Just six months after the highly anticipated Arts District restaurant Simone opened its doors, owner Joe Russo announced on Friday that culinary star Jessica Largey had left her post as executive chef—an immeasurable blow to a restaurant that had previously been heralded as one of the year’s most important openings.
In a press release, Russo—the director behind a number of films in the Marvel superhero franchise and a first-time restaurateur—said the split was a mutual decision, and that Largey would be succeeded by Simone’s chef de cuisine Jason Beberman. “It has been an honor to work with Jessica; her craftsmanship and culinary prowess is truly a sight to behold,” Russo says in the statement. “Jessica has helped bring conversations about mental health in the restaurant industry into the national spotlight, and we appreciate and admire these efforts. We wish her the best in her future endeavors.” Largey, the 32-year-old Ventura native who rose to national acclaim after being named Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation in 2015, was similarly deferential. “I’m looking forward to taking some time for myself and then I’ll be ready to share news,” she wrote via text to the Los Angeles Times.
Russo and Largey declined to comment beyond their initial statements for this story, but conversations with several former and current employees at Simone revealed systemic issues plaguing the restaurant’s short tenure: chronic mismanagement, a lack of direction, and a severe breakdown in communication between management and staff.
According to one employee who, as with other employees we spoke to, asked to not be identified due to concerns regarding future employment, Simone faced an early setback after the sudden passing of managing partner Bruno Bagbeni from cancer shortly after the restaurant had opened. “Bruno was supposed to act as general manager and they lost him in the first week, which was really hard,” the employee said. “They were scrambling to figure out what they were going to do.” Bagbeni was not replaced as general manager, but beverage director Jordan Egan was promoted to assistant general manager, and operations manager Art Doloresco was given the title of director of operations. Though Doloresco apparently had prior experience managing restaurants in Atlanta, several employees complained that he was inadequately prepared for his new position (Doloresco did not respond when reached for comment).
“We used to joke that Joe [Russo] went to a restaurant in Atlanta and mistook the valet guy for the manager and hired him. It seemed a little crazy that he was being tasked with running the restaurant. It was like he had just Googled ‘how to manage a restaurant.’”
“I wasn’t convinced that he had ever worked at a restaurant before,” said one employee. “He didn’t seem to have a grasp of what was involved.” Another said: “We used to joke that Joe [Russo] went to a restaurant in Atlanta and mistook the valet guy for the manager and hired him. It seemed a little crazy that he was being tasked with running the restaurant. It was like he had just Googled ‘how to manage a restaurant.’”
Another concern among employees was operational failings. Despite a protracted build-out phase that spanned nearly three years, Simone’s scheduling and inventory systems were barely functional when the restaurant opened. There seemed to be no cohesive mission statement or principles guiding the new restaurant. Said one employee: “There wasn’t any clear narrative being communicated to guests, which was difficult because the menu was kind of all over the place. It wasn’t very obvious what the restaurant was about and you’re there trying to sell it to people.”
The same employee was initially troubled over how rapidly the kitchen’s hyper-seasonal menu seemed to changed: “Dishes would be on the menu for a week or two, which is hard when people are going off what they see on Instagram. They would ask about a dish they saw and it’s like, ‘sorry, that’s long gone.’ We ended up not being familiar with some of the things on the menu.” After feedback from guests, a sharp course correction was made. Doloresco wrote out lengthy scripts for servers to read to each table. “You had to deliver this whole monologue about what the restaurant was and explain the menu in super detail,” recalls one employee. “It was almost worse than not telling people anything because it was so heavy-handed. It was embarrassing to watch.”
“I think Joe opened the restaurant so he could have a place to party with his friends.”
What also became apparent to one employee was the way that Russo regarded his own restaurant as owner: “We got the impression that [Simone] ultimately functioned as sort of a meeting space for him, sort of a clubhouse for him to entertain people. His production offices were upstairs. It was convenient for him to be able to come down and bring people to dinner. Some nights he’d do like two or three reservations in a row where he’s having different meetings with people.” Another employee put it more bluntly: “I think Joe opened the restaurant so he could have a place to party with his friends.”
Prior to Simone, Russo was best known for directing films including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War alongside older brother Anthony Russo. The restaurant was the younger Russo’s first foray in the hospitality industry, and he reportedly spent handsomely to transform a spare former photography studio into a glitzy 75-seat, Art Deco-influenced dining room (in interviews, Russo has declined to disclose the cost of construction).
