Sunday, May 20, 2018
Human Interest

Once-prominent Miami chef stands at precipice after death of pedestrian

By ELAINE WALKER

Miami Herald

MIAMI

If chef Jonathan Eismann's life were a roller coaster, it just took a stomach-plunging dip and sits teetering on the edge of the tracks.

Once the golden boy of Lincoln Road and a pioneer in Miami's food culture, Eismann saw his professional career take a dive from that peak in late 2010 as his ambitious plan to become the restaurant king of Miami's Design District ended in financial disaster. He was forced to close all four restaurants, leaving the chef in debt to suppliers and facing foreclosure proceedings on his multimillion-dollar Miami Beach home.

But in recent months Eismann had started the climb back up. He had reinvented himself as a real estate broker, saved his house from foreclosure and paid off his debts and was talking of opening a new restaurant. Then came the tragic morning Oct. 10 in West Miami-Dade when the once-prominent Miami chef was involved in a baffling traffic accident.

Now Eismann faces the possibility of criminal charges for killing pedestrian Jean Carlos Ruiz, a young father who was on his way to work at an import-export company.

It all started with Eismann getting into what should have been a simple car accident just before 9 a.m., rear-ending a car. But then, police reports say, he fled the scene of the wreck, only to lose control of his Ford Explorer moments later, swerve off the road and hit Ruiz, who was on the shoulder waiting to catch a bus.

The force of the crash flipped Ruiz into the air and knocked over a power pole. The 29-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene.

Those who know Eismann, 51, are struggling to find answers. They don't understand why the devoted father of two school-age daughters, a man who was a James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef in the South, would flee the scene of an accident.

'It doesn't fit'

"It's a very sad and unfortunate situation," said Ken Lyon, a caterer and chef who has known Eismann for more than two decades, since they both were pioneers on Lincoln Road. "I only know him as an earnest guy who had a little bit of bad luck, not the kind of guy who would have problems like this. It doesn't fit together."

More than three weeks after the accident, Eismann has not been arrested or given a traffic ticket. A Miami-Dade police spokesman said the investigation is ongoing.

Eismann declined through his attorney, Bob Amsel, to comment for this story. But Amsel said that his client waived the right to counsel and immediately after the accident gave a full taped statement to Miami-Dade police while receiving treatment at the hospital for back and wrist injuries.

"He continues to cooperate with authorities," Amsel said.

But that's not enough for Ruiz's widow, Celia Guezara. Her husband died a week before their fourth wedding anniversary, which she spent holding a vigil at the site of the accident. The couple had celebrated their daughter Kaylee's first birthday in September.

"I want justice served," Guezara said. "It's not fair for the person who killed my husband and destroyed my life to be out there freely."

Whatever happens, there's no denying that two families will never be the same after the events of Oct. 10.

For Eismann, nothing in the early stages of his career would have suggested such an occurrence.

Raised in a family-run hotel restaurant, Eismann had had a passion for cooking since childhood. When he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1984, his classmates voted him "most likely to succeed." He spent eight years perfecting his craft in the kitchens of some of New York's top restaurants.

Move to the beach

In 1992, Eismann moved to Miami Beach to take advantage of the burgeoning redevelopment. When Pacific Time opened on Lincoln Road in 1993, the stretch was still a ghost town. But Eismann, along with partners Yves Picot and Alexander Duff, turned the Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant into a destination that attracted everyone from foodies to celebrities like Madonna, Calvin Klein and Cindy Crawford. Pacific Time was hailed as one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Esquire and others. Eismann was honored in 1994 with the Robert Mondavi Award for Culinary Excellence.

"Pacific Time was a defining Miami restaurant," said Larry Carrino, a restaurant publicist whose firm, Brustman Carrino, has worked with Eismann over the years. "Jonathan was the talent that helped put South Florida on the national culinary map."

Part of what made Pacific Time work was that the partners balanced each other out. Eismann, not known as warm and personable, spent his time in the kitchen crafting his signature dishes like steamed halibut with fresh coriander and lemongrass or miso-rubbed chicken salad. The more outgoing Picot focused on interacting with customers.

