The Kith and the Kin Break Up

One of the best new chefs in Chicago just got fired.

Or maybe he didn’t.

If you ask Moe Taleb, partner/general manager of Kith and Kin in Lincoln Park, he and his brother and co-owner Ash are still deciding what to do and “might meet with their executive chef David Carrier “tomorrow” to sort things out as “nothing has been decided.”

There’s a slight problem with that plan. Carrier is currently in Georgia with his family where his wife works as a sommelier. Unless it’s via Webex or someone’s sending a plane, there likely won’t be a meeting. Despite the fact that there was no official announcement, Moe Taleb said that current chef de cuisine Andrew Brochu is their chef and that the Talebs will not be changing the Kith and Kin concept going forward.

Carrier’s version is that Ash Taleb called him up on Saturday, told him that his services were no longer needed for the process of planning the new upscale Andersonville restaurant Table that they were working on together, and that as of Monday September 13, Taleb would be taking over Kith and Kin. Carrier also says that Taleb called him back a few hours later and acknowledged that he “handled this (the alleged firing) incorrectly” and that he was flexible if Carrier wanted to get a group of investors together to buy him (Taleb) out.

Carrier said that Taleb said he was relieving Carrier of his duties because he didn’t make changes to the menu six months ago when Taleb requested them and that Carrier yelled at some of the staff. Carrier says that Taleb had requested price increases and a removal of lower-margin items like the sandwiches including the savory doughnut-like grouper cheek.

Carrier said he didn’t take the sandwiches off the menu because they were selling really well and people were clamoring for them. He wanted to wait for a natural point to remove them. As more people started to recognize Carrier’s and Brochu’s pedigree working with Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller, and started asking the chefs to cook more high end type entrees, Carrier eventually complied and started removing the sandwiches.

Carrier acknowledges that he yelled but only when “people were not living up to expectations.” He added, “I refuse to support mediocrity.”

Despit Taleb’s assertion that the firing was not a done deal, Carrier says there is no question in his mind that Taleb said he was taking over the restaurant. Carrier says, “They made it clear I was done.” He also says, “I feel as if a child has been kidnapped from me. Even though I won’t be working there the rest of the year, I’ll still have put in more hours than anyone, including the managers.”

Thing is if yelling at people or not changing your menu every few days were really terrible sins, Charlie Trotter, Rick Tramonto and most every famous French chef wouldn’t have careers and almost every Lettuce Entertain You restaurant would have been shuttered years ago.

Business partnerships are sometimes worse than bad marriages and often far worse when they break-up than any divorce. There are certainly two sides to every story, but unfortunately Moe Taleb won’t give me his.

What I do know is that Carrier left behind his family in Georgia, often going a month or more without seeing them to work at Kith and Kin. Carrier cooked for no extra compensation at Kith and Kin when the Taleb brothers requested that the restaurant start doing lunch service.

I know that every time I visited Kith and Kin, Carrier was in the kitchen or out in the dining room talking up his guests and making sure everyone was taken care of.

I’ve only given one five star review and three four star reviews as a reviewer for Modern Luxury CS in the last two and a half years. If you get a four star review, you not only have to be awesome, you have to be innovative. Carrier and his crew were cooking like Michelin starred moms. There were plenty of gastropubs serving casual food, organ meats, and doing great work, but few with the same level of consistency, precision, technique, and attention to detail. Plenty of people make good chicken thighs. Few make ones that are better than almost any piece of fried chicken I’ve had. That’s why Kith and Kin got four stars.

When I spoke to Carrier this afternoon, he spent very little time talking about the Talebs, saying he didn’t have any interest in vilifying them. He spent much more time trying to figure out whether he’d personally done something he shouldn’t have. He was wondering if the 180 covers they did last Friday or the 100 or so they were doing on a Wednesday night was enough. Carrier was harder on himself, than on the folks who dumped him via a phone call on the rare weekend he came back to be with his wife and kids.

The thing is a chef who’s disengaged doesn’t commute thousands of miles regularly or ask to see profit and loss statements for his kitchen. A chef who doesn’t really care or who wasn’t committed to the business would have no problem trashing his old bosses. Carrier on the other hand was too classy to do such a thing.

I kind of want to do it for him, because I believe what’s going on here is likely another example of a dangerous trend. Actually, it’s not even a trend. It’s been going on for years. Business guys who either know a lot about the bottom line, but little about running a restaurant, or guys who know how to run low end spots, but not high end ones, hire top cooking talent. They milk that talent for the first few months after a restaurant opening. After all the press has been gained and the great reviews have all been garnered, they fire or reduce the role of the chef who got them there. This happened recently with Grocery Bistro in the West Loop and Pensiero in Evanston.

Sometimes the money guys just bleed the restaurant dry for their own personal needs. I know a situation similar to this that is likely to happen again soon with another super-successful restaurant in Chicago.

If there’s a conflict about the bottom line, these business guys ask their chefs to switch to commodity produce and meat vendors or compromise on ingredient quality to make more money.

Or, maybe the business partners can’t understand why their high-end restaurant doesn’t churn and burn like their low-end spot. Before Carrier came along, the Talebs ran a mediocre salad and sandwich empire anchored by Zig Zag kitchen. Maybe they looked at the other middling places in the neighborhood that were packed out of familiarity and said why can’t we do business like that? Given a year or two, they probably would. Kith and Kin was a young restaurant, but there was nothing of its quality or type. Admittedly Trotters and Alinea, which are close by, are superior, but they’re also rare.

Often when a chef is successful, the money guys or managers who are usually pretty successful in their own right feel overshadowed and want some due. If you talk to a guy like Donnie Madia of Blackbird, Big Star, Avec, and Publican and he’ll tell you it was tough in the early years living in the press shadow of Paul Kahan. Thing is Donnie stuck it out and he has an incredibly successful empire. He’s also now recognized as being a key part in the success of those restaurants. If he’d fired Kahan, none of that likely would have ever happened.

I have no idea if the Talebs engaged in any of these practices, but there’s something about this situation that doesn’t add up and feels quite familiar. A lot of great chefs are working too hard and getting left out in the cold because sweat equity is never considered as valuable as cold hard cash.

What I do know is David Carrier is one of the best chefs working in Chicago. With his background working at the French Laundry and Trio and his showing at Kith and Kin, he has demonstrated he could be one of the greats. Though it’s cold comfort to Carrier, the good news is that he’s now available again to tap that potential with a smart and generous partner.

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