by Mia Stainsby, Vancouver SunPublished: Saturday, November 03, 2007
Rob Feenie, one of Canada's most celebrated chefs, says he has been forced out of his two Vancouver restaurants, Lumiere and Feenie's.
In the past few days, he says, he has been in the fight of his life in a failed bid to regain his status in the two Vancouver jewels.
Two years ago, with his restaurants facing bankruptcy, he signed over majority ownership of the restaurants to David and Manjy Sidoo. Feenie says he was in the red for $350,000 after spending $1.2 million to upgrade the Lumiere kitchen and to pay off what he owed his original partner, Ken Lei.
"I'm no longer with the company because, most importantly, my role as a chef was taken away," he said in an interview.
David Sidoo, an investment banker, says he's shocked at what has happened. He said in an interview that the sides had been trying to work out their problems.
Feenie said he had an employment contract with the Sidoos.
"It is in his [Feenie's] view that they [the Sidoos] are in breach of that employment contract," Feenie's lawyer, Randy Kaardal, said.
"They have diminished his role and responsibility as it relates to food, marketing and operation of the restaurants. He was to have the role of executive chef and the duties were defined in the agreement.
"He has now elected to no longer be associated with the restaurants as a result," Kaardal said. "He could not tolerate those circumstances."
"The parties will have to work out damages that Mr. Feenie has suffered and attempt to work out in good faith where to go from here," Kaardal said.
Sidoo confirmed Feenie has left the restaurants. "It's finished. He quit.
"He came in on Wednesday and took all his stuff. He met with the staff, had a goodbye drink, shook hands with them.
"Right now, we're in shock. We were trying to work things out the past few days.
Sidoo called Feenie "a wonderful chef . . . . He's done a lot of good things for Vancouver."
Sidoo also said he and his wife's investment in the restaurant "was substantially more" than $350,000, but would not go into details. Neither party would talk about their financial arrangements.
Asked why Feenie left, Sidoo replied: "You're going to have to ask him that."
Feenie is a star, a giant in the Vancouver culinary scene. In 2005, he became a bit of a pop culture icon by winning the Iron Chef America competition. He's written several cookbooks, he's had his own television cooking shows and hobnobs with towering international chefs such as Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. Under him, Lumiere was distinguished with the prestigious Relais Gourmand and Tradition et Qualité awards.
Recently, a full-page ad appeared in Vancouver Magazine's annual glossy eating and drinking guide "introducing executive chef Dale Mackay" with his photo with owners David and Manjy Sidoo's names at the bottom.
Sidoo says that was an error: "The ad was an unfortunate typo error we couldn't catch in time. With all other marketing materials, all the dinners we've done, Rob was on the menu as executive chef."
Feenie said the problems began when Mackay was hired two months ago. The 28-year-old chef, a Canadian, was previously working at uber-celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay's New York restaurant.
"As of a month ago, David Sidoo informed me the duties and title of executive chef were taken away from me. Dale was given carte blanche to do what he wants and the final approval of all food for Lumiere had to go through David and Manjy," Feenie said.
"One of the things he [David] said to me was that the reason he wanted Dale to have carte blanche is that he and Manjy wanted to see more consistency in the restaurant. He wanted us to work together."
More recently, while the partners were negotiating their way through the issues, Feenie was advised to stay away, he says.
"It's not that he wanted me out of there. He [Sidoo] wanted my face, my name," he says. "The fact is, the food in the dining room is no longer Rob Feenie. I was no longer able to make comments and criticisms. If I didn't think the food was worthy of Lumiere, it had to go through David and Manjy."
Feenie's side of the story reads like a backroom deal that occurred without his knowledge. Feenie said he interviewed Mackay in New York for a position as chef de cuisine. Feenie felt Mackay came at too high a price and had interviewed another chef from Toronto. Unknown to him, Sidoo had hired Mackay.
Sidoo disagrees with that version of events. "Rob is the executive chef. We didn't have anything to do with the food. Rob went to New York and said 'We found our guy. He's not willing to come unless we can compensate him properly.' I told Rob it's his decision. We made it work for Rob, so Dale could run the kitchen as chef de cuisine. The two of them had conversations over duties. From my understanding, Rob gave Dale complete freedom with the menu as long as the two signature items, the sablefish and the squash ravioli, stayed. Dale was hired as chef de cuisine for Lumiere."
Two days ago, Feenie told The Sun he had investors in place to make Sidoo a buyout offer. "I'm trying to buy it back. If he rejects the deal, it's then personal and if he wants to make it personal, I do have the ability to take it to that level," Feenie said. "I will not let these restaurants go. I've worked too hard."
The offer, he said, is what Sidoo wanted and "more than what the restaurant's worth."
But on Friday, Feenie was officially out.
Sidoo says he's always approached with offers. "I did have interest from outside parties. Those discussions were terminated several days ago. They are confidential discussions. The terms were not satisfactory so we moved on. I don't know if Rob was attached to them."
Regarding the partnership, Feenie says: "It was one of my biggest mistakes. In doing that, it's put me in the situation I'm in now. What can I tell you. I've made big mistakes in my career but this was the biggest I've ever made. At this point, it's a fatal error. In January '06, he [David] said we've got three choices," Feenie said. "He said 'We can close down. We can find someone to buy us out. Or we [the Sidoos] can take over. Not only will we take over, we'll try and make it so that you're still a partner.' "
Asked what brought him to the point of bankruptcy two years ago, Feenie said: "I'm a chef. I'm not an accountant or bookkeeper. It's not my thing. I put the wrong people in the wrong places to be accountable. I'm disappointed for my clients, for everyone. It's been 12 really fabulous years."
The relationship with the Sidoos wasn't always conflicted, Feenie says. "They [gave] me the opportunity four years ago to open Feenie's and that's something I have to thank them for -- coming in when I needed help and they were always there when the restaurant needed help. I never felt they ever had bad intentions."
As for Mackay, Feenie says: "He's the luckiest guy on the planet. He gets a Relais Gourmand and Tradition Qualité restaurant."
Sidoo said his priority has to be with the team at the restaurant.
CHEF'S CAREER TRAJECTORY
ROB FEENIE'S RED LETTER DATES:
1992-1994: Watershed years, building skills at Le Crocodile in Vancouver
1995: Opened Lumiere
1997: Restaurant of the Year, Vancouver Magazine restaurant award
2000: Opened Lumiere Tasting Bar at Lumiere; won Relais Gourmand award
2003: Opened Feenie's; won Tradition et Qualité award
2005: First Canadian chef to win Iron Chef title
1998-2004: Hosts New Classics with Chef Rob Feenie on Food Network Canada
2007: Exits Lumiere and Feenie's