David Bouley Is Feeding Rescuers, But It’s Now ‘a Business Venture’

Ten days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center,

the streets of Tribeca were filled with smoke and uncertainty, and chef David

Bouley’s businesses were no exception.

At 4:30 on Sept. 21, the staff and management of Bouley Bakery,

Mr. Bouley’s restaurant on West Broadway and Duane Street, were supposed to

meet to discuss the future. Both the Bakery and Mr. Bouley’s other restaurant,

Danube, which is around the corner on Hudson Street, had been closed since

Sept. 11, and a majority of the dining-room staff as well as a number of

kitchen workers were owed at least one paycheck.

But Mr. Bouley did not make the meeting. Since Sept. 11, Mr.

Bouley and a number of the city’s chefs and restaurateurs had been spending

their days at ground zero, feeding thousands of rescue and relief workers. Mr.

Bouley had sent his controller, Tony Guissarri, to the meeting in his place,

but according to workers who attended, Mr. Guissarri was able to offer few

answers and no paychecks. Stefan Nafziger, a waiter and stand-in captain at the

Bakery, quit on the spot.

A number of the crew were still standing around at 6 p.m., when

Mr. Bouley arrived at the restaurant. When he headed straight for the kitchen,

maitre d’ Dominique Simon, a 10-year veteran of Mr. Bouley’s various

enterprises, chased after the chef and implored him to speak to the staff.

The workers who were present when Mr. Bouley addressed them

remembered that he told his staff, “You’re not seeing the big picture.”

According to a captain who was present at the meeting, Mr. Bouley said to his

staff, “This is a tragedy. Stop worrying about yourselves.”

In the weeks following the terrorist attacks, Mr. Bouley has been

lauded by the media and colleagues in the food-service business for his

tireless work at the disaster site.

Yet a number of the chef’s former employees who have been laid

off or have quit since Sept. 11, as well as several well-established

restaurant-industry sources, say Mr. Bouley has exhibited another kind of

selfishness. They allege that Mr. Bouley has profited from the relief effort by

using unpaid volunteers and donated food to work with a paid skeleton crew to

prepare tens of thousands of meals for relief workers for which, the sources

estimated, the Red Cross has paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars a week.

Mr. Bouley declined to be interviewed for this piece. But in

response to written questions submitted to him, he said through a spokesman:

“What started as a charitable effort has become a business venture.” The

spokesman added: “David is not a profit-driven chef …. He has no idea what his

profits are.”

Mr. Bouley has been a controversial figure on the New York

restaurant scene since the mid-1980′s, when he worked as the chef at

Montrachet. The Connecticut native has clashed with partners and backers-such

as the late Warner LeRoy, with whom he briefly partnered in the 90′s-and is

known for both his exceptional talent as a chef and his mercurial moods.

But in the weeks following Sept. 11, some of Mr. Bouley’s

restaurant-industry colleagues and competitors seemed to be revising their

opinions of the chef after seeing him preparing and serving food at ground

zero.

Mr. Bouley was one of several chefs and restaurateurs who rushed

down to the World Trade Center disaster site after the attack. Among the former

were Daniel Boulud, Gray Kunz and Tribeca Grill’s Don Pintabona; the latter

included BR Guest owner Steve Hanson, Myriad Restaurant Group owner Drew Nieporent

and Union Square Café’s Danny Meyer.

The food-service efforts were

big-hearted but ultimately disorganized, and many of the participants said they

were relieved when the Red Cross stepped in to take control.

The Red Cross had already awarded one food-service contract to

the Soho-based catering outfit Great Performances, which is located on Spring

Street, and it began a local search to award a second contract at the end of

September. According to sources, six large catering companies were approached,

and the lowest bid-$4.61 per meal-came from Chartwells, a Rye Brook, N.Y.–based

company which has been named the official caterer of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Chartwells’ parent company had also had numerous contracts with businesses in

the World Trade Center complex.

But Chartwells did not get the contract. On Wednesday, Oct. 9, BR

Guest’s Mr. Hanson, who is the owner of eight restaurants, including Blue Water

Grill and Ruby Foo’s, called Libby Turner, an assistant director of the

American Red Cross who was coordinating the New York relief effort, to find out

whom the organization had chosen.

