City Paper is not for tourists
Near the tail end of his Southern road trip, Andy Shallal had come to a horrible realization: The winner of the Top Chef-like contest he’d staged wasn’t the right man to lead the kitchen in his new restaurant after all. At the time of his epiphany in late March, Shallal and Chris Newsome, the lone chef standing after the grueling competition, were both silently milling around the New Orleans airport, fresh off a multiday tour of the South to sample the food that would define their project. Shallal, to be fair, wasn’t the only one in crisis.
Newsome had just learned that his elderly grandmother had died. Instead of catching a flight back to D.C. with Shallal, the chef was going to rent a car so he could drive to Birmingham, Ala., and attend the funeral of the woman who had influenced his love of food. Shallal, meanwhile, was stewing over recent events. During the past few days, Shallal had been arguing with his new chef over what dishes to feature at Eatonville, the restaurant he was about to open across V Street NW from the restaurateur’s first Busboys & Poets outlet in Shaw. Shallal, who was born in Iraq, wanted to limit the pork offerings. Newsome, an Alabama native, couldn’t imagine a Southern restaurant without pig products.
As he stood there in the airport, Shallal simply couldn’t fathom why his willful new hire thought so highly of himself. Had Newsome ever opened his own restaurant? Did he have any clue what middle-aged African-American women—Eatonville’s targeted palate—really wanted to eat? Hell, as far as Shallal could determine, Newsome was a nobody. Shallal even had evidence: the lack of Google hits when the restaurateur searched on Newsome’s name.
At some point—Newsome says it was after he learned about his grandmother’s death, and Shallal says it was before—the owner finally spouted off to his chef. “You’re interested in opening Chris Newsome’s restaurant,” Shallal told the toque. “Who the hell do you think you are?”
And with that, Shallal fired Newsome before the chef ever had a chance to cook a single meal at Eatonville.
It was an unpredictable ending to what had, just weeks earlier, all the signs of being a classic partnership. Back in February, Newsome was one of more than 200 people to submit résumés in hopes of landing the executive chef position at Eatonville, a gig with a $75,000 salary attached to it. Only 23 of those applicants, though, were called in for interviews. Newsome was one, and for good reason. He not only studied the culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston, S.C., but had also worked for the James Beard Award–winning Bob Kinkead, first as a sous chef at Kinkead’s and later as chef de cuisine at the now-shuttered Colvin Run Tavern.
Newsome’s interview, however, started out on an odd note. Before even one question was posed, the job candidate was asked to sign a release so that videographers could record every word of his interview session. Newsome signed it and proceeded to spend the next 20 minutes or so fielding questions from Shallal and Carla Hall, the Wheaton-based caterer and former Top Chef finalist who was helping to weed through the candidates. The interviewers felt an instant connection to Newsome. “When he walked out of the room, we both had tears in our eyes,” Hall said later. In a way, they felt as if they had already found their man. “This is our chef,” Hall recalled thinking.
Because he was clearly partial to Newsome, Shallal admitted right after the contest that he was “a little harder on him from the beginning.” You’d have a hard time proving that, though. Shallal checked only one of Newsome’s references, and the chef all but breezed through the various rounds, each tied to some Southern ingredients or Southern dishes or the Southern strains of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is partially set in Eatonville, Fla., the writer’s all-black hometown.
Then again, Newsome probably could have won this contest without a biased panel, which did include both Shallal and Hall as judges for the championship round. Newsome’s final menu, after all, was a clever amalgam of food and Hurston biography. His “sweet and spicy” barbecued oysters, he told the judges, were inspired by Hurston’s similarly “sweet and spicy” personality. His cornmeal-crusted flounder with tasso ham was a nod to Hurston’s connection to the Southern coast, with its endless bounty of fresh fish. His gingerbread-scone dessert was even inspired by the character Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The judges ate that treacly stuff up. Mike Curtin, CEO for D.C. Central Kitchen, felt that Newsome’s approach showed the chef was putting the Eatonville concept before his own ego. “It’s clear that [the chef] is cooking for this restaurant,” Curtin said during the final challenge. “He’s not cooking to show off.”
Curtin’s assessment makes you wonder how, over the course of just a few weeks in March, Newsome could have shape-shifted from a thematically sensitive chef willing to sacrifice his ego in the name of Eatonville to an egomaniac willing to undermine his boss’ very vision of the restaurant. The answer perhaps requires some background first.
To begin with, executive chefs typically aren’t hired by means of a Food Network–esque contest designed to drum up public interest in a restaurant. No chef or restaurateur contacted for this story had ever heard of an executive chef hired via a competitive cook-off—save, of course, for those winners of reality shows such as Hell’s Kitchen. Too much is at risk, most said, to hand over your multimillion-dollar restaurant to some chef who’s only proven that he can cook a great meal.