"Jonathan was a perfectionist, and he knew what he wanted," Picot said. "Sometimes he rubbed people the wrong way. He was very good at working the kitchen. He was definitely better in the back of the house than in the front. It worked well for the first few years."

Branching out

After expanding to Coral Gables with a sister restaurant, Pacific Heights, Eismann and his partners had different opinions on the direction they wanted to take the business. They split in 1997, with Eismann buying out the partners. It cost him nearly $1 million, he told the Miami Herald in 2008, adding: "That trailed me for a long time."

But Eismann kept Pacific Time going for another decade before increasing restaurant competition throughout South Florida and rising real estate prices on Lincoln Road got the better of him. When Pacific Time closed in June 2007, it was Lincoln Road's longest-running high-end eatery after a streak of 14 years.

Tired of Lincoln Road customers more interested in pizza, ice cream and liquor, Eismann took his pioneering spirit to the Miami Design District. He used profits from real estate investments to fund the reopening of a less pricey version of Pacific Time in 2008.

Eismann certainly wasn't the only one in the restaurant industry who suffered amid the recession. Recent years have seen many once-prominent names — including Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken and Mark Militello — shutter their flagship restaurants.

Before the recent accident it seemed things might be looking up for Eismann. In 2011, he paid back about $12,500 in debts owed to Sysco Food Services of South Florida, the supplier that won two court judgments against Eismann's companies in 2010.

He narrowly avoided foreclosure on his Venetian Islands home in September when neighbors Jeffrey and Teri Krasnoff purchased the house for $3.2 million. That allowed Eismann to satisfy the $1.47 million judgment obtained against him in July by his lender, Bank United, and still have cash left. Eismann and his family remain in the six-bedroom, six-bath waterfront mansion.

Eismann was focusing on a new career as a real estate agent, which he started in March 2011, shortly after the restaurant closures.

Those who know Eismann say the recent events are out of character for the family man who volunteers regularly at his children's schools and has no criminal record.

Eismann does have a history of recurrent traffic problems — 11 citations in Miami-Dade County over the past decade. They're fairly routine violations, like careless driving, failure to stop at a light and following too closely. In most cases he was either found not guilty or the charges were disposed of with minimal fines.

A witness to the Oct. 10 accidents, Janet Nuñez, describes Eismann's driving this way:

"He (ran) the red light at Flagler going really fast, like 70 or 80 miles per hour. He cut me off and slammed into the guy in front of me."

After Eismann hit the first car, Nuñez told the Herald, she watched him take off.

"Then he started to lose control," she said.

"He swerved from the left lane to the middle lane, back to the left lane and then all the way back to the right lane, where he hit the pedestrian. I watched the entire thing happen right in front of me."

Frustrated widow

Details of the accident have Nuñez, the victim's widow and others questioning why Eismann has not been arrested or even ticketed.

Miami-Dade police traffic homicide Detective George Wilhelm wrote in an email that no blood or urine was taken from Eismann by police because "there was no probable cause to believe that the driver was under the influence at the time of the crash."

Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade state attorney, said prosecutors were waiting to receive all of the evidence from police before deciding whether to file charges against Eismann.

"If there was probable cause to believe a crime was committed, the police could make an arrest," Griffith said. "If they didn't feel that they had probable cause, then they turn it over to us."

Criminal defense attorneys not involved in the case say the lack of charges more than three weeks after the accident is not unusual.

"This is under no circumstances unreasonable," said Adam Swickle, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney. "Given the severity and complexity of what we're talking about, the state attorney just doesn't wake up in the morning and file charges against somebody. They like to do their due diligence. The mere fact that someone hit someone who dies doesn't automatically mean it's a crime."

Ironically, the man Eismann hit would have loved to have had the former chef as a mentor.

Ruiz was planning to attend culinary school next year at Miami Dade College, his widow said.

"He was always talking about his ideas for making his own restaurant," said Celia Guezara. "It was his dream."

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