Bill Chait Is Setting the Table

A former chain operator, Bill Chait is behind some of L.A.’s favorite restaurants, from République and Bestia to Rivera and Sotto. More are on the way, too, because Chait means business, and that’s why chefs love him

If you’d asked us yesterday to name the most powerful person in L.A. food, we’d say Bill Chait. Chait is best known as the founder and driving force behind the ever-expanding Sprout restaurant group, which includes Otium, Bestia, République, Petty Cash, and Broken Spanish. Today, news broke via Eater LA that Chait will be stepping down as the company’s managing partner to “pursue his own independent projects,” according to Sprout’s official statement. Los Angeles contributor Laurie Weiner profiled the prolific restaurateur in 2014, exploring how the former owner of the Louises Trattoria chain became a local culinary powerhouse.


 

The architect is making a mistake. Standing before a large screen in the industrial-chic conference room of his office downtown, he begins his presentation with a leisurely overview of what can be done to the property at 500 South Mateo Street, a five-sided, single-story building on a patchy block in the nearby arts district. His audience of eight seems attentive. He could, he says, add a design element to the roof that would be lit at night so that even drivers on the 4th Street Bridge would see its green glow. Before he can elaborate, one listener interrupts. “Why do we have to redo the roof?” asks restaurateur Bill Chait in a tone that is not exactly friendly. “The minute you start touching the roof…” In the pause Chait’s indignation grows. “The roof is the worst place possible to start spending money! There’s a shit-ton of equipment up there—air-conditioning, exhaust, water, gas.” No more mention is made of the roof. With a click on his keyboard and a tad less confidence, the architect brings up a drawing of the 15,000-square-foot interior, the future home of a restaurant, falafel stand, coffee-roasting station, and bakery, with areas for ambling and sitting. He uses his pen to point out how, with a little alteration, the different areas could flow more seamlessly into each other, including the kitchen into the dining area. Chait stands up and walks in the direction of the architect. “What you’re not hearing is that Ori wants separate and distinct spaces,” he says, referring to Ori Menashe, the chef at Bestia, who will also pilot the Middle Eastern restaurant in question. Chait takes the pen from the architect’s hand without looking at him and proceeds to the screen. “Ori doesn’t want the front of the restaurant to be diffused,” he says, pointing at the drawing with the architect’s pen. The job went to someone else.

At 54, Bill Chait is slim and bespectacled, with slightly chubby cheeks and dark hair that he wears in a boyish cut. His style is California casual: a pressed polo shirt or button-down, jeans, and sneakers or loafers. Neat and tightly wound, he is a man who smiles only for a reason. Upon meeting him for the first time, you might deem him unobtrusive, but there is nothing unobtrusive about the clarity of his thinking, especially when it concerns the efficient expansion of his empire.

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In just under six years Chait has created the city’s most impressive portfolio of restaurants, each distinct from the next in food and ambience. He launched Rivera, the stylish Latin restaurant near L.A. Live, with chef John Sedlar in January 2009. Two years later he brought Ricardo Zarate’s exquisitely rendered Peruvian dishes to Picca, while downstairs in the same Westside building he installed Steve Samson and Zach Pollack in Sotto, which concentrates on rustic southern Italian cooking. Then, in 2012, came Bestia, where Menashe takes the American concept of Italian food not merely into organ-meat territory but into something earthier and more intoxicating than anything we knew before. Packed almost from the moment it opened its doors (despite deafening noise levels inside), Bestia earned back its investment in one practically unheard-of year.

