Omnivore - Of chefs and owners

Wow, here's a roundabout communication. Over the weekend, one of our interns came across an open letter to me, posted on Atlanta Cuisine's site, in a thread about this blog. Phew!

But the nature of the letter was quite interesting, and I'd like a chance to respond. The post read:

Besha- I read your review of Beleza in CL this weekend, and loved it for all of it's insight into the challenges of the menu. What I find interesting though is the continued classification of Riccardo Ullio as the "chef" of his restaurants Sotto Sotto and Fritti; however you do in you article name Michelle McKenzie as the chef at Beleza. As an employee of Mr. Ullio for over a year, I have yet to see him actually work in one of his kitchens, or plan one of his seasonal menus. When I am working, and a guest asks to speak to Chef Ullio, we are told to reply that "the Chef has the day off, and to please look for him in his kitchen tomorrow". I would think that Riccardo Ullio would be more befitting of the description of a restaurant visionary here in Atlanta, finding great themes and concepts, and bringing them to life in his great restaurants. However, in my time working in his restaurants, it would be a dishonor to credit the great food of Sotto Sotto and Fritti to Riccardo Ullio. The real credit goes to the talented daily management, as well as the kitchen staff (many of whom have been working for Riccardo for 7+ years).

Having worked in restaurants myself for many years with "executive chefs" who are never around, I understand the letter writer's frustration. Believe me, I know how valuable the team of cooks, sous chefs and chefs de cuisine are, which is partly why I did my Food Issue this year focusing on cooks rather than chefs. But I think in the restaurant industry, it is somewhat understood that owners who are chefs by trade are often going to get that executive chef title, whether or not it's deserved. It's something that comes up a lot, and even more so when the supposed chefs don't even live in the same city as their restaurants. Should we assume that the flurry of celebrity chefs who are about to open restaurants in Atlanta are not actually the chefs, or should not be credited as such? I suppose that remains to be seen, as some chefs are very involved in all their projects (I recently met Jean Georges on site at his Minneapolis restaurant, Chambers Kitchen, despite that he most certainly does not live in Minnesota), while some are not (Emeril's anyone?).

As far as Riccardo Ullio and Beleza go, I know that Michelle McKenzie is the chef and is credited as such, that Ullio is the owner, and that's how I defined him in the article as well as how he defines himself, and that he is incredibly involved in the project. Every time I visited for the review he was there, acting as owner, not as chef. When I spoke with him on the phone, it was obvious that the overall direction of the restaurant, menu included, would eventually be his call.

As for his other restaurants, I have done no direct reporting on them. But I know that chefs come and go at Sotto Sotto (Jose Rego recently left to become chef at Allegro), but the menu does not change in any significant way. I can only conclude that Ullio is behind the overriding direction of the menu, thus making him deserving of the title "executive chef." If I was a staff member who had been directed to tell white lies to customers about an owner's involvement, it would annoy me as well. But then again, working for chef/owners who spend every waking moment of their lives in their own kitchens can be difficult, too. I think most chefs hope one day to set their kitchens on a steady course, step away from the stove, and put their faith in a well-chosen staff. Should that mean they have to give up their title as chef? I'm not so sure.

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