A true executive chef, says Michael Babin, co-owner of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, requires more skills than the ability to impress a random collection of judges who may not even understand your restaurant’s concept. Chefs must also manage the motley crew of cooks who work under them. It takes someone with a big ego and a sense of humility. A chef must have the humility to accept feedback and to dish out 101 minor criticisms every day “without wiping out the people who work for them,” Babin says. But a chef must also have an iron-will ego to prevent small compromises from creeping into the kitchen systems, the recipes, or whatever else might diminish the experience out in the dining room.
To find such a person, Babin will “use every means at [his] disposal.” He’ll interview the chef himself, then pass the potential hire to the director of operations, the manager of the restaurant, even to the public relations person for further questioning. Babin will also call everyone and anyone who might have an opinion on the chef, venturing far beyond the candidate’s provided references. Babin wants to find out, among other things, if the chef is a screamer, a plate-thrower, or a bum who shows up late and leaves early, perhaps with a few tenderloins stuffed under his whites. Babin will, of course, also conduct a tasting or two with the chef. “It can be a long process,” he says.
It’s also a process with little guarantee for success, particularly for young cooks moving into the executive chef position for the first time. Babin believes such newbies succeed only about 30 percent of the time. The main problem with just about any hiring process is that you can only see how a chef works once he’s in your kitchen for days and weeks. No exhaustive background check or interview session can tell you whether the chef has the necessary drive. Or if he’s trustworthy. Or if he’s philosophically aligned with the restaurant’s mission.
But of all the analytical tools available to a restaurateur, a cooking contest is likely the least effective way to suss out a chef’s real personality, says R.J. Cooper, the Beard Award–winning toque. At Cooper’s Vidalia, cooks are almost always promoted from within once they’ve learned the restaurant’s system and values. Even line cooks at Vidalia aren’t hired until they make it through a brutal two-day ritual in which they must perform a wide variety of tasks, often under a number of different people. Cooper’s trying to assess their dedication and determination. “You’re not going to find that in a contest,” he says.
Andy Shallal will be the first to tell you that he doesn’t kowtow to the cult of celebrity chefs—or even non-celebrity chefs. By his own recollection, he burned through three toques in three years at his last chef-driven restaurant, MiMi’s American Bistro off Dupont Circle. After fighting over food costs, cleanliness, and basic kitchen management, Shallal told himself that “I’d never go down the chef route again.”
And for years, he didn’t. The model for his wildly successful Busboys & Poets chain doesn’t include chefs. Instead, the restaurateur relies on kitchen managers to hire and train sous chefs and line cooks who, day in and day out, are content to execute a budget-minded menu of pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and a small number of entrees. In return, these kitchen drones receive a salary, benefits, health insurance, and paid vacations. “For my people, it’s a job,” Shallal says. “It’s not about the showmanship.”
But when it came time to develop Eatonville, Shallal realized he needed a fresh concept, particularly given the restaurant’s proximity to the Busboys & Poets on 14th Street NW. “I can’t do the same thing,” Shallal notes. So he decided instead to build a chef-driven destination for “more foodie types.”
It was Shallal’s idea to turn his chef selection into a publicity stunt. His plan was both elaborate and sophisticated. He rented out CulinAerie, the new cooking school on 14th Street NW, to host the multi-day contest. He hired a team of videographers to capture every moment, from the initial interviews to the final cook-off. He paid the nine competitors after each stage of the competition, starting at $100 per chef for the first round and culminating at $1,000 per chef for the two finalists, Newsome and Rusty Holman, a North Carolina native who last cooked for the Young Republican crowd at the exclusive Rookery in the West End
Shallal spent nearly $25,000 to stage the competition, but he hoped to reap the benefits in terms of press coverage and public excitement. His plan was to create a series of videos, which he would release over a period of weeks on the Eatonville Web site, concluding with one announcing the new chef just as the restaurant was set to open.
Complications arose from the day the contest started, at least for some of the chefs. The nine contestants had to elbow for room in CulinAerie’s main instructional kitchen, which had a limited number of burners and ovens. In a way, the kitchen forced these competitors to act more like colleagues as they politely negotiated for space and open stoves. But on the second day of the contest, with six chefs remaining, each one required to make fried chicken, the contestants were confronted with an even bigger issue: no deep fryers at CulinAerie.
The chefs had to fall back on pan-frying techniques or had to improvise their own deep fryers on the stove top. This may explain why the judges weren’t too impressed with the birds. “I’m an African-American,” said E. Ethelbert Miller, a literary activist and editor of Poet Lore magazine, during the competition. “I’ve been eating chicken all my life…I didn’t taste any chicken that I wanted to go back and eat some more.”
A far more complicated problem, however, surfaced at the end of the fried-chicken round: The judges ultimately wanted to cut both of the African-American chefs, leaving only four white men for the remainder of the contest. Shallal balked at the idea. “We can’t allow the process to be guided by race alone,” the owner said. But “when I am honest, race plays a role.” And with that remark, Shallal decided that five chefs would move into the next round, including Jacques Ford, one of the previously ousted toques.
