By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
By Laine Doss
By Carina Ost
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
By Carina Ost
When restaurateur Mary Anne Richter initially dined at Café Max in Pompano Beach, about three days after it opened in 1984, she was hardly impressed. “I went in for dinner with two friends, and everything that could have gone wrong went wrong,” she laughs. “They lost the exhaust, you couldn't eat, the wood-burning oven [malfunctioned] -- everything was just a mess.”
Nevertheless she had a feeling about Café Max, the California-style eatery proprietors Dennis and Patti Max opened as their first venture together. “Even under the worst conditions, I could tell this was going to be phenomenal. I just knew by [the Maxes'] knowledge, their enthusiasm, what they were trying to bring here,” she explains. Going on her instincts, Richter, who was acquainted with the Maxes socially, half-jokingly offered the pair her services: “I said, “Okay, if you're ever looking for another partner, let me know.'” To the Café Max bargaining table she brought an investment partner, John DiMarco, who also assisted in getting Café Max off the ground.
But approximately two months after debuting, one element was still off. “We were missing the chef who understood the vision,” Dennis Max admits. Richter agrees that the chef Max had initially hired wasn't working out. But it was Patti Max, the partner most eligible for the Underappreciated Player Award, who discovered Mark Militello, the creative force who would propel Café Max into the national spotlight. (Patti Max did not acknowledge requests to be interviewed for this story.) “Patti went from restaurant to restaurant looking for a chef,” Richter recounts. “I remember her saying she found him at this little spot [in Fort Lauderdale] doing Mexican food.... A few months after [he was hired], we got the Dining à la Carte Award for Best Appetizer, and that basically started the career of Max.”
Not to mention the career of Mark Militello, though Richter does admit to a certain irony stemming from that first honor. “It's funny,” she says, “because [the award] was for Patti's recipe, the caviar pie. [But] Mark was definitely significant in the success of Café Max.”
And success it was. In 1985 restaurant critic Lucy Cooper wrote in the Miami Herald:“In a business arena so overcrowded that its failures are estimated as high as 90 percent, Café Max is a phenomenon. It is this year's major success story.” Dennis Max concurs that Café Max was a right-place, right-time kind of eatery. Indeed it had become a tricounty draw in what Max calls “the emerging South Florida market. The license plates and credit cards were from all over.”
Never a slow mover, Max capitalized on Café Max's rapid rise and opened Max's Place in North Miami a year later. There Militello asserted himself in creating the precursor to New World cuisine. In 1985 he described his philosophy to Cooper: “I have been very much influenced by such California chefs as Mark Miller and Jeremiah Tower ... with their emphasis on a free style and the use of fresh products obtained, as much as possible, from local sources.... Because I live in Florida, it would follow that I would want to use Florida products and be influenced by the cooking of the region.” Just don't call him a Floridian, or say his cuisine is Floribbean. If there's one thing Militello has remained consistent about over the years -- right behind his disdain for the press -- it's his hatred of labels.
Militello came out of Florida International University, where he graduated from the hotel/restaurant school with a bachelor's degree in applied science. (The chef hails from a suburb of Buffalo, New York.) Earlier goals for him included playing college ice hockey and becoming a doctor. He achieved the first, scrapped the second and, like most chefs, found his vocational niche at a relatively young age. By the time he was 30 years old, he was running the two most popular restaurants in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and had received kudos from local and national media alike.
Unfortunately as a Max partner, Militello was finding it harder and harder to concentrate on cuisine. In 1986 he became the chef at yet another eatery, the ultrastylish Maxaluna in Boca Raton, which would initially prove the most popular of the three. As a result not only was Militello overseeing the trio of restaurants as a corporate chef, according to Richter, he also was driving to all three counties, sometimes visiting every location in the same day. Such commuting left little time for culinary creativity. Nor did it lead to hands-on supervising. Charles Saunders was chef de cuisine at Maxaluna, where he quickly made his national reputation. Oliver Saucy says he was hired on at Café Max right when Max's Place opened. As a result he rarely worked with Militello. “I was technically hired by Mark, but he was mainly at [the restaurant] in Miami.” Not that Saucy minded. The then-twentysomething had what he calls “free creative rein within the framework” of the restaurant's concept. In fact he did so well that in 1988, he and his partner, Darrel Broek, a general manager at Café Max, bought the place from the Maxes. Now called Darrel and Oliver's Café Maxx, the restaurant is still one of the most respected in the nation.
