The chef has quit. So what?

Terence Feury is leaving Fork for a restaurant in Swedesboro.
Terence Feury is leaving Fork for a restaurant in Swedesboro.
Posted: June 29, 2012

Your restaurant is riding high. Day after day, plates of food go out of the kitchen looking beautiful and come back empty. Costs are in line. Employees are happy.

Then one day, the chef sits you down.

"I'm leaving."

Such is what happened recently at Fork, Ellen Yin's bistro in Old City.

Terence Feury, who joined Yin to fanfare in January 2009, said he had a golden opportunity to invest in the renovation of the Old Swedes Inn in Swedesboro, Gloucester County, and to lead its kitchen later this summer when it opens as Tavro 13.

Yin might have been surprised, but she could not have been shocked. Few businesses are as transient as restaurants. Fork — aside from being a top-rated destination restaurant with a devoted following — is a comparative rock of stability. Including Feury, Fork has had only four executive chefs in its 15 years.

Restaurants build reputations on many things — food, atmosphere, service. In this celebrity-driven age, the chef's name printed at the bottom of the menu means something, too. Good chefs bring with them expertise, of course. It is also believed in some circles that hiring a chef with solid name recognition — who presumably are also "good" chefs — will fill seats. Conversely, then, the departure of a celeb chef should spell doom for the restaurant. Right? Does it matter?

Ed Doherty, a restaurant consultant, said it only matters if an owner hitches his or her star to the chef. "You have to be careful of how much you build your brand around one individual — and you have to have a backup plan," said Doherty. The way to keep a chef is to give him or her an ownership interest. If not, "if they're motivated and they want more out of life, which most talented people are, they're gone."

That said, life does go on. Some restaurants give up the ghost, such as Tony Clark's on Broad Street, which limped along for only a few months after Clark walked out in 1998. (The location is now a bank and as such has a chance to make money.)

But most restaurants have survived, even thrived after a chef's public departure. One recent example is Talula's Table in Kennett Square, which still fills its vaunted chef's table after the divorce of founders Aimee Olexy, who owns the business, and Bryan Sikora, the chef who left. On the other side, after Olexy and Sikora turned over the keys to their first restaurant, Django, it seemed to instantly lose its cachet and closed less than three years later.

Joe Wolf was one of the founding partners of Striped Bass, one of the highest-profile restaurants of its day when it opened in 1994 at 15th and Walnut Streets. You couldn't miss the executive chef, Alison Barshak, chirruping on TV, smiling in print ads. Then came the night two years later when she left a letter of resignation on Wolf's desk and jetted off to Las Vegas to spend the weekend with her boyfriend.

The story made the papers, but Striped Bass' reservation book did not suffer, Wolf said in an interview last week.

Wolf called Barshak a figurehead. "The reality is that all of the menu work and all the day to day work was done by her sous chefs," he said. "When she left, it wasn't even a blip on the screen." Striped Bass had matured to the point that the overall institution was stronger than its chef's persona.

"Unless it's a chef-owner, the chef doesn't really matter. No one restaurant is run by one person. Everything — recipes — is worked and reworked. It's run by a team."

Few people were told that Barshak's successor as executive chef happened to be her former husband, Will Ternay. Wolf and his then partner, Neil Stein, had changed gears, advertising the restaurant, rather than the chef.

That tactic held until 2000 when Stein, who by then owned Striped Bass by himself, hired Feury as chef. Feury, who won all sorts of awards in his three-plus years, left when Striped Bass closed in bankruptcy as Stein's personal world crashed amid a scandal that sent Stein to prison for tax evasion. "If I had my way, I'd still be cooking there," Feury said last week.

Corporate restaurants tend to keep a lid on publicizing chefs. "Quick — name the chef at Capital Grille," said Doherty, facetiously, about the popular Broad Street steak house he used to run.

Jose Garces' name wasn't a headliner when he was chef for Stephen Starr at Alma de Cuba and El Vez. Now — name the chef at Village Whiskey or Chifa, two restaurants in Garces' empire.

When Matt Levin, now at Square Peg (where he is visible), left the executive chef's position at Lacroix at the Rittenhouse in 2008, the earth kept spinning. (He even made way for Jason Cichonski, who has also left to attain greater glory.) Levin's next restaurant was Adsum, a small, chef-driven project in Queen Village. When Levin left after less than a year, owner Kar Vivekananthan brought in a partner, Belvedere Restaurant Group, and changed the concept, the decor, and the name, to Tapestry.

Tapestry is less chef-driven, less expensive, and more profitable, said Vivekananthan.

Who is Tapestry's chef? "We don't have one," Vivekananthan said. "The menu is a combination of a lot of people's work, and it's not that complicated to execute."

At Fork, Yin said she would launch a national search for a new chef. Feury will leave at the end of July.

Incidentally, Feury replaced Thien Ngo, who had told Yin after seven years of service that he was planning to retire and move back to Vietnam. Shortly after, though, Ngo surfaced as chef at Coquette, a bistro that has since closed.

It later became Adsum and is now Tapestry.

Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com

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