As the inevitable construction delays pushed back Mio’s opening one week after another, owner Manuel Iguina knew that if he wanted to keep his top staff, he would have to pay their salaries without a single dollar flowing into the restaurant. It was Iguina’s way of proving his commitment to his managers and chefs—and to his $2 million gamble on a lonely stretch of Vermont Avenue NW that he hopes will become the next Penn Quarter.
But when the midtown operation was finally set to open on May 2, Iguina learned that JohnPaul Damato—his hand-picked executive chef and partner whose seasonal, globally influenced menu would be the centerpiece at Mio—didn’t seem to share the same unwavering commitment.
“We had a conversation…when we were opening, and he wasn’t sure if this was the right move for him,” recalls Iguina, the former general manager for Café Atlántico and Restaurant Nora. Less than a month later, Damato became sure. He decided to accept a position as executive chef of special projects with José Andrés and the THINKfoodGROUP, the very company he had just left (and where he served as the executive chef for all three Jaleo operations). Damato has known Iguina since their days together at Nora. Mio was to be the first restaurant either man owned on American soil.
The news came as a surprise to Iguina, but Damato says he had been considering his options for a while. The chef, in fact, compares his flip-flop to that of Billy Donovan, the University of Florida basketball coach who recently quit the school and signed a multimillion-dollar contract to coach the Orlando Magic—only to return to college hoops before he coached one NBA game.
“Billy Donovan…realized his best [situation was] being where he was, because that’s what he truly loves to do,” Damato says. “And you know what? Sometimes you don’t really know what you like to do. All I know is I love cooking. I love working with people and motivating people.…And the thing is, I can do a lot more of that with my opportunities with José…[CEO] Rob Wilder, and the THINKfoodGROUP than I could for myself.”
Both Damato and Iguina agree that the chef left the kitchen in terrific shape: The remaining staff is talented, and Damato hopes Iguina will tap young sous chef Ryan Wheeler to take over his old job. But regardless of the kitchen’s ability to carry on, Iguina admits that Damato’s departure has halted the restaurant’s forward momentum. “Because everybody’s expecting to see JohnPaul,” he says, “and now you have to tell everybody that he decided not to be part of this team.”
And the hard truth is, Mio had very little momentum to spare. Because of its construction delays, the eatery opened around the same time as Hook, Brasserie Beck, Café du Parc, and other restaurants with higher profiles or bigger PR budgets. Damato says that Mio wasn’t “even in any newspapers for the last month,” which is true save for small mentions in Roll Call and the Washington Times. As a result, “people really didn’t know we were open,” Damato says, and the numbers reflect it.
“I’m just not where I want to be yet. It has a trend of getting better and better every week, but it’s too slow for my tastes,” says Iguina.
Iguina was betting that Damato would be the name-above-the-title chef to attract diners to his stately, wood-centric restaurant—a place with power-player ambitions just a few steps away from the D.C. outpost of the überexpensive Italian chain Il Mulino. Iguina had even helped finance Damato’s small share of the business, so the chef would be a partner for the first time in his career.
But if Iguina feels any disappointment about Damato’s abrupt departure, he’s keeping it to himself. In some ways, in fact, Iguina appreciates a few of the reasons behind Damato’s about-face, namely a wife and two teenage children who would have to suffer through the long hours that a start-up restaurant requires of a chef. “I understand because I’ve been a single father for 12 years. I found myself employing my daughters just so we can spend more time together,” Iguina says. “The launch of a restaurant requires a lot of time on the floor and a lot of personal presence, and I think he just realized it wasn’t for him.”
Still, Iguina must now deal with a major decision just six weeks into Mio’s existence: Will he put his kitchen in the hands of the young, unknown Wheeler, or will he roll the dice again and try to lure another pedigree chef? Iguina’s not sure which way he’ll go, though he notes that Damato’s small share in the business could be transferred to the new chef, if that would be a selling point.
“I have it saved for the right person who would come in…and do the job,” Iguina says, with emphasis on the last four words.
I was sitting in Brasserie Beck, enjoying a pot of steaming mussels and a Belgian amber ale, when I learned why I could no longer order the smoky, fatty, I’ll-stab-you-with-a-steak-knife-if-you-eat-my-portion bone marrow at the Blue Duck Tavern. Odd, I know, but the waiter works at both restaurants. He told me the wood-burning oven was down for the count at the Blue Duck. He painted a picture of fire, people fleeing the building, and a lawsuit.
Turns out he’s a better waiter than reporter. Ken Hood, director of restaurants at the Park Hyatt in Foggy Bottom, where the Blue Duck is housed, says that the rooftop motor that drives the wood-burning oven’s exhaust system caught fire in late April. Enough smoke poured into the kitchen to set off the fire alarms, which forced the restaurant to temporarily clear the tables—of patrons. But order, Hood says, was quickly restored, even if the motor wasn’t.
Repairs and inspections took about four weeks, but diners barely noticed anything was missing, Hood says. “This all took place right at the same time that we were changing over to our spring menu.…A lot of this stuff that was on the winter menu was being rolled off in any case, such as the marrow bone,” he says. Plus, Hood adds, the spring menu could be written without items needing a wood-burning oven, and any other dish that required roasting could go into the kitchen’s showcase range, the $250,000 Molteni.
So will the bone marrow of the gods return now that the wood-burning oven is fixed? “That’s totally up to the chef.…I suspect he may not bring it back until the fall,” Hood says. A moment later, after my short soliloquy on the dish, Hood starts to backtrack. “There may be some pressure on him to bring it back,” he says.
The next day, Blue Duck spokeswoman Katie Rackoff calls to say the kitchen “tested the marrow bone and put it back on” the menu.
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