An Oldsmar restaurant that was supposed to put the city on the culinary map and cement a personal turnaround for an acclaimed celebrity chef is now mired in conflict.
With accusations of physical attacks, nasty texts and unpaid bills, it's a particularly contentious look into the inner life of the restaurant world as more celebrity restaurants vie for space in the Tampa Bay market.
Todd Hall, the Boston chef hired to create the concept of Suegra Tequila Cantina on Tampa Road where City Fish Grill was, is out. After one week of service, owners Craig and Matt Vario reached an impasse with Hall and he was relieved of his responsibilities and the locks were changed.
In the past week, things became so acrimonious between the two sides that Hall provided the Times with a screen grab of a text he said came from Matt Vario, reading, "Your (sic) this great chef and can't handle any pressure. Do this world a favor and go back to drugs." Vario declined to comment.
Hall has made no secret of his own checkered past. He admits to nearly dying when shot three times in a crack deal gone bad. The former addict and James Beard honoree has overcome other tragedies, losing two of his four children, one to a heroin overdose. He has written about his challenges and triumphs in a memoir called Appetite for Excess: A Chef's Story.
It was a boon for Tampa Bay when Hall decided to tie himself to a restaurant in Oldsmar. Hall was the opening chef of La Hacienda at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort, for many years the only four-star Mexican restaurant in the world. Oldsmar had good traffic, he said, and the residential areas had solid incomes.
It also meant a fresh start for a chef whose career has seen meteoric rises and falls. How this all went wrong depends on whom you ask.
The heart of the conflict, according to Hall, was numbers. Against his request, he said, the owners seated many more customers each night than the kitchen, wait and bar staff could handle. He said the owners admitted up to 400 people per evening as the week progressed, causing chaos.
"You need a soft opening, maybe 150 covers a day, while your kitchen staff gets up and running," Hall said. "If you overwhelm them every day, they're not learning and they will walk out."
According to Matt Vario, the owners did restrict overseating to make sure the kitchen could send out the food properly, and the causes for the split were entirely different.
"I have difficulty saying this, but he pushed one of my managers on Saturday night," Vario said. "Todd creates ideas in his head that are not true. Todd is no longer associated with the project, (although) he created the recipes and they are still his. He's moving on."
Hall denies pushing anyone.
"I never touched anyone, nor have I in a 40-year career," he said. "I'm not a violent person."
His attorney has sent a letter to the Vario brothers, who also own Toasted Monkey and Rick's Reef in St. Pete Beach and Screwie Louie's in Madeira Beach, demanding immediate payment of the outstanding balance of $80,000 for consulting services. Hall said the Varios have failed to pay or are in arrears with a number of vendors.
Matt Vario admits having two outstanding bills, with Buccaneer Linen and US Foods.
"They are both purveyors we still use and they're on a payment program," he said.
Conflict between chefs and restaurant owners in the early weeks of business is nothing new.
Chef Gary Moran packed up his knives and walked out on day four at the short-lived Knife & Co. in Tampa. Chef Chris Juers stormed out just a few weeks into service at the also-short-lived Bourgeois Pig in Seminole Heights. Chef Richard Potts had a brief and acrimonious period at the helm in the kitchen of Roux in Tampa, and peripatetic chef Domenica Macchia moved swiftly from Redwoods to MJ's, Diner 437, BellaBrava, Shackleton's Folly, Three Birds Tavern and Beak's in St. Petersburg to Dough in Tampa, frequently in a swirl of "he said, she said."
Restaurant owners, having spent months with revenue flowing out, have a powerful incentive to get the doors open, while chefs want things perfect — it's their reputation as artists on the line. Meanwhile, everyone has been working 100-hour weeks. In the way people get fixated on a wedding and not the marriage to follow, opening a restaurant works only if there are shared values and vision.
Suegra general manager Manny Quinones is hesitant to get involved.
"As far as conflict, I don't have any comment," he said. "I would say that we were very busy: Monday we did 200 covers, Tuesday 250 and we kept that pace through the week. We never hit the 350-to-400 mark (that Hall claims), and it was evenly spaced. Like all new restaurants, it's a learning curve."
General contractor Stephen Antonell defends the Vario brothers.
"It has been fantastic working for them, one of the best clients I've had. I would gladly do more work for them," Antonell said. And about Hall?
"Todd is a very strong-willed man," he said. "Chefs are that way. They're perfectionists."
Dale Del Bello, former operating partner for City Fish Grill, which the Varios also owned, tells another story about working with the Varios.
"My mistake was, I didn't get much in writing because we were friends. … They owed me over $50,000 and they cut me loose. I ended up hiring an attorney and I spent nearly $20,000 in attorney fees. I just now finalized my settlement for 50 cents on the dollar minus legal fees."
Regarding Del Bello's claims, Matt Vario said, "Absolutely not."
Suegra Tequila Cantina will continue without Hall, said Matt Vario, adding lunch and brunch in the next couple of weeks.
In recent years, a number of celebrity chefs have set sights on Tampa Bay. Michael Mina has Locale Market. Marc Murphy fleetingly had Grey Salt in the Seminole Hard Rock. Robert Irvine scouted downtown St. Petersburg. And rumors of Emeril Lagasse, Donatella Arpaia and other HSN stars have swirled.
It's unclear what's next for Hall.
"There are plenty of people who like restaurants," he said. "I'll be fine."
On Friday afternoon, Cinco de Mayo, Suegra's Facebook page shared a video of one of Hall's local television appearances, the name of the restaurant still coupled with his. The chef made guacamole.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.