The truth be told, the best chef—or at least the one with the most experience as executive chef—didn’t win the contest. Trent Conry, previously head toque at both Ardeo and 701, was asked to leave in the semi-final round, a victim of his own refined skills. Conry prepared such dishes as a beet risotto, a potato cake topped with smothered onions and shiitake mushrooms, and a “coffee and doughnuts” dessert in which the drink was a multi-layered parfait-like creation with java-flavored granita in the middle.
“I’d say you’re probably the most talented [chef] we had, but that’s not all we’re looking for,” Shallal told Conry when he gave him the boot. “I’m not sure we’re going to be a great fit, and that’s why I think we need to move on.”
Minutes before he delivered the blow, though, Shallal told Conry one other thing: He thought the chef would be “a major challenge” to work with.
Shallal’s comment, perhaps, should have been a warning sign to Chris Newsome.
The Southern road trip was part of Shallal’s master plan; he wanted his new chef to experience the real Eatonville, so that he could better understand the food and the culture that had shaped Hurston and, by extension, the new restaurant that pays homage to the writer. A number of people had told Shallal the trip was a bad idea.
Privately, Newsome didn’t think much of the trip either. It’s hard enough, he figured, traveling with friends and family, let alone traveling with three strangers—his new boss, Shallal’s brother-in-law, and Brian Evans, an Eatonville manager. The chef’s mood didn’t improve any when Shallal allegedly told Newsome that he had never before visited the South, nor had he ever cracked open a Southern cookbook—aside, that is, from those by Vertamae Grosvenor, a culinary anthropologist who served as one of the Eatonville contest judges. (Shallal denies such remarks; he says he’s visited the South repeatedly and has read a number of other cookbooks on Southern food.)
The 37-year-old Newsome, by contrast, has been steeped in Southern food and culture his entire life. He grew up on beans and corn and other crops pulled straight from his grandmother’s Alabama farm; he started cooking professionally at age 19 at the Bottega Restaurant & Café in Birmingham, where he worked under the esteemed Southern chef Frank Stitt. To Newsome, it wasn’t going to be easy to swallow lectures on Deep South cooking from an amateur.
Which may have been the crux of the problem when the foursome pulled into New Orleans. It was in Crescent City that Shallal delivered his speech to Newsome about Eatonville’s target eater, that mythical middle-age African-American woman. Shallal said he knew from experience what such diners wanted, and it wasn’t pork. Not long after the speech, as if on cue, Shallal and Newsome came across a 40-something black woman who admired the Busboys & Poets shirt that someone in their party was wearing. Shallal introduced himself and told the stranger about his new Eatonville venture. She wondered if he had hired a chef yet.
Shallal said the chef, in fact, was standing right here, pointing to Newsome. She then turned to Newsome and asked if he will have good things on his menu.
“If I’m allowed, I will,” Newsome told the woman.
Shallal wasn’t at all amused by the smartass remark. To the boss, it was just another sign of his new hire’s misplaced arrogance.
For his part, Newsome doesn’t deny that he’s confident, a character trait that he believes stops well short of arrogance. It’s a self-image that would appear to jibe with Babin’s earlier description of a strong kitchen leader. Shallal, however, views Newsome’s personality a different way. “He just had that way about him,” the owner says. “He was resistant to any kind of criticism or change.…To be a good chef, you got to try to listen to comments from others.”
When the ax finally fell on him at the airport, Newsome felt the decision was rash, perhaps based in part on the strain of the trip as well as Shallal’s inability to clearly articulate his vision for the restaurant. Shallal, the chef said, wanted his restaurant to serve Southern cuisine, authentic Southern cuisine even, but wouldn’t know the real stuff “if it was staring him in the face.”
Shallal admits that Newsome was “probably right,” that the owner never articulated a clear vision for Eatonville. “But I really wanted a collaborative process to take shape,” he adds. The owner felt like Newsome had a clear idea for Eatonville—a sort of modern take on rustic Southern cuisine—and wouldn’t budge from it.
Whatever the ultimate reason for the divorce, Newsome isn’t holding any grudges against Shallal, though the chef does confess that he’s “thrilled that I’m not” at Eatonville. Newsome says that even though he’s still without a full-time gig.
As for Shallal, well, the show must go on. He ended up hiring Rusty Holman, the second-place finisher in the chef contest. “I remember [Holman] being good, kind of hit-or-miss good” during the competition, Shallal says. “But he’s come through as being very good.”
If you look at Eatonville’s Web site today, you naturally won’t find a word of this dust-up. Instead, you’ll find an altered reality. The entire site has been designed completely around the competition; it features short descriptions of the competing chefs as well as the people who served as judges. The site, in fact, is so focused on the contest it doesn’t even include a copy of Holman’s opening menu.
But right there on the home page, the site boasts this bit of creative fiction, as fanciful as anything Hurston penned during her career:
“[Drum Roll]… The winner of our chef search is Mr. Rusty Holman!”