Militello wasn't the only one who was feeling the heat of three kitchens. “Mark was going from Café Max to Max's Place to Maxaluna, [but] he was really looking to concentrate on fine dining. And I really didn't get into it to have 25 restaurants,” Richter says. “So we decided at the time that our aspirations were different, and that's when we had the separation.”
The “separation” to which Richter refers actually was more along the lines of a bitter breakup that spanned 1988 and 1989. The Maxes retained Maxaluna but sold Max's Place to Militello, Richter, and their investment partners (and Café Max to Saucy and Broek). “There was a little bit of exchange of money back and forth, and everybody was happy,” she claims. The rumors that Max and Militello were at that time engaged in a nasty feud seem to belie her blithe statement, however, and on closer reflection Richter admits that, “I guess separations are never really amicable. Even though you want it to be, they're difficult. But I can honestly say that Dennis and I always knew it was business and shook hands.” A couple of days after dividing up the business, Richter ran into the Maxes in New York City, and the threesome had cocktails together.
Militello, on the other hand, probably would have preferred to see Dennis Max drink hemlock. Though the pair reportedly signed statements claiming they wouldn't rag on each other, one altercation did make it into the papers. In 1989 Militello was banned from participating in Broward County's Art à la Carte cooking competition. His banishment could have been provoked by the fact that after departing Café Max to take over Max's Place, he was now considered a Miami chef, and the competition was for Broward toques. But Militello told columnist Ron Ishoy of the Herald that Max had masterminded the boycott. “[Art à la Carte organizer Ina Lee] was under a lot of pressure, mainly from Dennis, and I'm sure there are a few others who aren't happy.... It was a difficult breakup, and I'm sure any way they can get back [at me], they will. I'm not outraged, just really disappointed.”
Max responded succinctly: “That's bullshit. I've not spoken to anyone.” Today he lumps that divisiveness with other splits. “You let go and move on and try to live in the now. I hold no grudges against anybody.”
Max may claim not to hold grudges, but some of his former partners do (coming in Act Three). And while he consistently denies wrongdoing throughout the years, the silver-mustachioed restaurateur can seem evasive during interviews. At other times he can employ the mien and ego of a professional athlete, the kind who believes he's excepted from the laws that bind the rest of us. Some acquaintances describe him as arrogant. He calls himself a reluctant celebrity and downplays his adversaries. “I didn't get into this business to be famous. I still find it hard to believe that people recognize me, talk about me, gossip [about me]. But it's a real simple thing. They build you up and then knock you down. And I've been up way too long.”
Regardless, sources say he hasn't always acted kindly. For instance, after he sold Café Max to first-time restaurateurs Oliver Saucy and Darrel Broek, insiders insinuate he used to go into the restaurant to taunt them. They say he'd bet the pair they couldn't make a go of the place and planned to take over when they failed. Saucy won't admit much except to say he and Broek had high balloon payments to make and “it wasn't always easy.” But the duo, who incorporated as Innovative Restaurant Concepts in 1988, has owned Café Maxx free and clear since 1993 (they are now concentrating on their newest venture, East City Bistro in Delray Beach). At the end of the day, Saucy has respect for Max. “I learned a lot from Dennis. He was an innovator for his time. He just went a different way.”
That way included what Saucy calls “going into prime growth mode.” In 1989 Dennis and Patti Max, as Unique Restaurant Concepts, returned to Raffles-type ventures (see Act One in the October 12 “Dish”) and opened Brasserie Max in the Fashion Mall in Plantation. They sold it a year later to the Hooters franchise. Then in 1990 and 1991, Unique opened four restaurants: the Atlanta Café on Nantucket island; and Prezzo, Max's Grille, and Wilt Chamberlain's in Boca Raton.
