Mama Marika Saves Restaurant By Chopping Her Stepson Chef

At 9:21 p.m. on March 27, chef Joel Somerstein was sitting in his kitchen office at the restaurant Marika when the phone rang. He grabbed the handset. Mr. Somerstein knew that restaurant critic William Grimes’ review of his West 70th Street restaurant would appear in the next morning’s New York Times . He also knew that Mr. Grimes would be reading from the review during his weekly Tuesday night appearance on NY1. The caller was surely someone who knew the verdict.

Mr. Somerstein, a stocky 34-year-old with straight brown hair, had given much thought to the number of stars that Mr. Grimes might give him. Thanks to a photo of Mr. Grimes that had been provided by Marika’s publicists, the critic had been recognized during two of his visits, and Mr. Somerstein was confident things had gone well. Earlier in the evening, when his father, Stuart Somerstein, who often manages Marika, asked if he should stick around for Mr. Grimes’ review, Joel had told him to go home. “I’ll call you when we get three stars,” he’d said.

But Joel also knew that one of Marika’s owners (and its namesake), his stepmother, Marika Somerstein, was not so confident. At one point, Mrs. Somerstein had tried, in vain, to get her stepson to work with a consultant. The consensus among the proprietors and staff was that Marika would rate two stars-and that was accounting for architect Jonathan Marvel’s striking restaurant design.

Mr. Somerstein answered the phone and heard a friend say: “He killed you!”

“Don’t bullshit me!” Mr. Somerstein said. Then his face fell. Mr. Grimes had given Marika a “Satisfactory” rating-zero stars.

Half an hour later, another friend faxed Mr. Somerstein a copy of the review, posted on the Times Web site.

Mr. Grimes liked the design, the desserts and Mrs. Somerstein’s pet Chihuahuas. He didn’t like Mr. Somerstein’s cuisine. “If only the food lived up to the décor,” the Times critic wrote. “Marika Somerstein, an owner, has hired her stepson, Joel Somerstein, as executive chef, and … sentiment may have overruled business sense. Mr. Somerstein, formerly the chef at the Water’s Edge in Long Island City, which is also owned by Ms. Somerstein, is a plodding sort of talent. His food, when executed properly, which is not always the case, pleases but rarely thrills. At worst, it falls flat.”

Mr. Somerstein’s father called. “I guess he didn’t like the food that much,” he said. Joel began to cry. He felt like he’d let down his parents and the investors.

Mr. Grimes had done more than reduce a chef to tears. In 1,052 words, he had thrown a $3.5 million business venture employing 75 people into jeopardy. It really didn’t matter who had written the review. A “Satisfactory” rating from The Times is perceived as the kiss of death in a town that demands excellence when it dines out. Greek coffee shops may thrive on critics’ “Satisfactory” experiences, but Marika-with its 90-foot illuminated Pyrex bar and bluestone columns-promised something much more ambitious. And as Mrs. Somerstein’s partner, Don Evans, and his publicists, Steve Hall and Sam Firer, discussed their options in the dining room, they knew that they, as well as Mrs. Somerstein, faced a near-impossible task: to rid Marika of its no-star stigma.

They would have to work fast and with steely resolve. And they knew where they had to start.

“We need a new chef,” Mr. Firer said.

Pork Loin, Well Done

Joel Somerstein had, as Mr. Grimes wrote, worked for the family restaurant, Water’s Edge, but he’d also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1987 and gone on to cook for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Lafayette in the Drake Hotel. Mr. Somerstein worked there for two and a half years before heading to France to work at two Michelin three-star restaurants, George Blanc in Burgundy and Lucas Carton in Paris. When he returned to the states two years later, Mr. Vongerichten steered him to his next job: At 24, he was named chef of the Pierre hotel, where he worked for almost three years. His work there earned him critical acclaim and the Rising Chef award from the Robert Mondavi winery. In 1994, Mr. Somerstein’s father, Stuart, invited his son, then 27, to become the chef at the Water’s Edge, one of two culinary ventures that his father ran with Marika. (The other, Somerstein Caterers, is the oldest kosher caterer on Long Island.)

