By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
By Laine Doss
By Carina Ost
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
By Carina Ost
As it turns out, former Astor Place chef Johnny Vinczencz isn't only a terrific chef, he's a good sport. His response to my "Where's Johnny V?" bulletin in "Side Dish" led to an Internet correspondence. In exchange for a brewski at the fashionably unglamorous Abbey Brewing Co. on South Beach ("fashionably unglamorous is my middle name"), the Caribbean Cowboy has agreed to let me publish his replies to my e-mails, including the answer to the question on every food-lover's mind. No, not the rumor about Johnny, two midgets, and a bottle of tequila (he swears it never happened). But the one that goes: Why the hell did you leave Astor Place anyhow?
Date: 2/11/2000 3:09:24 PM
I was at the Astor five years. I started six months before it opened in December of 1995. I had complete control of the concept and the food I was cooking. For a chef, that's very hard to find. In many restaurants there is usually someone who you have to answer to, who can't boil water, sticking [his] fingers into your pot to tell you how the soup should taste. So it was very exciting [to have] a fantastic creative outlet with an excellent clientele that responded very positively to just about everything we did. With a free hand I was able to develop my own style and we had a excellent run for four years plus.
But the last year or so I was beginning to feel stagnant, like I was no longer moving forward, and Karim [Masri, the owner] felt the restaurant needed a jolt. He was also moving in another direction, wanting to do an Asian restaurant with a VIP lounge and such. That's not my thing. I wanted to explore the possibilities for my future, [and] true ownership of a state-of-the-art restaurant with an open display kitchen has always been my dream. Neither would ever happen at the Astor. So after talking it over [at] much length we picked a date a few months in the future and I left. It wasn't something that happened overnight. It was a decision.
Date: 2/12/2000 6:08:31 AM
Did you also decide at that time to leave Johnny V's Kitchen? I thought that was your pet project. I know you took a lot of pride in making your own pickles and homemade ketchup and that kind of item.
Date: 2/15/2000 6:12:19 AM
We had every intention of keeping it going when I first left the Astor. The Kitchen was a great little place. We made everything from scratch ... and I mean everything -- ketchup, pickles, mayonnaise, bread, even smoked our own turkeys. But it was designed to be a take-out place, home-meal replacement, [and] it turned into a little restaurant. It needed more seats to become more profitable and even though it was a small place there was a lot of work involved. So it became kind of a red-headed stepchild. We both began to work on other projects and could not give it the attention needed. So we decided to close it, sell it, and wipe the slate clean.
Date: 2/15/2000 6:59:48 AM
So what've you got against redheads, I wonder?
Well, I can see how that must have been an overwhelming amount of work, for not a lot of reward. How much rent were you paying for the digs? As much as you would on Lincoln Road, where properties go to lease for about ten grand a month? Frankly I find it hard to believe anyone breaks even in the restaurant biz down here, let alone makes a profit. Maybe overstretched restaurateurs are the reasons why entrée prices have been rising so dramatically in the past few months. Either that, or just plain ol' greed....
Date: 2/18/2000 9:22:06 AM
It's just an expression; actually redheads are my favorite. Not a pulling on her pigtails redhead ... more of a swinging around a pole redhead ... lol ...
The rent at that particular spot [on Alton Road] was not as bad as further up on Lincoln Road, [where] I have been quoted prices as high as 50 dollars a square foot ... which means a restaurant of 5000 square feet would be $21,000 a month rent. That's a lot of pancakes, baby.
It's somewhat of a scam for the landlords. If a restaurateur builds in [his] space they could care less if the restaurant is successful or not. If [it is] not successful he takes possession of the property. In a place like South Beach there are people coming in from all over who think they can open up here and make a fortune. They don't understand the market. It's not that easy.
So the landlords came up with "key money." They may charge you $200,000 for the opportunity to pay rent on a property that you are going to completely upgrade and renovate. I looked at a closed restaurant on Ocean Drive, asking for $250,000 "key money" for a restaurant that was basically filled with garbage. The kitchen was dirty and really nasty, wires hanging from the ceiling, unbelievable. I told the owner if he gave me five grand I would get someone to haul this shit out of here for him. Needless to say I won't be opening up on Ocean Drive anytime soon. Last I heard someone came down from New York, paid the key money, and rented the space. So if the restaurant folds, the landlord has a year or so to rent it before he loses a dime.