The return of Burt Rapoport to the fold was part of the reason why Unique was able to launch so many places in such a short time. Rapoport brought the Prezzo concept (a Cal-Ital blend of Spago and Mezzaluna) to Unique and swiftly became the Maxes' partner in almost every venture, with the noted exception of Maxaluna (that particular restaurant remained outside the Unique umbrella). “I wasn't even a partner in Max's Grille originally,” says Rapoport. “But it had a terrible opening. There was a litany of problems. Lots of personnel problems. Dennis and Patti asked me to be a partner, and I just went into the kitchen and started firing people.” It was probably here that Rapoport earned a reputation as Dennis Max's hatchet man, though it's hard to equate the soft-spoken, almost sorrowful-faced man with such a description.
After fine-tuning, Max's Grille, the sixteenth restaurant for Dennis Max, became his signature eatery for several reasons. Located in the upscale Mizner Park mall, the Grille confirmed and solidified Max's position that posh retail centers were the most lucrative places for trend-savvy restaurants. Indeed developers such as Arvida would go to Max first and offer space. Max's Grille also proved a valuable training ground for young chefs and allowed Unique to advance another policy: making deserving chefs into partners, or “phantom owners,” as former corporate chef John Belleme calls it. Chefs like Belleme and Grant Johnson, who rose through the ranks, were offered profit sharing, a bonus that Rapoport says not only kept them loyal but deterred competitors from poaching key employees. And Max sharpened his reputation for spotting talent. Just look at a partial roster of chefs, aside from Militello and Saucy, who emerged from the Max corporation: Kevin McCarthy (now chef/owner of Armadillo Café in Davie), Johnny Vinczencz (currently chef at Astor Place in South Beach), and Kerry Simon (a celebrity chef in Las Vegas).
Finally the Grille established a new kind of bistro dining in South Florida: moderately priced, sophisticated, but not fine dining. The Grille would become a prototype. Max and company would open one in Orlando (which he still owns) and join forces with Sforza, another restaurant group, to jointly open three more. And there would be other restaurants as well, including several more Prezzos, a Max's Coffee Shop, and Mexican eatery Café Ole. The company also stretched its snowbird wings to Livingston, New Jersey, where a Max's Coffee Shop proved a failure, seemingly setting the stage for other rapid openings and closings of Max eateries.
Still, the Unique restaurants' overall popularity admitted Dennis and Patti Max to local celebrity status. But for the most part, Dennis Max was featured solo in newspapers and magazines as the driving force behind Unique Restaurant Concepts. New Times was only able to uncover one article highlighting Burt Rapoport, and none at all on Patti alone.
After the dust stirred up by the Max-Militello breakup settled, Militello, Richter, and their investors renamed Max's Place as Mark's Place. Then Militello got to work doing “what he does better than anyone else,” Richter says, “and that was to cook.” And cook he did. In 1989 Lyn Farmer of the Herald wrote about Militello: “There's no question he is one of the country's great chefs.” But Farmer also added in the same review that “his talents in the kitchen aren't enough to straighten out some problems at the front of the house,” including long waits for reserved tables and “confusion in the dining room.”
At first Richter, who managed the books and records, was still running her own travel agency, but eventually she became more of a hands-on partner. Once her genteel touch calmed the dining room, the awards began pouring in. In 1990 Food & Wine named Militello one of the ten best new chefs in the United States. He took a James Beard Award, the industry's highest honor, in 1992.
Chefs almost unanimously agreed. John Belleme, for one, notes that “[Militello] is a very intelligent guy with a great palate. I'm not sure how fab he is in business, but he's a great chef. At one time that was an incredible restaurant.” In 1992 Paul Bocuse, pioneer of nouvelle cuisine and one of the most famous chefs in the world, asked Militello to autograph a menu after dining at the restaurant.
Despite their 1988 intentions to downsize and concentrate in one kitchen, Militello and Richter in the fall of 1994 launched Mark's Las Olas, which received plenty of attention. Until Mark's had opened there, Las Olas Boulevard, a promenade similar to Lincoln Road, had yet to see a truly fine-dining restaurant. In addition the amount of money being spent on the interior reportedly was in the two-million-dollar range. Though restaurateurs today seem to regard spending millions of bucks as de rigueur, in 1994 the sum was prodigious. All factors combined, diners and critics alike were eager to sample the goods.
