Mano a Mano

The oven mitts are off: Norman Van Aken, former executive chef of South Beach's best-known restaurant, is fighting his ex-boss for the name

For two years, a Mano was one of a handful of bright stars in the dim constellation of local eateries. Ensconced in a corner of the Betsy Ross Hotel in the upper reaches of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, it came as close to offering a true fine-dining experience as any establishment on South Beach, pampering its clientele with a plush interior, exquisite service, meticulously prepared food, and a menu that changed daily. Executive chef Norman Van Aken received international raves for his innovative culinary style, which critics alternately described as "New World cooking," "nuevo mundo," "fusion cooking," and "Miamiamerican." Out-of-town food writers and gourmands worth their weight in caviar availed themselves of a Mano's bounty.

So it was with astonishment that the culinary world learned early this spring that a Mano had switched off its stoves. The simplest of explanations began to circulate through the community of food lovers: Van Aken had abandoned the restaurant after a bitter dispute with its sole owner, Novel Penabad, who also owns the Betsy Ross. The restaurant remained dark for six weeks. But this past Wednesday, the doors reopened, with virtually no fanfare. And no Norman Van Aken. The new chef:

Jan Jorgensen, one of Miami's heralded young cooks who also works as executive chef at Janjo's in Coconut Grove. The new name: a Mano.

If Van Aken was miffed when he walked out of the Betsy Ross in March, he was downright furious when a Mano opened for business once again. In May of last year Van Aken had filed the restaurant's name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office; it was officially registered as a "service mark" in January. What's more, newspaper advertisements touting the restaurant made no mention that a Mano had been closed, or that it was now under new management. "They think they can effectively fool people into believing there is a continuum there," complains Van Aken, who is working as culinary director of Van Dome, a Washington Avenue nightclub. "There isn't an individual left from the a Mano that got all the public acclaim. If there is, it's in the position of a busboy. My main concern is with the customers. The clientele is being deceived."

Van Aken and Penabad never signed a contract specifically addressing ownership of the restaurant's name, but the former chef says he is considering legal action for infringement of the service mark. It was he, Van Aken argues, who originally came up with the name; he merely loaned it to Penabad for the restaurant's use.

Penabad, who is now leasing the establishment to its new operators, has an equally simple assessment of the situation: He owns the restaurant, he owns its name. In fact, Penabad says, he leased the space to the new owners, Miriam Diez-Rivas and Luis De Bayle, with the express stipulation that they retain the name a Mano.

Newly hired chef Jan Jorgensen says he harbors no ill will toward Van Aken, nor any intent to harm his reputation. "We're not trying to take anything away from what he had and what he created," Jorgensen insists. "We always like his food and he's a super guy. But we've done our homework and feel we'd be able to open up with the name a Mano and keep a Mano. Norman was very successful in building a reputation for the restaurant, and that name will give us a head start."

Jorgensen has hired the former executive sous chef from the River Cafe in Brooklyn, Richard Chiavari, to run the new a Mano's kitchen. Like Van Aken, Jorgensen plans to change the menu daily and purchase only "the best products available." But he does not plan to imitate his predecessor's distinctive style of cooking; he will offer what he terms "regional American cuisine" instead.

Van Aken's lawyer has no plans to make a reservation anytime soon. "It's a grotesque game of bait and switch," sneers attorney Russ Alba. "It's our position that the other side is attempting to capitalize on the reputation associated with Norman's talents and brilliance. He is unfortunately going to have to take legal action to protect his rights."

Mitchell Stabbe, an attorney for the firm Holland & Knight who specializes in intellectual property law and is not involved in the case, has this to say: "The bottom line is who owned the mark. The restaurant owner has the right to contest the service mark registration. But ultimately it's going to be a question of proof, and it's going to be difficult to prove ownership in court if there's nothing [between the two men] in writing."

A settlement of the issue in the near future doesn't seem a likely scenario, given the bad blood between Van Aken and Penabad. The breakup, according to the chef, resulted from Penabad's desire for more control over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. "He realized that [general manager Proal Perry] and I had a 50-50 relationship, we were a self-contained unit, and we were the spirit of the restaurant," the chef contends. (While he never had any ownership stake in a Mano, Van Aken adds, Penabad had hired him with the assurance that he would eventually acquire some equity in the restaurant.)

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