Joel took the Water’s Edge job-in large part, he said, to build a stronger relationship with his father. Joel’s parents had divorced when he was 6, and he’d grown up with his mother and stepfather. But, he said, he had a good relationship with Marika. “She’s not a young woman, and she works her ass off,” he said. “And so I respect that.” Joel’s initial two-year commitment to Water’s Edge stretched to six years in the culinary vacuum of Long Island City. He probably would have left sooner, he said, but his family told him that he’d be rewarded for his loyalty. When he learned that his stepmother was considering opening a restaurant in the West 70th Street space once occupied by Mendy’s kosher sports bar, Joel pushed for the job. “I know the neighborhood,” he said to her at the time.

Marika told him the kitchen would be his.

A well-preserved blonde with prominent green eyes, Mrs. Somerstein grew up in Hungary during the Holocaust and has a penchant for getting to the point. “Part of the reason why I built this restaurant was for Joel,” she said. “He felt he was ready for the big city.” She paused, then said: “Maybe I asked too much of him.”

Marika opened on Jan. 16, but, as is customary in the restaurant business, friends, investors and the press were invited to sample the food gratis at one of four preliminary tasting dinners. In return, the owners sought serious feedback from their guests, and the response presaged Mr. Grimes’ review: loved the design, not so sure about the food. But all chefs need time to work out the kinks in their kitchens, and most of Marika’s investors were enthusiastic about Mr. Somerstein’s ideas and experience.

Mrs. Somerstein, however, remained unconvinced. From the beginning of the project, she had urged Joel to work with a menu consultant. But after having worked as the chef of his stepmother’s Long Island City restaurant for six years, Mr. Somerstein expected her to show more faith in his abilities. “I never suffered for lack of confidence as a chef,” he said. So when he spurned his stepmother’s advice, “things got a little ugly.”

One night in February, a manager recognized Mr. Grimes dining with four guests at table 362. Mr. Somerstein grabbed his sous chef and told him that the two of them-and no one else-would make whatever the Grimes table ordered. Moments later, Joel’s father burst into the kitchen, followed by Don Evans, the captain and Mr. Grimes’ waiter. The staff had already been given a seminar by the Hall Company, a public-relations group, on how to wait on a restaurant critic, and everyone was trying to adhere to the three most important rules: 1) don’t let the critic know he’s been recognized; 2) don’t ignore the other tables; 3) make sure to have fun.

The ticket printer spit out table 362′s order, and Joel snatched it up. He saw that one of Mr. Grimes’ guests had ordered roasted pork loin, well done-a serious culinary faux pas in the eyes of a chef. “Are they testing me, or are they just idiots?” Mr. Somerstein remembered saying to himself. He considered sending the waiter back to the table to explain that the chef preferred to cook his pork loin medium to medium-rare, but he didn’t want to be obvious. He cooked the pork loin to order and sent it out.

When the main course was cleared from the table and the plates brought back to the kitchen, Mr. Somerstein caught sight of the pork roast. More than half of it remained on the plate.

“Motherfucker!” he screamed.

This Is Real

On March 28, the day Mr. Grimes’ review was published in The Times , Marika Somerstein returned from the beauty parlor to her Spanish-style home in Lawrence, Long Island. She found Joel commiserating with his father.

Mrs. Somerstein, who wears her first name written in script and rendered in diamond-studded gold around her left ankle, did not waste time on pleasantries.

“We have to make a change. We have to save the business,” she told her stepson.

“O.K.,” Joel stammered. His stepmother picked up the phone and called Mr. Hall. The family, she said, had made a decision, Joel Somerstein was stepping down. Then she called Alfred Ehrlich of Kitchen Maestro, a headhunter who specializes in restaurant personnel. She wanted to see applicants immediately.

Joel listened, slack-jawed.

Getting panned by The Times was traumatic enough-but less than 24 hours later, his stepmother was advertising for his replacement. “All I kept telling myself [was]: ‘My food cannot be that bad,’” said Joel. “It doesn’t want to be the best thing in the world, the greatest thing ever … but it’s not that bad.”