Ms. Turner told Mr. Hanson that Mr. Bouley had underbid

Chartwells by 50 cents and had promised the intangible benefit of massive

celebrity involvement.

“I thought, ‘Good for him. David’s figured out some way to do it

cheaper,’” Mr. Hanson recalled. “The thing is, for the first three weeks David

was doing the right thing. He really was.”

Red Cross spokeswoman Tracy Gary said the contract was awarded to

Mr. Bouley after he expressed interest in it. “He has been extremely generous,

wanting to do his part to help out New York,” Ms. Gary said. “The Red Cross is

extremely appreciative of his efforts and impressed with the way he operates.”

Mr. Bouley’s contract with the Red Cross gave him $4.11 for every

meal he served to relief workers. A spokesman for Mr. Bouley said that the

organization gave the chef an initial deposit of $100,000, although other

sources familiar with the situation put the amount much higher.

The contract also enabled Mr.

Bouley to consolidate and centralize the relief feeding efforts. Overnight, he

went from being one of a number of outfits handing out in excess of 10,000

meals a day to being one of two  funded

by the Red Cross and serving between 25,000 and 34,000 meals a day. Sometimes

Mr. Bouley worked 24 hours just to make sure the enormous task got done.

On the surface, Mr. Bouley’s decision to turn his high-end,

critically lauded restaurant-where the average check is $90 a person, according

to former employees-into a relief kitchen churning out what former executive

chef Galen Zamarra called “hospital food” might not seem like a profitable one.

But three former employees, as well as several restaurateurs and purveyors who

are familiar with the situation, told The

Observer , on the condition of anonymity, that Mr. Bouley’s Red Cross

contract could be potentially lucrative for him.

These sources point out that almost all of Mr. Bouley’s food is

donated from a number of companies, including the Salvation Army, the

Stouffer’s food company and, until recently, City Harvest and Wegmans, which

has worked with Mr. Bouley on a past business

venture.

According to City Harvest spokesman Paul Cates, the charity

organization unloaded  375,000 pounds of

food outside Bouley Bakery before Oct. 3 and 75,000 pounds since Mr. Bouley got

the contract. City Harvest has since stopped working with Mr. Bouley because,

according to Mr. Cates, “City Harvest needed to go back to doing relief work

for the homeless.”

And since the Oct. 17 edition of The New York Times ‘ Dining In/Dining Out section published what

was essentially an unpaid advertisement for free labor, Mr. Bouley has had

hundreds of volunteers working for him in four shifts of 25 workers.

Most restaurateurs say a healthy profit margin in their business

is about 10  percent of an eatery’s

gross revenues. It’s what they call “making a dime.” By those standards, if Mr.

Bouley was turning all 90 of the Bakery’s seats three times a night and getting

an average check of $90 from each customer, then he would be grossing $24,300

every night. That comes to $170,000 a week, which would mean that Mr. Bouley

would have been clearing an estimated $17,000 in profits a week as of Sept. 10.

But few restaurants were doing that, even before the terrorist

attack. One former senior staffer said that on busy nights, the Bakery would

serve 220 covers (the restaurant industry’s term for meals), but that, on

average, the Bakery was serving an average of 150 covers, which would put Mr.

Bouley’s profits closer to $9,450 a week. (Danube, which reopened the first

week of October, has not been turned over to the relief effort, and its

executive chef, Mario Lohninger, said that business is only off by about 10

percent from pre–Sept. 11 levels.)

But making $4.11 apiece for 25,000 meals comes to $102,750 a day.

And when constructed by primarily unpaid volunteers using primarily donated

food, the sources contend, the profit margin could be much higher than normal.

Through a spokesman, Mr. Bouley disputed that he is receiving

$4.11 per meal. He said that that price drops to $3.50 per meal after a certain

volume of meals is reached. He declined to identify what that figure was.

At least one person in the city’s restaurant industry doesn’t

have a problem with Mr. Bouley making money from his Red Cross contract. “I

hope that he is [making money],” said restaurant-guide publisher and NYC &

Company chairman Tim Zagat. “Do you know his nickname was ‘King of the

Mountain’ at ground zero because he climbed onto that dangerous pile of rubble

to feed the firemen and give them something to drink?”

