nothing. You're just going to get it all over again, and then you have money to spare on something else. Those tricks were done all the time."
One contractor says that when he submitted a bid for work on a restaurant Samuel was developing with outside financial backing, he instructed the contractor to inflate the bid by $10,000 and then rebate the markup to him. The contractor refused. "He definitely has an uncanny way of promising you the moon and getting you to do things that you wouldn't normally do," he says. "Like expose yourself a little bit more, and then nothing ever comes of it."
Agillon adds that Samuel would construct other schemes to bleed cash from his backers. These included fabricating invoices, requesting funds for payment of bills that weren't outstanding, or putting in for reimbursement of expended personal funds on bogus transactions. "He would sit on the counter scratching his head, pulling his hair out...and say, 'We're going to go down unless you help me out,'" says Agillon, recounting how Samuel would confront his partners.
Samuel denies falsifying invoices or scheming to take money away from his investors.
Bahman Ayrom asserts that Samuel's tactics almost ruined him. After huge cost overruns and a stormy dispute over the direction of Avner at Preston, Ayrom says, he was forced to sell Okeanos and Cafe Highland Park to keep from going under. "I lost a lot of money," he admits. "[Samuel] got banged up at this restaurant and got three [Dallas Morning News] stars. We did not get any result from our review like we did for Okeanos."
But Samuel says Ayrom underfunded the restaurant, failing to come through on a promised advertising and public relations campaign. "We were arguing every day," he charges. "I had to throw him out of the kitchen sometimes." Days before Avner at Preston closed for good, Samuel resigned in frustration, browbeating--according to inside sources--the kitchen staffs from both Avner and Okeanos into walking with him. Samuel contends they resigned out of loyalty, willingly gathering at his house after he left.
Yet a day later, Samuel apologized to Ayrom for his behavior, pleading to return to his position. "Those guys need their jobs," says Samuel. "He needs to have the restaurant open. So I call him the next morning and say, 'Look, let's work out these differences.'"
He committed to remain at the restaurant until February 14, at which point he would reassess the situation. But Samuel left several days later and demanded his name be taken off the restaurant signs. Avner closed December 17, 1997.
According to Vincenzo Pappano, chef at Avner at Preston Caviar Bar (now Ayrom at Preston), the critical financial losses had more sinister causes than simply internal contentiousness and a Morning News star deficiency.
"Let's just say he confused the ingoing and the outgoing very well," Pappano says with a laugh. He charges that Samuel routinely ordered large amounts of food and loaded it into the walk-in coolers. The next day, most of it would turn up missing, despite the fact that the previous evening saw little business. "He knows exactly what he's doing," Pappano continues. "I saw an invoice one day for some shrimp that came in. There was 50 pounds of shrimp. The next day, there was only 15 pounds of shrimp...35 pounds was gone overnight. He was robbing it for sure."
Pappano claims Samuel confided he was stockpiling food for the next restaurant he was planning to open, a charge Samuel fiercely denies. Pappano adds that on one occasion when he accompanied Samuel on a run to pick up bar supplies, Samuel stopped at his house on the way back to the restaurant. "He'd take a case of Cristal Champagne and a case of $100 bottles of wine and just stick it in his garage," Pappano alleges. "And it was all on the invoices for [Avner]. And he controlled all of the inventory; he controlled all of the invoices. You're talking a $3,000 theft in one clip."
"Bullshit," counters Samuel when confronted with the allegation. "I wish that I actually did it, because at least I would have gotten something out of it.
"I want that person to come and, right in my face, tell me that...I hear so many people saying so many things about me behind my back. But when they are in front of me, it's like nothing but the greatest things."
Two months after the closing of Avner, Samuel has a hard time concealing his growing concern about the future. He worries that the rumors about him swirling around Dallas will keep him out of work. "I saw an ad in the paper. It said 'Hot-shot driver. Twenty-eight cents a mile. Plus expenses," he says, half jokingly. "I'm serious. I mean, I'd do anything."
For the first time over the course of several conversations, Samuel seriously considers leaving Dallas for another city, believing almost any location would be more hospitable. He says he's tired of being hurt by the media, partners, or people who think they can make money off his name. "I feel like there is a conspiracy against Avner or something."
He acknowledges that he has a serious problem here, that there are a lot of places he'd like to go to explore work, but he fears they've already formed an unflattering opinion of him. But then his sheepishness slips away.
"I'm not going away," he says emphatically. "I will sweep the streets of Dallas. I'm a survivor. I might not win, but I'm not going away. It might take time, but I'll be back. I can't give up. I'm too good.
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