In retrospect, Mrs. Somerstein told The Observer, she personally felt “very confused, sad and hurt” about replacing her stepson. But, she said, “on a business level, I would do exactly what I did.” From Mrs. Somerstein’s perspective, “survival is No. 1. There are other partners. We all have to survive.”

That went for the restaurant’s employees as well. “Once I bond with them, it is like a family,” she said. And so, in a manner of speaking, Mrs. Somerstein sacrificed one family member to save 75.

In the days that followed, Joel toiled in Marika’s kitchen while applicants for his job walked in and out, accompanied by Mrs. Somerstein or Mr. Evans. But the inevitability of his departure didn’t set in until a former colleague from Lafayette came to interview.

“I didn’t know this was your place. What’s going on?” the chef asked. Mr. Somerstein explained. “Well, I can’t come here,” the former colleague replied. “I can’t put you out on the street.”

“Holy shit,” Mr. Somerstein remembered saying to himself. “This is real.”

Braving Beard House

On Friday, March 30, Mr. Evans and Mrs. Somerstein interviewed Neil Annis, the former chef de cuisine of New York Times four-star restaurant Lespinasse. They liked what they saw and invited him back to cook for them before dinner rush on the following Monday. Mr. Somerstein was in the kitchen with Mr. Annis during the ensuing tryout. Both men remembered the situation as extremely awkward.

The following day, Mrs. Somerstein and Mr. Evans offered Mr. Annis the reins to Marika.

Meanwhile, Mr. Evans, Mr. Hall and Mr. Firer were working doggedly on generating positive press for the restaurant. According to Mr. Evans, business had fallen off by 15 percent since The New York Times ‘ review. So the restaurateur, who had learned to work the media during his days as an operative in the Lindsay administration, supplied some information designed to counteract the bad Times juju to New York Post reporter Braden Keil. In the April 4 edition of the tabloid, Mr. Keil wrote:

“How much weight does a New York Times restaurant review carry these days? Apparently not much. Less than a week after Times critic William Grimes slammed Marika with a zero-star review, Times publisher Arthur ‘Pinch’ Sulzberger Jr., and his guests were spotted polishing off the ‘flat’ fare at the Upper West Side eatery.”

The following day, all of Marika’s active and silent partners-including Joel, who owns a 2.5 percent stake-attended a meeting in the restaurant’s private wine room. Mr. Evans told the silent partners that Mr. Annis had been hired. They were taken aback; they liked Mr. Somerstein. Why did he have to be replaced so quickly? they asked. Mr. Evans explained that after such a negative review, the restaurant needed to bring in a pedigreed chef. Joel Somerstein sat in silence as Mr. Evans told the group: “You can’t do better then the chef de cuisine from Lespinasse.”

Mr. Somerstein had one more trial to endure. For some time, he’d been scheduled to prepare lunch at the James Beard House in Greenwich Village. Cooking at Beard House, where Daniel Boulud, Nobu Matsuhisa and Charlie Trotter have all crafted their specialties, is a tremendous honor. And so on April 6, Mr. Somerstein girded himself to cook lunch for 45 guests. He had thought about backing out, but he knew the event was great publicity. Working in the small, exposed kitchen of the four-floor brownstone, he tried to calm himself by drinking “wine, alcohol, anything I could get my hands on, because I was gonna have some sort of a breakdown,” he said.

At the end of the meal, he walked into the dining room to be introduced to the guests. Don Evans stood up and introduced Mr. Somerstein. He spoke of the young chef’s hard work. “Marika never would have opened if Mr. Somerstein hadn’t been the chef,” he said. He did not mention that Mr. Somerstein was about to be replaced. As the crowd applauded, Steve Hall recalled that Mr. Somerstein’s and Mr. Evans’ eyes welled up.

