Everyone’s been saying that local restaurant Armageddon would come in January. I guess this is the form in which it arrives: The new G.M. at the Hotel Ivy let Steven Brown go from Porter & Frye last Thursday. I first heard about it that morning, and talked to Brown as he was sitting on a barstool digesting the news: “Now is not a good time to talk,” he told me, and made me promise to wait until Monday, when he would have more information, before I let the world know. I figured that Erik Anderson and Doug Flicker, the former Auriga crew who have been with Brown since day one, would carry P&F forward. (Josh Habiger, a founding part of the all-star crew, was let go a couple weeks ago.) As of today, however, P&F has a new chef, and everyone in the Ivy knows who it is. But I don’t. Mystery Chef X is evidently still cooking somewhere in town and the Hotel Ivy folks are going to wait until he’s said his goodbyes to make the announcement. Knowing how long a Minnesota good-bye can drag on, I’ve decided I’m tired of waiting on this story, so I’m going with what I know.
Steven Brown parted company with Porter & Frye on Thursday. Erik Anderson, Brown’s longtime chef-de-cuisine, was then offered the job, but he turned it down because it’s not a cooking job, and what Anderson wants to do is cook.
Seriously. The head chef job at Porter & Frye is not a cooking job.
What kind of job is it? According to everyone I’ve talked to, it’s a bureaucratic and managerial job that forces the job-holder to be preoccupied with going to meetings and running financial reports. “They were undercapitalized when they opened, and they didn’t know what they wanted to be, and no one was watching the numbers,” one person close to the operation (who didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution) told me. “When the dust settled and they finally realized how much money they were losing, they started chopping people left and right. Every couple weeks someone got fired and there was a new manager.” The kitchen opened with five salaried employees. As of this writing, it has one: Anderson. (Flicker is paid by the hour.)
By the way, if you’re wondering how carefully I chose the phrase “Steven Brown parted company with Porter & Frye” the answer is: Very carefully. When I asked Chuck Paton, Hotel Ivy’s G.M. about Brown’s being “let go,” he said: “Those are your words, not mine.”
To which I said: “He left and he didn’t want to leave, so that’s being let go.”
To which he said: “That’s something I’m not going to comment on.”
So draw your own conclusions.
Anyhoo, Paton, who hails from the steak-and-steak land of the St. Paul Hotel, had kind words to say about Brown: “His artistry, his craft, really got us on a path that we’re not going to go off of,” he told me, adding that the level of fine dining and the concept—haute Minnesotan, as envisioned by Brown and his team—will not change. Repeat: Will not change. When I asked if this meant that the chef’s job is essentially a managerial one, Paton told me: “You don’t hire a chef and have him go about executing the work of the previous guy.” He added that the new chef’s mission will be to make Porter & Frye find a “broader audience” with a bigger business lunch crowd, culminating in “fine dining with broader appeal.”
Call me stupid, but in Minneapolis, doesn’t broader appeal always mean burgers, and possibly steaks or pizza? If so, we can now expect to see the rare Minneapolis’ hotel-restaurant at which it was worth eating follow the path of mediocrity? I imagine the staff at the Graves, with their destination restaurant Cosmos, has put Champagne on ice.
I’m going to get some ice too—for my aching head. Personally, I find this situation maddening, not least because it really makes Minneapolis look bush league. P&F has been holding its own in a catastrophically bad climate—they did 200 for dinner the Saturday before last. The rap on it has consistently been: Great food, but horrible location and dismal service. Paton even agreed with my assessment. “I wouldn’t disagree,” he said. I fail to see how firing the chef is going to fix that. So, what then? Brown managed to get the restaurant national attention, like their just-announced Mobil 4-Star Award (which noted that P&F was “one of the city’s top restaurants”), and even got the place into Food & Wine magazine for offering one of the 10 best dishes of the year. What more can a chef working with a bad location and worse service do?
I think what I find most infuriating is that armchair critics are no doubt going to erupt in a hail of familiar complaints: “Minneapolis doesn’t have what it takes to support a great restaurant” and “Steven Brown is overrated,” which is what everyone said when Restaurant Levain closed. But Restaurant Levain was great, and the city is poorer for having it gone, and no one cares about the homey bistro Café Levain that replaced it, even if it is operating in the black.
The whole thing just seems like six guys standing up in a rowboat and pointing fingers at each other for creating an unstable situation.
Brown, meanwhile, is nowhere near as angry as I am. “We did some great work there, with the emphasis on the we,” he told me. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out. Hopefully, the people that remain can continue to build on what we started. How do I feel? Aside from the feeling that the world is crushing my chest, fine. I cooked a dinner for Anthony Bourdain once, and something he said always stuck with me. He said, ‘I’m a mediocre cook who happened to do something that caught fire,’” Brown said. “At the end of the day, I feel blessed. I don’t have any regrets about my situation right now. I read about how 20,000 people are being laid off at Caterpillar, 5,000 at Microsoft. I’m mortally afraid I won’t be able to find another job, and I’m sure they all are too. All the accolades in the world don’t put bottoms in chairs, and as much as you want to think about artistry and creativity, it’s about money. So what I want to do now is acknowledge the great work we did, and feel grateful for my support system and my family, and hopefully find employment as fast as I can. I’m open to any and all opportunities. You can write that for me.”
The one good news for restaurant-goers in this mess is that Scott Ida, the well-regarded general manager, most lately of Red Stag and Nick and Eddie, started work at Porter & Frye today. Hopefully, that will do something about the service, and I’ll keep an open mind about Mystery Chef X—and post the name in the comments as soon as it comes over the wire.
Till then: Feel free to weigh in! What could Porter & Frye possibly do to get you to go there for lunch? What were your best—and worst—memories of Porter & Frye under Brown? Is the world going to hell in a handbasket?