During Super Bowl weekend, Russo bought out the restaurant to host a booze-filled, celebrity-studded party that stretched late into the next morning; one employee described the bacchanal as “a total shitshow” that lead an assistant manager to resign her position there. At that point the restaurant was still suffering the aftershocks of a fire at a neighboring establishment that had damaged Simone’s wine storage and lead to the departure of beverage-director-turned-manager Jordan Egan a few weeks prior. With Egan and the aforementioned assistant gone, Doloresco became the restaurant’s sole manager. In addition to running Simone, he was at the time also developing a new restaurant concept to open with Russo in the near future.
The restaurant’s freewheeling management style soon began to take its toll. “It got to the point where there would be weeknights when there would only be 40 covers on the books. Joe would put his own money in the tip pool just to keep the servers happy,” said one employee. “On weekends when it was actually busy, we couldn’t get people seated on a basic level. Friday and Saturday service were a mess. It was not a great experience for people coming in the door.”
In the wake of a generally negative review by critic Bill Addison of the Los Angeles Times in late February, the same employee was struck by the lack of impact the critique had on daily operations: “There was no reaction from management after the review; no discussion or acknowledgment whatsoever. It was just swept under the rug as a lot of things were. For the kitchen, I think it was hard for them to see Jes defeated like that.”
Largey, however, did not escape without criticism. One employee felt personally disappointed with how the chef handled the restaurant’s deteriorating situation, though the employee admitted that there was often “zero communication” between front of house and kitchen. “Part of the reason I was attracted to Simone was because all that I’d read about Jes,” the employee said. “There absolutely no leadership and I was surprised by how Jes didn’t step up to the plate. But I also have a feeling that she didn’t have as much control as we all thought in terms of ownership. I don’t know how much she got a say in. I do know that she didn’t want Art [Doloresco] running things.”
The employee was also let down by what she felt was a lack of progress on Largey’s commitment to improving working conditions at the restaurant early on. “It was a lot of smoke and mirrors. Managers were working insane hours because they were short-staffed. I remember reading the Eater article [a 4,400-word profile about Largey and Simone published in November 2018] when it came out about how everyone got healthcare. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but it was talking about all this stuff that I didn’t have. I actually asked other chefs and servers, ‘Hey, do you have this?’ and they all said no.”
Before Largey’s departure was announced, some employees felt that the kitchen was making small strides in regards to the menu. “There was a whole duck that probably had the potential to be a signature dish,” one said. “There were glimpses of promise.” The notion that Largey was forced out due to management being unhappy with her cooking seemed unlikely. “I do think Jes threw in the towel at some point,” said the same employee. “She seemed to withdraw and get this tunnel vision, which made it easier for [chef de cuisine] Jason [Beberman] to step up. In the last month or so she was so focused on her tasting menu at the chef’s counter, anything outside of that didn’t matter. I mean, it sucks. I feel bad for her because it was such a highly anticipated restaurant and an opportunity to showcase her talent.”
“It was a real blow for all the women in the kitchen to see what happened to Jes. A lot of them were loyal to her, so I’m not sure how many will stick around,” said one employee. “Ultimately I don’t think she was ever given the tools to properly succeed.”
There was speculation among staff that Largey was asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement upon her departure, a claim that Russo declined to comment on. The chef’s absence also added to a boy’s club atmosphere that some servers saw developing. “It was a real blow for all the women in the kitchen to see what happened to Jes. A lot of them were loyal to her, so I’m not sure how many will stick around,” said one employee. “Ultimately I don’t think she was ever given the tools to properly succeed. I hope only the best for her, but I’m sure this is gonna be a huge thing to get over.”
But even Simone’s most disaffected employees feel conflicted about the restaurant’s future. “It’s hard to watch a place that has the potential just get mismanaged into the ground, and then to have the chef kind of watching it all happen and not taking any action and not fighting for it. That was shocking to me,” one said. “The majority of people who work there are passionate about what they do. They just suffered from working in a restaurant that doesn’t provide any leadership on a nightly basis. And none of them are bad people. I mean, I think Art [Doloresco] had his challenges in dealing with staff, but ultimately it was just the people running the place not being good enough at what they do. That’s the bottom line.”
How much longer do they foresee Simone remaining in business? “It comes down to how much Joe is willing to subsidize the place to keep the doors open,” one employee speculated. “It’s a money pit, but Joe has a lot of money and the place is a basically a vanity project. They haven’t hired any new managers though and I think that’s telling. I can’t imagine it’s going to last three or even six months down the road. It’s just a matter of time.”
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