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The high cost of haute

L'Orangerie's longtime owner hopes legal woes are now behind him.

September 08, 2004|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Gerard Ferry is perched on a stool at the hostess podium at L'Orangerie, the grande dame of the city's formal French restaurants. Gold wire frames balanced near the end of his nose, he scans the reservation list. L'Orangerie is going to be busy this Thursday night, he notes, good news for the slow days of early August.

Before he goes home tonight, the 64-year-old Ferry, who owns L'Orangerie with his wife, Virginie, will know precisely how many meals were served and what the average check totaled. He will have counted the empty wine bottles, verifying that guests were charged for each one. In his blunt, unsparing style, Ferry will have let every waiter, busboy, bartender and hostess know something they could have done better.

L'Orangerie is the last of the ooh-la-la French dining rooms in Los Angeles, a holdover from a bygone era when every night was a party and French haute cuisine was served by candlelight to diners dressed in glittering evening clothes.

But an onslaught of legal actions by discontented former employees, along with top-level staff defections -- all amid a financial climate that has been generally difficult for the region's high-end restaurants -- has made the last two years the most difficult of L'Orangerie's 27-year history.

In 1977, the Ferrys claimed turf across the street from the toniest French restaurant in town, L'Ermitage, turning an empty lot on La Cienega into an oasis of flowers, ferns and fountains, with a retractable roof like that of La Serre in Paris. Always elegant and formal, L'Orangerie was the last restaurant in town to drop its coat and tie requirement in the late 1990s.

And though food fashions have swung away from L'Orangerie's once famous "loin of veal with three kinds of mustard,"Ferry has kept pace with contemporary French cuisine, hiring a string of ambitious young French chefs to run his kitchen.

L'Orangerie maintains an annual gross income of at least $2.7 million, says Ferry, who expects it to top $3 million this year. Today, L'Orangerie has the most expensive tasting menu in town. (For the eight-course Menu Royal, Ferry charges $135 per person.)

"Gerard is extremely astute at managing his costs," says Benoit Gateau-Cumin, a leading international headhunter for high-end restaurants and the man Ferry has relied on in recent years to find chefs for L'Orangerie. But Ferry's eagle eye and sharp pencil carry a hidden price tag, says Gateau-Cumin. "Gerard is not known for his largess. It's not hard for him to hire people, but it's hard for him to keep them."

That has become a bottom line issue at L'Orangerie. Rather than enjoying the rewards of being one of the longest-running restaurateurs in town, Ferry has spent more time than he'd like with lawyers.

In the last two years, a high-profile former executive chef filed a state labor board action against L'Orangerie, demanding $208,000 in unpaid overtime pay. A former waiter filed a class-action lawsuit claiming the restaurant mismanaged staff gratuities and failed to provide adequate dinner breaks. And a former hostess hired a lawyer and threatened to sue for wrongful termination.

During this same period, there have been enough workers compensation claims -- capped by one filed by a former busboy who says he suffered "emotional distress" after he was fired -- to send the restaurant's insurance premiums soaring. According to Ferry, those premiums have risen from $45,000 a year in 2002 to $73,000 in 2003 and are expected to exceed $80,000 this year. Ferry is not the only business owner troubled by rising workers comp premiums, but coupled with his legal bills and liabilities, it's enough to make him feel besieged.

Salary anomalies

Restaurants are notorious economic conundrums.

Non-owner executive chefs typically work 10 to 12 hours a day; at top Los Angeles restaurants, they earn salaries between $70,000 and $100,000 a year without benefiting from overtime pay. L'Orangerie's executive chefs during the last decade are no exception. At these same restaurants, waiters working six- or seven-hour shifts are paid the minimum hourly wage of $6.75 with tips, and frequently earn $30,000 to $50,000 a year. At restaurants that serve lunch and dinner, waiters often work double shifts, enabling them to earn, sometimes, as much as executive chefs. Maitre d's can earn even more.

Because of perceived inequalities, feuding among staff within restaurants is common. But at L'Orangerie, with some $600,000 in gratuities flowing through its waiters' hands each year, such discontent has led to legal action with unusual frequency.

Ludovic Lefebvre, recently installed as the executive chef at Bastide, was 23 when he left France to work at L'Orangerie in 1996. After he left in June 2002, Lefebvre filed a complaint with the California Labor Commissioner charging that Ferry owed him $209,490.88 in unpaid overtime and unreimbursed expenses.

It was the beginning of Ferry's spate of legal troubles.

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