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

Van Aken says that while he was away on a week-long visit to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., in late March, leading workshops and promoting his new cookbook, he received a call from his sous chef, who told him Penabad wanted to fire Perry. "When I returned, we sat down A me, Proal, Novel, and my chef A and I said, 'Novel, you're going to have to let me run this place.' He started ranting and raving, 'I own this restaurant. I'll run it the way I want.' So I warned him he better back up or I'm going to take the restaurant with me."

Tempers flared, Van Aken and Perry walked away from the meeting and the business (they quit, according to Van Aken; Penabad won't confirm or deny this claim). The restaurant closed that evening. "The day after, I met with everybody on the staff and thanked them for two wonderful years and said I'd do everything I could to reformat a Mano and do what I can to keep them with me," Van Aken recalls. "It was one of those meetings where everyone hugs each other. You have to remember that every night was an Olympic event in that restaurant."

Although he is reluctant to discuss the disintegration of the restaurant's first incarnation, Penabad says Van Aken often forgot that he didn't own a Mano. "Whatever Norman says now, I don't care," blurts the Betsy Ross's owner. "He was my employee." Under Perry's and Van Aken's supervision, Penabad goes on, the restaurant lost money (an assertion Van Aken denies). "That was one of the big, big problems," Penabad explains. "Van Aken is too expensive. He's a great chef but too expensive." As for the charge that he wanted to exert too much control over the restaurant's operations, Penabad barks, "Who was the owner? Me. So is there anything wrong with that?"

Van Aken, who is helping Van Dome's owners convert the nightspot into a supper club, says that ultimately he'd like to open another restaurant in the style of a Mano, perhaps with the same name. That is, if he can sort out the issue of nomenclature. But in the end, he emphasizes, the essence of a Mano will always be with him. "A restaurant is a relationship between everybody from the chefs to the line cooks to waiters to bartenders to the customers to the food writers. It's a public domain of experience. It's not the chairs and the tables. It's a consciousness. If you don't have that, you don't have a Mano any more.

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