Projects of all sizes interest Chait. He runs the compact burger-centric Short Order (and its sweeter half, Short Cake) with Nancy Silverton at the Farmers Market. He teamed with chef Walter Manzke at Petty Cash Taqueria on Beverly Boulevard, offering genre-bending tacos with octopus, duck gizzards, crispy pig ears, and other delicacies from the dark side. Last November he and Manzke unveiled République in the handsomely made-over Campanile space, where Manzke injects bistro food with a dose of California bonhomie. At his latest, Redbird, he and chef Neal Fraser have devised a temple for California cuisine in the cozy former rectory of the 1876 St. Vibiana Cathedral near City Hall (Chait also manages the cathedral proper—its 20-foot ceilings, marble apse, and confessionals intact—as a venue for events). Next year will see at least two more openings beyond 500 South Mateo (still unnamed): Chait is refurbishing the laid-back Venice stalwart Rose Café with former Superba Snack Bar chef Jason Neroni for a 2015 relaunch. And there’s the restaurant adjacent to the new Broad museum on Grand Avenue. Naturally more restaurants, such as a barbecue spot in Studio City and a second project in the arts district, are on the way, because when you’re the city’s most prolific restaurateur, you keep on being prolific.

The menu isn’t key to Chait. “For me it’s much more about the way the chefs think about food,” he says.

From Spanglish to Chef, movies in the past ten years have fed the fantasy that the only thing a successful restaurant needs is a genius in the kitchen who chops onions at hyperspeed and composes plates with the eye of Matisse. The notion of a gracious host or of any guiding aesthetic other than that of the chef’s has almost disappeared. In truth the best chefs are usually not the best businesspeople. So considering all of the challenges they face—the priceyness of L.A. real estate and well-sourced food, along with the difficulty of obtaining permits and raising funds in an industry riddled with failed efforts—their eagerness to work with Chait is understandable: The guy gets stuff done.

When we talk about other L.A. culinary empires—Wolfgang Puck’s companies or Joachim Splichal’s Patina Group, for instance—we are talking about collections of restaurants guided by entities that hand down corporate decisions to the group, such as how the places look, where the chefs get their produce, or what compensation will be for a regimented number of positions. Nothing is uniform in Chait World, and Chait likes it that way. There is no “Chait look” to a restaurant, no Chait kind of menu. Sprout Restaurant Group—the company he formed in 2010 with produce supplier Mike Glick and Aileen Getty, a philanthropist and granddaughter of J. Paul—has neither an office nor a Web site. The years Chait spent founding and overseeing a traditional chain, Louise’s Trattoria, taught him that a heavy management presence dulls creativity and encourages stagnation. Not coincidentally Chait is a libertarian. “There’s a saying in business,” he notes. “Any change leads into the valley of despair. A restaurant ages when it loses the ability to change.”

Chait is regarded as a sharp negotiator who knows where to spend and where to stint, and more crucially he sees the chef as a partner whose sensibility is the soul of the business; in fact most of his chefs are financial partners. Given the industry’s precarious profit margins, Chait believes that a restaurant is easier to sustain if you have a mess of them. He’s established a trusted team of workers, from chefs to contractors to line cooks, which means alterations in his restaurants are faster and less costly. But since anything that smacks of a “chain” is anathema to most serious diners and star chefs, his impulse to let each restaurant be entirely its own thing is a plus. What Bill Chait has built is the antichain chain.

That approach suits his chefs well. Walter Manzke had cooked with Splichal at Patina before working with Alain Ducasse in France and at El Bulli in Spain. By the time he met Chait, he was feelingallergic to the idea of corporate leadership. “Not enough structure is bad,” he says, “but too much is worse.” I am sitting with Manzke at a tiny table in front of République, which is already full at 6:30. “With Sprout we don’t worry about someone hanging over our heads, telling us what to do, where to buy the fish because we’ll get a better price. Bill told me, ‘After République opens, you won’t see me much unless something’s going wrong.’ ” At that moment Chait drives by in his black BMW, talking on the phone. “Look at him,” says Manzke, unfazed, as if he sees this every day. “He doesn’t have a big desk and a bunch of secretaries. His office is his car and his phone.”

Chait first captured Manzke’s attention when he heard that “the guy from Louise’s” was bringing back John Sedlar, who had been a force for innovative Southwestern cooking in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Manzke’s admiration has only grown since Rivera’s launch. “This is a guy who took a bunch of chefs who were stuck in their own little worlds, and he made those worlds into realities. If it was just me on my own, the contractors and the city would have eaten me alive.”