Four days later, on April 10, Mr. Hall e-mailed Mr. Grimes. “Bill,” the publicist wrote, “let me be the one to tell you that Marika has hired a new chef. Your review wasn’t a surprise to us, as nice of a guy as Joel is, he couldn’t see the problems in his food. Like a singer who just cannot hear that they are a little flat when hitting a certain note. Anyway, the new chef is Neil Annis …. As soon as he’s comfortable, we’ll send you the new menu.” Mr. Hall concluded by noting, “[Pastry chef] Nicole Plue and the Chihuahuas remain.”

“Thanks for the note,” Mr. Grimes responded. “I took no pleasure in writing that review, but I am pleased (and surprised) to hear about the new chef. I thought he was joined at the hip to Delouvrier …. Keep me informed.”

Contacted for this article, Mr. Grimes explained that his first responsibility is to the readers. He said he feels bad for Mr. Somerstein, but added that he would have felt worse for any reader who might have gone to Marika and paid for a bad meal. “I don’t have a sadistic streak,” he said. “I have an honest streak.”

Annis Domini

Neil Annis, a 35-year-old with thick dirty-blond hair and fair skin, took over the kitchen on April 7. He’d spent a few days before then learning about his new domain from Mr. Somerstein. “He didn’t come in like gangbusters,” Mr. Somerstein said, “which I appreciated.”

Mr. Annis had spent a lot of time deliberating about the Marika job, worrying, he said, that “this could be a super-big mistake.” Then his mentor from Lespinasse, Christian Delouvrier, told Mr. Annis that if he could go to Marika and emerge as the hero, he should take the job.

Mr. Annis kept Mr. Somerstein’s kitchen staff, but dumped the old menu and started from scratch. Mr. Somerstein’s vodka-cured salmon with potato blinis and lemon crème fraîche gave way to Mr. Annis’ confit of Copper River salmon with wild cress and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar. Mr. Annis “was not impressed with the cooking techniques in the kitchen,” which, he said, were not as nuanced as his own. Mr. Annis likes to cook his meats and fish on the bone whenever possible, which is more time-consuming. But the result, as Mrs. Somerstein noted, is that “Neil’s food is just bursting with flavor.”

When Mr. Evans gave word of Mr. Annis’ hiring to New York magazine’s Intelligencer column, Beth Landman-Keil, the ex-wife of Braden Keil, wrote, “Sometimes ink is thicker than blood.” Referring to Mr. Annis, she opined: “Undoubtedly, the food will improve-and we hope we can say the same for family relations.’”

Mr. Annis was introduced to the media at a party at the restaurant on May 21. About 75 people attended. Neither Mr. Grimes, who was invited, nor Joel Somerstein was among them-but a few nights before the party, Mr. Grimes had been spotted in the restaurant, which naturally led to much theorizing that The Times reviewer would give them a second chance. Mrs. Somerstein said she had to resist approaching Mr. Grimes and telling him “You’re a mensch” for returning.

At the party, Mr. Annis made the rounds, introduced himself and talked about his new menu. Mr. Evans and Mrs. Somerstein were in particularly good spirits: Mr. Hall had told them that Mr. Grimes was going to write a Diner’s Journal-which is usually a precursor to a review-on the revamped Marika.

The article appeared May 25. “When it opened in January, Marika gave a badly needed splash of color to the Upper West Side,” Mr. Grimes wrote. “Then the restaurant failed to come up with food to match. Mr. Annis looks as if he might be the chef to close the gap.” Mr. Evans and Mrs. Somerstein felt vindicated. Mr. Evans said that reservations have doubled.

But Mrs. Somerstein hadn’t forgotten about her son. “Joel is the real victim,” she said at the party. “But that doesn’t mean we didn’t do the right thing.

“Joel is young, and I think he will become very successful in a smaller venue, where he can be more expressive,” Mrs. Somerstein added. “And I will try to help him to do that.”

As for Joel, he had interviewed for a job at the Farmhouse, a restaurant in Amagansett, but that didn’t work out. So he’s taking the summer off and trying to line something up for the fall. He’s been back to Marika three times since Mr. Annis took over. “It’s too painful,” he said. “I guess part of me wanted to be missed a little more.”