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First-Class Chefs Find Smaller Cities to Their Taste

More of them are trying out entrepreneurial and culinary talents in less populous markets. They also often find lower cost, less competition.

March 07, 2004|Connie Mabin | Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND — Chef Todd Stein left the bustling Chicago food scene and some of its best-known kitchens to open an upscale Italian restaurant in this city where many consider beer and burgers fine dining.

Peter Timmins took a circuitous route -- from his native Ireland through Baltimore -- to become head chef at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. He's now one of the world's 59 certified master chefs, the highest recognition granted by the American Culinary Federation.

They typify an emerging trend in the culinary arts: first-class chefs who are finding new challenges in America's smaller cities.

"These days, successful chefs are as much great business people as they are great cooks," said Tim Zagat, chief executive officer of Zagat Survey, which publishes the popular dining guide. "When executive chefs leave big markets for smaller ones, it provides a great learning experience that allows them to get their arms around all aspects of operating a successful restaurant."

Chefs who make the move say they were looking for less competition and lower business expenses, as well as a chance to improve their cooking and entrepreneurial skills.

"Second-tier cities are a good thing," said Stein, 32, who opened Vivo in the fall of 2002 with a partner from Chicago who's originally from Cleveland. "It's a good place to hone your skills."

Timmins, 47, considered Manhattan, California and the nation's capital before landing at the famous West Virginia resort. "I was looking for somewhere safe because New York is not someplace you need to go live if you don't know the rules, particularly with kids," he said.

The Greenbrier's upper-class clientele, its busy pace and the variety of dining -- from room service to upscale restaurant -- made it a good fit, he said.

For John Kolar, the attraction to the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood was tied to a desire to become executive chef, a job he landed at Three Birds, an American bistro that opened last summer.

"I wouldn't be where I'm at today in Manhattan," said Kolar, 37, who grew up in Hinckley, southeast of Cleveland, and studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. "It would be another five or 10 years down the road before I could get an executive chef's job."

Diners have been flocking to Three Birds, which Esquire magazine in January named one of the nation's 20 best new restaurants.

Nat Comisar left kitchens in Chicago and New York to return to Cincinnati to help run Maisonette, a French restaurant that his grandfather opened in 1949. It is nationally known for its record-setting, 40th consecutive five-star rating from the Mobil Travel Guide.

When chef Jean-Robert de Cavel left in 2001 to open his own restaurant, Maisonette was flooded with "jaw-dropping resumes," Comisar said. The job went to Bertrand Bouquin, a Frenchman who was a chef in New York and elsewhere.

"This is the best career decision for me right now," Bouquin told the Cincinnati Enquirer when he was hired. "I didn't want the pressure of working for a restaurant in a big city again."

Travelers doing business with Procter & Gamble and other companies helped make Maisonette successful even before fine dining took off in places like Pittsburgh and Cleveland.

"The food towns at that time were New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco -- places where they could draw crowds and keep good, European talent," Comisar said.

But in the 1970s, young American chefs were spilling out of the growing Culinary Institute of America and other schools, and they needed work. Americans soon began developing more sophisticated tastes, thanks in part to the growing popularity of food-oriented television shows. Today, diners are eager to try new things, and fresh ingredients once available only in large cities are easier to obtain.

Mark Erickson, vice president of continuing education at the Culinary Institute of America, said there's room for both big- and small-town chefs.

"These really great and well-known restaurants in these major cities are really critical. In the business world, it would be the equivalent of going to work for Procter & Gamble. For someone in marketing, it's a must," he said.

But fine restaurants in smaller cities have their own appeal: location.

Blue-collar diners might perceive similar restaurants in New York or Paris as too highbrow, Comisar said.

Vivo, which draws a crowd even on weekdays, was one of the first businesses to open on a revitalized avenue once known for abandoned storefronts and crime.

Terry Stewart, president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, loves Vivo so much that he recently had lunch and dinner there on the same day.

"Todd's a great chef. I think one of the things besides the quality being terrific is, I can get pretty much anything any way I want it," including items not listed on the menu, he said.

It's a menu that reflects the personality of Cleveland. "It looks fancy, but it's meat and potatoes," Stein said.

From appetizer to dessert, a dinner costs about $40 a person, a price that Stein knows Clevelanders will accept only if they walk away satisfied.

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