Dave Martin, the runner-up in the first season of Bravo’s Top Chef, stepped off the plane from L.A. into a frigid New York City February, eager to seize the culinary reins of the new Cajun eatery Lola in Soho.
Mr. Martin was perhaps best known for uttering the line, “I’m not your bitch, bitch.” Now, he’d been transcontinentally recruited to helm the ovens of what was supposed to evolve into a hot spot in one of his new city’s hottest neighborhoods.
“They contacted me from the show, basically,” Mr. Martin told The Observer. “I got an e-mail, ‘Hey, we’re looking for a chef.’ It was too great an opportunity to pass up.”
Over the next several weeks, he carefully prepared a menu of Southern fare with touches of French and Caribbean flair. He even hosted tastings for potential Lola investors out of his own home, while the Watts Street restaurant remained under construction.
“I had all the vendors set, the menus set,” he said. “We did tastings every week with the investors, and I went through the whole life cycle of getting everything up and ready. But then, right before we got closer to being open, I was like, ‘Eh.’”
In May, Mr. Martin abruptly bolted, taking his recipes with him.
A similar scenario played out for Sam Talbot, the tall, dark and handsome Top Chef semifinalist and “fan favorite” from last season. The 28-year-old had come earlier to New York from the Carolinas, catching a big break with a big splash on the reality-TV show.
Mr. Talbot’s next act was going to be heading up the kitchen at a new Lower East Side burger and oyster joint called Spitzer’s Corner.
“I didn’t go for a ‘celebrity’ chef,” said Spitzer’s co-owner Rob Shamlian, via e-mail. “I just didn’t know any chefs, so when I saw Top Chef, I figured that Sam was a good cook. I had no idea the celebrity part would even factor in.”
Mr. Talbot’s involvement generated a ton of publicity for the forthcoming restaurant.
Yet his high-profile persona proved incompatible with management. “Talbot and the owners couldn’t come to terms on the direction of the restaurant,” according to a May 15 statement, “so they decided it was best to part ways.”
In the weeks since the split, Mr. Talbot has been spotted hanging out in other people’s kitchens and feasting amid the Aspen, Colo., female population, while Mr. Shamlian has been left to wrangle with contractors over building specs and with local Community Board 3 over his liquor licenses and planned outdoor seating. “We’ve been a week away from finishing since mid-May,” Mr. Shamlian said.
Community Board 3 might seem entirely uncompromising when it comes to halting area bar sprawl, especially along Ludlow Street, where 21 existing venues between Houston and Delancey streets already sell alcohol.
But what about the unflinching perfectionist tendencies of a celebrity chef?
And, more to the point, why even bother with the likes of Mr. Martin and Mr. Talbot, however delicious their concoctions and buzzy their reputations? According to the 2007 Zagat Survey, a scant 21 percent of New Yorkers seek out restaurants with celebrity chefs. Yet restaurant owners still choose to stock their kitchens with big-name cachet .
According to Mr. Martin, ego had nothing to do with his split. “I’m not trying to be some diva celebrity or any of that bullshit,” he said. “All I want to do is make great food and make people happy. And I need to be in an environment where I can do that. Unfortunately, this venue, there were too many things that I was worried about.”
Mr. Martin politely declined to mention specifics. Perhaps he was worried about his own reputation. Prior to Mr. Martin’s arrival, the restaurant became embroiled in controversy, besieged with litigation from neighborhood activists seeking to block its liquor license. The feud was particularly nasty, with charges of racism and of intimidation tactics.
Financing might have been another issue. After a Manhattan Supreme Court judge initially invalidated their license, Lola owners Tom and Gayle Patrick-Odeen initially lost all their investors. Court appeals and construction costs further added to the high start-up costs. The threat of further litigation still looms over the yet-unopened eatery.
“I just saw too many things that I couldn’t control,” Mr. Martin said.
As both Mr. Martin and Mr. Talbot now pursue other projects, maybe they should follow the advice of fellow Top Chef alumnus Harold Dieterle, who recently opened Perilla restaurant in Greenwich Village: Be your own boss.
“We aren’t relying on anyone else,” said Mr. Dieterle, who partnered with investor Alicia Nosenzo in launching the restaurant.
“It took me over a year of personally being unemployed to raise all the capital and find the location,” the show’s $100,000 grand-prize winner said.
Being on TV “certainly got my foot in the front door,” Mr. Dieterle added, “but that is about it.”