Every once in awhile I wonder just why some people are keen to lavish praise on restaurant owners.
Yeah, I know--the Food Network and those in the media who promote the celebrity chef idea share a portion of the blame. But many of the folks who dine regularly simply don't wish to peer behind the curtain and find just what kind of men and women are responsible for our favorite places.
At best, they are ordinary, hard working entrepreneurs. But the weekend's revelations about two local restaurant names illuminate a shadier side of the industry. Bob Sambol's spat with one of his investors captured the most attention. As most of you know, the man behind Bob's Steak and Chop House was accused of swindling Lee Thompson out of $300,000--money supposedly intended to construct a cigar lounge on restaurant property...in a city that bans smoking. Accusations flying about on Friday included allusions to alleged gambling problems. Meanwhile, a few people in Addison brought up concerns over mayor Joe Chow's residency. Chow--who owns also owns May Dragon--has a permanent home in Dallas, renting in the suburban city in order to qualify for public office. Many a politician (Dick Cheney, George H. W. Bush, Hillary Clinton) has had the luxury of choosing from several possible "residencies," of course. But his son and daughter, who live in the Dallas home, voted in Addison elections last November, at least according to county records.
And these are just the most recent and noteworthy incidents.
Years ago, Alberto Lombardi sent a letter to a couple of local food writers claiming the lack of foot traffic downtown forced him to close--reluctantly--the West End destination 311 Lombardi. According to his landlord at the time, however, the restaurateur failed to pay rent several months running, forcing the property owners to take the initiative and lock him out. Stories I've heard in the past include one about a drunk owner firing a pistol inside his own joint. Must've happened, because the guy in question confirmed the story, adding the bullet pierced the wall and shot through a neighboring business. Another involved a club owner for some reason putting his venture into a girlfriend's name, a move that backfired when she found out about certain shenanigans.
When an old Lower Greenville restaurant shut down some time back, the manager sent me an email lamenting the event--and the end to Scotch and "good coke." Then there's the oft repeated rumor about the noted restaurateur who could check up on his establishments from home, through a series of video cameras linked to a monitor. Unfortunately, the story goes, his wife happened to glance at the screen as he entertained several young women in one of the places, long after hours.
The lot of them--minus exceptional cases--are notorious for disputing advertising and PR bills.
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We want them to be somehow better than this. But food service is a demanding industry. It requires long hours, late nights, thin skin and a frantic pace that would rattle the average 100-cold-calls-per-day salesperson. Add to this narrow profit margins that rise and fall on whims beyond their control and you end up with an industry hardly attractive to those in search of a "normal," stable life.
Remember, in Kitchen Confidential, now popular celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain admitted his desire for kitchen work stemmed from the time a wedding party rented out the restaurant where he worked one summer. During festivities, he spotted the chef on a secluded deck having sex with the bride.
And that was enough to lure him in.
This is not an indictment of all chefs and owners. The majority are, as I said, hard working entrepreneurs. It's just that stories of misconduct hardly seem shocking.