Despite Richter's newfound commitment to running the restaurants, Mark's Las Olas suffered from the same shortcomings Mark's Place did at first. On one visit while I was reviewing the restaurant, my 9:00 p.m. reservation wasn't honored until 11:00. Other critics remarked on chaos at the front of the house. But Militello's culinary talents won out. Just as with Mark's Place, his fans were and are legion, his customer base culled from all over the nation. The eatery settled into a destination, and today Mark's Las Olas remains Militello's flagship restaurant.
Lulled by success, Militello and Richter debuted a third restaurant a year later. Maurice Weiner, one of the owners of Grove Isle, a private community in Coconut Grove, approached Richter, she says, and asked if the pair would be interested in running a Mark's in the Grove. The answer was yes, but it should have been no.
While Mark's in the Grove easily created as much buzz as Mark's Las Olas, this time both critics and diners were less than enchanted. The restaurant was hard to find, lost behind a morass of private condominiums and gated drives. An outdoor kitchen seemed to render the food cold before it hit the table. And Militello was being chastised for not spending enough time on-site. Two months after Mark's in the Grove opened, Herald restaurant critic Geoffrey Tomb wrote: “Is this the beginning of multiunit corporatization? Should we expect Mark Militello? Or Mark Inc.?”
“We were running three [restaurants], and it was at that point things started to unravel,” Richter explains. “After you spread yourself a little too thin, and it's not a large organization....” Richter, a well-groomed woman who chooses her words with politically correct care, often lets silence speak for itself. “Things started to go wrong,” she rephrases. “Mark wasn't interested in the Grove. Noble House was coming in [to be partners with Weiner], and they wanted Mark to do things their way, which would never happen. Mark is an artist, and he's certainly not going to conform his food or values to a system.” Put another way, the partnership was falling apart. The pair pulled out of Grove Isle after a year, and one of Mark's most loyal chefs de cuisine, Doug Riess, was installed as an owner of a seemingly “new” eatery. But the business still didn't take off, and Riess and company departed some months later. (Today the spot is Robbin Haas's Baleen.)
At the same time, Mark's Place closed for renovations, and no one knew for sure if it would reopen. It did, in the winter of 1996, but Militello and Richter were still at odds. So in 1997 they decided to close the venerable Mark's Place. “When Mark had ownership, he had other responsibilities,” Richter notes, implying that he wasn't fulfilling those duties. “The success of Mark's Place was largely due to press and PR, but Mark wouldn't cooperate.” Richter also pulled out of the operations end of Mark's Las Olas. “I was still an owner, but I was an inactive owner,” she clarifies.
Militello was creating his own PR problems as well. His comments to the press verged on arrogance. He despised being classified with competitors Norman Van Aken, Allen Susser, and Robbin Haas as a member of the so-called Mango Gang. When he announced the impending closing of Mark's Place, he informed the Herald's Joan Fleishman that “I set out to make Mark's the number one restaurant in South Florida.... Miami was completely untapped.... I think I proved myself.”
Maybe so, but to Richter he also proved himself a difficult partner. These days she tries to remain positive about the experience. “We had a great thirteen-year run at Mark's Place,” she emphasizes. When asked about Militello, words like “talent” and “artist” crop up frequently. But eventually she sighs. “I hate to burn any bridges in life. Sometimes that can't be avoided. Unfortunately hard feelings and ill will does happen.” She went on to open Petrossian in Bal Harbour at the end of 1998, though it too has now closed.
As stranger things have happened, it's conceivable that Richter and Militello might someday make up. But when asked if she would ever work with Militello again, Richter avoids the question with a slight smile. “Well, I'd go back into business with Dennis,” she says.
Next week: Dissension, divestment, and divorce. Max's dynasty shows the wear and tear. Also, Militello as the prodigal chef proves that you can come home again, and even charge $20 for appetizers while you do it.