Of course the people from whom Chait is sparing his chefs feel somewhat differently. “Every single time I’ve finished a project for him, he tells me, ‘Well, you’ve failed again,’ ” says Dan Barling, the contractor who has been working with Chait since 1990, when he was hired to remodel the five existing Louise’s (and stayed to help build 15 more). Barling and his crew became accustomed to working through the night; in the morning they would cover the construction site with drop cloths so that the restaurant could continue operating without losing a penny. “It was overlapping projects all the time,” says the contractor, who had taken a call from Chait that morning telling him he had six weeks to remodel the Studio City Spark Woodfire Grill, which Chait wants to turn into a barbecue place. “He works me hard, and we are always both under pressure. He’s been vile, and I’ve been vile. When I heard he practices meditation, I thought, ‘Wow. Where does he use that?’ ”

Chait’s impatience is another thing that often works in chefs’ favor. Menashe especially appreciates his ability to decide quickly. The chef had searched long for the right space to house Bestia; a spot in the downtown warehouse district seemed ideal, but his investor wanted something in Beverly Hills. “I didn’t want to cook there,” Menashe says. “There are so many restaurants, and it’s a difficult crowd.” A despondent Menashe called Chait, who agreed to meet with him. The chef presented a prospectus along with a description of the style of food he wanted to cook. “Bill looked at my business plan for ten minutes,” says Menashe. “Then he looked up and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

Menashe may be Chait’s greatest discovery. His chefs tend to come with track records; even Ricardo Zarate had already gained culinary celebrity with Mo-Chica, the Peruvian counter that he spun into a hip café downtown. As a chef de cuisine, all Menashe had going for him was a five-year run at someone else’s restaurant, Angelini Osteria. It would be natural to assume that Chait saw something in Menashe’s food that moved him, but if that’s so, he doesn’t remember. “It’s rare that I eat the food of a chef before I go into business with him,” he says one evening on the Bestia patio as Menashe serves us his slow-roasted lamb neck with pickled carrots, a dish that shows off his masculine style of cooking. “Ori, did I ever taste your food before Bestia?” asks Chait in an unusually playful mood. “Yes, Bill, you ate my food at Angelini Osteria,” he says, almost rolling his eyes. “Many times.”

Even if Chait exaggerates his indifference to food, the menu isn’t what’s key to him. “A menu is something that can always be changed,” he says. “For me it’s much more about the way the chefs think about food. They have to have passion and be in touch with what people want to eat now. Take Ori or Ricardo or Samson: Their cooking is a kind of guttural expression of where they came from. Walter used to sneak over the border to eat tacos in Tijuana.”

Chait met many of his chefs through the pop-up Test Kitchen, a project that was more of a Hail Mary than an actual blueprint. After the Louise’s chain filed for bankruptcy in 1997, Chait briefly contemplated quitting restaurants to work for his brother in Belgium, where he was CFO of the temp services firm Manpower. Instead Chait went in with Danilo Terribili on Spark Woodfire Grill, which had a trio of locations, including a foundering two-story space on Pico near Beverwill. Chait saw the layout as part of the problem and decided to split the building into a pair of restaurants. Sotto and Picca would eventually go there, but it was 2010, and the economy was still reeling. A lot of talented chefs were out of work. So to keep revenue flowing as he waited on permits, Chait hatched a temporary restaurant where chefs could make whatever they wanted and work for a night or three. In four months 50 chefs passed through.

Manzke was one of them. During the aughts, he’d cooked at the short-lived Bastide, among L.A.’s fabled restaurants, but “after the market collapsed,” he says, “no one was interested in that type of restaurant.” Then Manzke visited Test Kitchen. “It excited me in a stupid, crazy way; it was turning out to be, out of the blue, the restaurant of the year,” he says. “Here was this guy, Chait—you didn’t know what he was doing. He transformed a dated steak house that didn’t work, and suddenly he was the one supporting all of us. There hasn’t been as much excitement in the restaurant world since.”

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