On Friday, Feb. 1, chef Matthew Kenney, the owner of Commissary, Commune and a number of other hipster restaurants got the first of a series of unpleasant deliveries from the United States Treasury: a $95,000 lien against his business, the Matthew Kenney Group, fornon-payment of payroll and sales taxes.
But that was just a taste of things to come. Four days later, on Feb. 5, the Internal Revenue Service socked Mr.Kenney with five additional liens totaling $726,000 plus interest and penalties, which one restaurant-industry accountant conservatively estimated could amount to an additional $400,000.
Mr. Kenney downplayed the financial imbroglio. He told The Observer that the money he got from the sale of his share in Canteen, a restaurant located on Mercer Street in Soho, will more than cover his I.R.S. bill. “I already took my hit,” he said. “I had to sell 65 percent in a beautiful restaurant in that perfect location. It was very painful to do.”
News of Mr. Kenney’s financial woes may come as a shock to those New Yorkers who knew the chef primarily from eating at his restaurants or from checking out his good looks and good press in food and fashion magazines. But restaurant-industry denizens who are familiar with Mr. Kenney’s businesses said that the writing has been on the wall for some time now.
“I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner,” said Mr. Kenney’s former accountant Gary P. Levy, whose client list includes Gotham Bar & Grill, Union Square Café and Jean Georges. “I advised him to file Chapter 11 six years ago. He didn’t listen, though. You know he still owes me seven grand.”
“I don’t remember anybody telling me to file for bankruptcy, ever,” Mr. Kenney responded.
“He’s a nice guy, he really is,” Mr. Levy said of Mr. Kenny. “But he doesn’t have the aptitude for business, and he doesn’t often surround himself with people who do.”
One restaurant industry source said that Mr. Kenney started bouncing checks to his staff and his purveyors as early as 1995. “That’s not true,” Mr. Kenney said. “We had a few problems for a few months after Sept. 11, but that’s it.”
Indeed, Mr. Kenney did not deny the assertion made by Peter Cassell, the general manager of Canteen, that Mr. Kenney had to quickly raise six months worth of Commune’s rent in order or quash an eviction notice.
Mr. Kenney’s career had a much more charmed beginning. After attending the French Culinary Institute and working in the kitchens of Malvasia and La Caravelle, Mr. Kenney opened his first restaurant, the Moroccan-themed American bistro Matthew’s in 1993. Three years later, he opened Mezze.
Mr. Kenney also hired a publicist, Karine Bakhoum, who fashioned a campaign that revolved as much around the chef’s boyish good looks as it did his provocative torquing of American bistro fair.
Mr. Kenney quickly became a darling of the food media. In 1994, Food & Wine magazine included Mr. Kenney in its annual August roundup of the 10 Best New Chefs. He earned a 1995 nomination for “Rising Star Chef” from the James Beard Foundation.
But subsequent ventures would prove troublesome. In 1996, he partnered with the Los Angeles-based high-end pen manufacturer Boyd Willat to open the Mediterreanean-inspired Monzu, in the space beneath the Soho branch of the Guggenheim Museum. Monzu was Mr. Willet’s second attempt to make the cavernous site work.
Around the same time, Mr. Kenney made two ill-fated attempts to run the food and beverage service at the Stanhope Hotel on upper Fifth Avenue; first with Mercer Hotel owner Andre Balazs, then with restaurateur Frederick Lesort.
Meanwhile, Monzu was floundering. In the fall of 1999, Mr. Kenney partnered with Merc Bar owner John McDonald. With silent partners, Mr. McDonald said he raised the $1 million necessary to bail out and to finance a facelift for the restaurant. The restaurant was renamed Canteen.
For the few months that Mr. Kenney was in the kitchen, the place got good marks and did good business. But sources at Canteen said it wasn’t long, before Mr. Kenney’s attention drifted elsewhere. He began spending less and less time behind Canteen’s stoves, and, it seemed to some at the restaurant, more time in the publicity machine, including a memorable photo shoot with the model Giselle Bundchen in Vogue magazine. According to one longtime associate, Mr. Kenney was also living expensively, “filling his closet with Prada, buying a $15,000 watch, the newest Audi and a brand new Ducati.”
Some followers of Mr. Kenney’s career cite the late summer 2000 opening of his Chelsea restaurant Commune as the first sign that he had begun to lose his celebrity sheen. Critics panned the food and patrons complained about long waits for reserved tables.
“He is a really talented chef, but he wanted to be an entrepreneur.” said Ms. Bakhoum, who stopped working with him in 1999. “He wanted to franchise everything. He even wanted to open spas.”
Last year, Mr. Kenney’s money woes also seemed to catch up with him. “Nobody who worked for Matthew was getting paid with any regularity” in 2001, said one staffer. “Yet he was opening a Commissary in New York, Portland, Maine and Atlanta.” He currently owns seven restaurants.
On Nov. 19, Mr. McDonald bought Mr. Kenney out of Canteen. “It was an amicable split,” Mr. McDonald said.
But Canteen’s general manager, Mr. Cassell, who played a role in the buyout of Mr. Kenney said he doubted that the chef/restaurateur would be able to settle his I.R.S. with the money he got from Mr. McDonald. “No way,” Mr. Cassell said. “What the vendors are telling me they’re still looking for from Kenny and what we’ve already paid in inherited debt and bounced payroll, there’s no way he walks away clean.”
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