Still, Mr. Zagat acknowledged that volunteers at Mr. Bouley’s

shop should have been told the details of the Red Cross contract.

News of Mr. Bouley’s deal with the relief organization does not

sit well with his former employees, with purveyors who claim that the chef owes

them money and even with some of the volunteers, who came down to Tribeca in

the spirit of altruism.

Even before the meeting of Sept. 21, Mr. Bouley’s crew was growing

increasingly disgruntled. Four former staff members said that it was not

unusual for their payroll checks, issued on an HSBC bank account by Bouley

Bakery L.L.C., to bounce. Former captain Julie Resendez said it was her

experience that no “check-cashing place south of 23rd Street would take a

Bouley check.”

At the Sept. 21 staff meeting, Mr. Bouley’s staff had wanted

answers to three questions: 1) Was the restaurant going to reopen? 2) Would

they have jobs if it did? And 3) Where was the money they were owed? Mr.

Guissarri promised the kitchen crew that those who were owed checks would get

one the following Monday, Sept. 24, which they did. Some staffers who were owed

three checks were told they would get the remaining two on Sept. 25. But on

that day, Mr. Zamarra, the executive chef, who had just returned from a wedding

out of town and was unaware of Mr. Guissarri’s promise, handed out a single

check to each of the remaining members of the crew. According to Mr. Zamarra,

most of those employees-cooks, porters and dishwashers-walked right then.

The spokesman for Mr. Bouley acknowledged: “Cash flow was tight.”

Mr. Zamarra quit two days later in a confrontation he will only

describe as “fairly heated.” Mr. Bouley still had not answered Mr. Zamarra’s

repeated inquiries as to whether the Bakery would ever reopen. That same

morning, Mr. Zamarra said he met a purveyor’s truck, but the driver wouldn’t

unload without getting cash for his delivery. Mr. Zamarra sent the truck away

and sought Mr. Bouley out.

Mr. Zamarra insisted that the purveyor hassle was not the reason

he quit. Rather, Mr. Zamarra-who won the Rising Star Chef of the Year Award at

the James Beard Awards this year-said he wanted to get the restaurant open and

running again.

“It’s very difficult, because I’ve been with him for a long

time,” Mr. Zamarra said. “I hold his talents in the highest regard. He just

doesn’t want to run a restaurant [in the Bakery space], and that’s all I want

to do.” Mr. Simon, the maitre d’, left on Oct. 16 to open Matthew Kenney’s

Commissary on Third Avenue and 61st Street.

Meanwhile, a number of restaurant purveyors said Mr. Bouley owes

them tens of thousands of dollars for products they’ve delivered to his

business. On Oct. 22, Mr. Bouley’s lawyer failed to show up at Brooklyn Small

Claims Court to represent him in a collection suit for an unspecified

four-digit amount that had been lodged against him by high-end seafood vendor

Pierless Fish Corp.

In an industry where purveyors expect to get paid in 28 days,

purveyors said Mr. Bouley has a reputation for paying his food bills-which can

average $30,000, according to sources familiar with his restaurants-anywhere

from 12 to 16 weeks late. “Of Zagat’s Top 20, David Bouley is the only

deadbeat,” said Marc Agger, a partner at Pierless Fish Corp., who said he has

sued Mr. Bouley’s companies to recover debts.

Ariane Daguin, owner of the renowned specialty-food purveyor

D’Artagnan, also sued Mr. Bouley. In February, she won an uncontested judgment

against his businesses to recover $67,100 for nonpayment. “The reason we took

[Mr. Bouley] to court last December was because there was so much gossip around

that he owes everybody,” Ms. Daguin said. “I wanted to be first on line to get

my money this time.” As of September, she said she had recouped all but $13,200

of Mr. Bouley’s outstanding balance. Through a spokesman, Mr. Bouley said he

has cleared his debt with D’Artagnan.

While these creditors continue

to pursue Mr. Bouley and volunteers beaver away in one corner of the Bakery,

sources familiar with situation said that construction workers have begun

renovating the restaurant’s dining room. Through his spokesman, Mr. Bouley

denied that the Red Cross was underwriting these renovations.