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.
I don't think the general public understands how expensive it is to operate a restaurant or how slim the profit margins are. They look at the price of the food or a drink and don't realize how many costs are involved in bringing it to the table.
Date: 2/19/2000 8:12:54 AM
Saw your column on Bambú, remind me to never piss you off....
Date: 2/19/2000 9:16:24 AM
Well, you know the line about a food critic scorned.... Actually I think I'm getting a bit soft in my later years. But you've been on the other end of criticism -- what's your opinion in general of us food media people? What's it like being a "celebrity chef," with your every move shadowed and analyzed? Do you feel blessed -- or haunted?
Date: 2/20/2000 12:16:17 PM
I wish there was a way to monitor food critics so they would have to meet certain criteria before they can publicly review a restaurant, but I realize that is not possible. I have personally known food critics that were writers and "fell" into their positions and were asked to review restaurants before they were qualified to do so. I think it is sad to take a person with the culinary aptitude of a caveman cooking over an open flame with a clay pot and a stick and give [him/her/it] the power to change someone's livelihood. When it comes down to it, it's one person's opinion and you know what they say about opinions.
I have been on both sides, received a lot of praise, and taken my share of criticism, and [I have] learned two very important things: 1) Don't believe all the good things they write about you because once you do, the bad will kill you. No matter how high they build you up, someone will be there to knock you down; 2) You cannot please everyone. Food is like music. People are very passionate about it and no one completely agrees. Yes, you should absolutely weigh the opinions of your co-workers and customers, but when it comes down to it, you have to go with what is in your heart, because if you believe in it, that will shine through on to the plate.
As far as the celebrity chef thing, I don't know where that term came from, but I never liked it. I'm not a celebrity. When you see me on Entertainment Tonight taking Stephanie Seymour to the Oscars, then I'm a celebrity. Until then I'm just a chef. And [if] being shadowed and analyzed is what it takes to put asses in the chairs ... then I feel lucky.
Date: 2/20/2000 6:09:36 PM
I'm horribly curious about your new eatery ...
Date: 2/27/2000 2:34:38 PM
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Lucky for me when I first began my search I was introduced to a gentleman named Merv Miller. Merv is from San Francisco and spends a good portion of his time on Fisher Island. He owned and operated a string of 25 extremely successful family-style restaurants in California and Hawaii. [He] sold the concept to a Japanese company and still operates two very hot concepts in Honolulu. He was looking for a project to occupy his time while in Miami. We were introduced, became good friends, and decided to open a restaurant together. I have learned more from Mr. Miller in the past six months than I have in the past ten years. His expertise from 30 years in the restaurant business is priceless and his business savvy [is] a lesson to be learned. A perfect counterpoint to a chef like myself who has never had a problem with creativity or being behind the stove....
We decided we really wanted to create a restaurant that can only exist in Miami. After an extended search we have found a location and are planning a restaurant with 30-foot ceilings. With a Busby Berkeley feel, a classy lounge, and an occasional torch singer, the 10,000-square-foot space will be a tribute to the Art Deco theater days. A large display kitchen and wood-burning oven [will] sit center stage. I am planning on bringing back a few of the signature dishes from the Astor but will be moving in somewhat of a different direction with a rotating menu in a chef's dream kitchen, large enough to execute it. With the food, concept, uniqueness of the building, Art Deco design, and a little luck we hope to turn some heads on a local and national level.
*Some e-mail addresses have been changed to protect the interests of cowboys