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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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.