A few weeks back, over a cafeteria tray full of turkey and stuffing, a chef friend and I discussed the difficult task of running the kitchen at the new Clifton’s Cafeteria. “Who would want that job?” he asked.
Not Jason Fullilove, it seems. News broke today that the Patina-group alum is already out as executive chef at the reborn Broadway cafeteria. Having seen the look on his face as he frantically threw a ramekin of roasted vegetables at the endless, snaking line of hungry diners, I cannot say I’m surprised.
The average medium-sized restaurant might serve a few hundred diners on a good night. During it’s opening weekend Clifton’s served more than 16,000. At that volume, cooking ceases to be about quality ingredients and solid recipes—it’s pure survival.
“It’s hard to find people who know how to run a cafeteria like Clifton’s,” wrote Robert Clinton, grandson of Clifton’s founder Clifford Clinton, in a recent email. “I guess he hasn’t found any.” By ‘he,’ Clinton means Andrew Meieran, the new owner of the storied cafeteria. And indeed, after one month of business Meieran has not only lost his chef, but also his director of operations, Anuar Pinto Velasco, who spent the better part of a decade working with Neal Fraser’s restaurants.
It’s not just the volume that makes running Clifton’s a monumental challenge—there’s the burden of legacy to deal with. Improve the food too much and you betray three-generations’ worth of Angelenos who are nostalgic for mediocre macaroni and cheese. Don’t change enough and you underwhelm the new, younger diners you desperately need to recruit. In a case like this, there’s no pleasing everyone—least of all a chef with any sort of grander culinary ambitions, like Fullilove.
So, I won’t hold out hope for ever getting to try the Clifton’s ramen I saw advertised on the electronic menu board. Any chef who thought he could sell Angelenos on bulk tonkotsu in a cafeteria was doomed from the start. Here’s hoping the next guy or gal fares better.