Mexican Standoff

Wanna see how nasty this business is?" asks chef Cindy Rothman, riffling through her Filofax and a stack of documents. "Take a look at this." She holds up a sheet of paper on which is photocopied in block letters: "Don't be fooled! There's only one Cilantro and we lost our space. Watch for the grand opening of chef/owner Cindy Rothman's Cilantro."

A compactly built woman with a thick New York accent, Rothman slowly shakes her head in a gesture of disgust. "I don't want to look like a yutz walking around passing out flyers," she says, "but if I need to, I'm going to."

Rothman is known to Miami gourmands as the force behind the highly regarded Cilantro, a restaurant she opened in Coral Gables in July 1992 and moved this past winter to North Miami. But three weeks ago the chef was locked out of her own kitchen, the result of a dispute with the restaurant's owner.

Since the early Eighties, Rothman says, she has spent most of her days in and around kitchens, first as a line cook at a Mexican restaurant in New York, then as a protege of Zarela Martinez, one of the leading Mexican chefs in the U.S. After six years as general manager for a restaurant in Manhattan's touristy South Street Seaport (the Big Apple's equivalent of Bayside), Rothman moved to Miami to be closer to her family. She began work here as the executive chef at Las Puertas in Coral Gables, but within a few months she opened Cilantro with more than $100,000 of her own money. The new establishment, specializing in Southwestern cuisine, was located directly across the street from her former employer. ("Is there a fajita feud going on here?" asked then-New Times restaurant critic Rafael Navarro. "What a brilliant telenovela it would make A Chili con carnage.")

This past November, after a year and a half of what Rothman describes as "okay" business on the competitive Coral Gables dining battlefront, she sold out her Giralda Avenue space to Justa Pasta. "I always felt I was just going to scratch out a living," explains the 42-year-old chef, who had attracted local attention not only for her cooking but also for the fact that she was achieving success in a male-dominated field. At about the same time, she was contacted by the owner of a North Miami restaurant called La Siesta who was interested in doing business with her. "I'll never forget when I first met him," Rothman recalls of her introduction to restaurateur Cesar E. Jimenez. "I walked into the restaurant and he did this A" she reaches into a pocket, pulls out her keys, and dangles them in an outstretched hand. "He said, 'Here, take it.'"

Jimenez, who also owns an auto parts store, wanted to sell the eatery; Rothman wanted to buy it. One snag: Rothman says she was uncertain about the neighborhood's ability to support an upscale restaurant and wasn't ready to invest. Instead, the two worked out an elaborate business relationship -- Jimenez would keep the lease and hire Rothman as his executive chef for the new venture. Rothman would lend the Cilantro name (she owns the service mark) and redesign the menu. Each would kick in $5000 to the restaurant's operating fund. In the end, the pair also drafted an agreement that called for the chef to buy out Jimenez in six months for $130,000.

They never signed that agreement, however.
The doors to the second incarnation of Cilantro, located on the site of La Siesta at 13448 Biscayne Blvd., opened January 20. The restaurant drew flattering reviews in the local press. "We turned it from a fast-food place to fine dining," Rothman says, though Jimenez counters that La Siesta had become a respectable sit-down restaurant before he and Rothman reopened.

Both agree that the issue of the buyout arose as business ebbed in early summer. At the beginning of July, Rothman promised to send Jimenez a letter of intent. But Jimenez never received it, and on July 10 Jimenez called Rothman, told her he was taking her name off the business's checking account, and changed the lock on the restaurant's front door.

"He was trying to force me into a sale," Rothman asserts. "He was very apologetic but he said the only way he could lock me into a sale was to lock me out."

"I was trying to force her to decide what to do," Jimenez huffs. "But I felt frustrated. She had been telling me since January that she was going to sign the agreement. I felt that she was smiling behind me. Who in this world waits six months to sign a paper?" Jimenez also says Rothman was late in paying "about $15,000 worth of bills, including utilities, phone, and two months' back rent. (Rothman disputes Jimenez's claim that it was her responsibility to pay those bills on the grounds that she was the chef, not the owner.)

On July 11, the two huddled separately with their lawyers and attempted to negotiate a sale by fax and phone. Rothman offered $50,000 A significantly less than the figure from the original handshake. She explains the downward revision this way: Jimenez, at her request, had removed a $30,000 computer system that she deemed unnecessary. Further, after Cilantro's apparent early success in North Miami, she had come to a new sense of what the business was worth. "I figured half of the restaurant was his and half was mine," Rothman asserts. "Cilantro was Cilantro because of me. I felt that was reasonable."

Jimenez didn't, which put an end to any negotiations.
"The man never made me a counteroffer," says Rothman indignantly. "I had a higher figure in mind that I was going to settle on, but he never came back to me with a counteroffer." A second attempt by the two to find common ground later that day was also aborted.

As she removed her personal belongings from the restaurant the next day, Rothman made one last proposal: She'd assume the two months' back rent and outstanding bills and pay Jimenez an additional $10,000; a total offer of about $25,000. "I dropped the figure because we shut down the restaurant and each day was a tremendous loss to my reputation," the chef explains, but admits the offer "was a little bit of a slap in the face."

Not surprisingly, Jimenez rejected the proposal.
Instead he reopened the restaurant on July 26, hiring Rothman's former prep cooks to run the kitchen. The name Cilantro is gone -- literally. A sign in front bills the establishment as "Restaurant." The menu, however, remains virtually the same as Rothman's, a fact that doesn't trouble Jimenez a bit. "A burrito is a burrito," he reasons. "Taquito is taquito."

Rothman still has the Cilantro name and the pertinent segment of the restaurant's sign. She's eyeing another location for Cilantro III and says that this time she's going in with investors and won't make the same mistake. "I really didn't have any kind of stronghold agreement that protected me; I went in a little bit more with my heart than my head."

As for Jimenez, he just wants out of the whole culinary racket. "I don't belong in this restaurant business," he mutters. "I am a working man. I don't belong to the ambiance of restaurants, the music, the drinking. I got into it by accident, now I want to get out."

But he's not out yet. This past Thursday, he says, he discovered one of Rothman's leaflets wedged in the restaurant's front door.


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