YOU’RE A CHEF FROM OUT OF TOWN, interviewing for a top job at a well-funded kitchen. In fact, the place used to be a very prominent, Michelin-starred restaurant, which closed suddenly. You ask about the situation between the guy who’d be your boss, and his previous team.

“Well, he’s suing them for half a million dollars.”

“For what?” you ask, shocked.

“For publicizing the restaurant at out of town events, rather than being in the kitchen personally putting that sear on your little piece of A5 Miyazaki 50 weeks a year.”

You think for a moment. “Know of any openings in San Francisco or L.A.?”

Bus tour

 

 

THAT IS ONE WAY OF PUTTING THE situation between Michael Olszewski, owner of now-dead Grace, and his former team, chef Curtis Duffy and general manager Michael Muser. Duffy and Muser had non-compete agreements which will expire next year; they sought to have the judge invalidate them on the grounds that, basically, you can’t compete with a closed restaurant. The story by Dan Mihalopolous at WBEZ gave the impression that they lost that case, and Eater picked up on that, but the actual truth is that they won—they got the judge’s okay to do the work leading up to a new restaurant, hunting for investors and real estate. By the time they get one built, the non-compete period will be over anyway.

Which is why Olszewski is back with a new legal tactic—contending absenteeism and unauthorized use of supplies from Grace. To think this makes sense is to assume that Nick Kokonas must have been mad that Grant Achatz spent two weeks at Eleven Madison Park, furious that he went off to London for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants announcements, and on the verge of litigation over the time Alinea spent in Miami and Madrid. Of course in every way, he approved of such international travel, was heavily involved in planning it, and sees it as essential to the highly successful international marketing of Alinea as one of the world’s destination restaurants.


Suing the star of For Grace—why don’t you run over Eleanor Roosevelt with a golf cart while you’re at it?


No doubt that’s the game Duffy knew they were playing, since he was once Achatz’s #2, and it’s not Duffy’s fault that Olszewski’s understanding of how the business works at this level was not so sharp—this is a man who lost a lawsuit when he stiffed the restaurant’s very experienced PR person (she had been Alinea’s once, too) because he couldn’t see what she’d done for them, as they opened to national publicity any other opening of 2012 would have killed for.

 

 

For Grace

BUT SET ASIDE THE DISPUTE between these particular parties, in which I have to admit I’m firmly on Team Talent over Team Money and would be even if I didn’t know Duffy & Muser personally. (God help us if diners ever start following the grosses, like movie fans do.)

Olszewski is a big wheel in low end real estate, and a hardball player, so he no doubt thinks he can both build restaurants all day long and sue people who worked for him out of spite; he’s the kind of guy who has F-you money. But you have to not only build restaurants, but staff them. At the moment, he owns the Grace space, which will someday have a restaurant run by Mari Katsumura (Acadia, Entente), and he’s been building a space near Loyola called Onward (a little on-the-nose about his Grace feelings), which was supposed to have Gaetano Nardulli (Schwa, Near in Barrington) in charge but reportedly will not now.

So here’s a guy with two buildouts and no currently operating restaurants. To get them going you need to hire people. A lot of people who will knock themselves dead for you to deliver a level of food and service that won’t make the followup in the Grace space a joke. That will show the world that you weren’t just the money guy with no idea of how to make a Grace happen.

And if they don’t, you’ll sue them? Like you’re suing 50% of the three-Michelin-starred chefs in Chicago?

Some people will see their chance here and I don’t fault anybody for taking one, but the market for top restaurant talent in both front and back of house is insanely tight. This action is a huge disincentive for his prospects of attracting talent that’s not desperate. I mean, what are the choices? Boka Group has a benefits package that lets you work out at different health clubs… Rick Bayless takes his staff to Mexico a couple of times a year… Michael Olszewski will hunt you down in court for the rest of your life if you do a Beard event in another city.

Gee, where do I sign up?

HP

We also have no idea how the foodies who will help a place like this take off on a local and national level will react. To say Duffy is well liked is comical understatement. As chefs go, the handsome and self-effacing (and, if you’ve seen the movie, self-made) Duffy is adored—just look at the hundreds of Instagram pictures of diners posing with him after their dinners. Suing the star of For Grace, who lifted himself from unimaginable personal tragedy to world class chef status—why don’t you run over Eleanor Roosevelt with a golf cart while you’re at it? Are people going to want to go to Olszewski’s restaurants, knowing that they’re contributing to his suing-beloved-chefs fund? Isn’t it just easier to go to Oriole or Smyth again, where everyone seems so happy?

Will magazines want to write about your new places when they know you’re suing a Food & Wine best new chef?

Will reviewers be able to review your new places without mentioning the fact that you’re currently in court with your old team?

What is the upside here, other than spite?

A guy can have F-You money and still not realize who’s getting screwed in the long run. This is Scientology-level shooting-your-own-foot-in-court legal wizardry. Olszewski has two restaurants, if they ever open (which honestly I have serious doubts about at this point), and the best hope they have is for Michael Olszewski to become obscure, and let his chefs and restaurants shine. As he never understood how to do with the best restaurant setup of the 2010s in Chicago.

 


Michael Gebert is an expert witness as editor of Fooditor.

Fooditor will be off next week, including Buzz List.


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