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

Chait grew up in West L.A. He was six when his parents divorced, at which point he lost his siblings as well: His 15-year-old brother, Jonathan, who used to walk him to school every day, and his 14-year-old sister, Tami, chose to live with their father, an engineer who was a project manager on the El Paso pipeline. The court determined that Bill would stay with his mother, Irene. Jonathan, who lives in Chicago now, still feels guilty about what he sees as an abandonment of his little brother. Their mom, he says, was “always pissed off by small things and could fly into a rage at any time. You never knew when it was coming. The family might be just sitting and peacefully watching TV. The safest thing was to avoid her.” Their father was the opposite. “He was extremely logical and stable,” Jonathan says. “That was his strength. His weakness was that he was an affectless person.”

Bill, however, retains a sense of admiration for Irene’s pluck (she died in 1986). “She had to hustle, and she did,” he says. “The system is stacked against a woman suddenly single at age 50.” Irene struggled to maintain a household and earn a law degree at age 52. She did “overflow work” for other attorneys, among them Donald Sterling. “He had three-ring binders full of properties he owned, and she studied them,” says Chait. “She paid attention to what Sterling was doing—put down a little bit of money, buy a building, evict the tenants, slap on a coat of paint, make a few improvements, and raise the rents.” Chait remembers driving with her up and down the streets of Beverly Hills (a “rock-solid blue-chip market”) until she found a six-unit apartment building at Doheny and Gregory. The pair lived in unit no. 1, largely apart. “I was a classic latchkey kid,” says Chait. “My childhood was like Home Alone.”

As a boy Chait contented himself with several moneymaking projects, including coin collecting and washing cars. He and his friends would gather stray golf balls at Hillcrest Country Club and sell them back to the players on the green. Later, at UC Berkeley, he created his own major, a combination of psychology, business, and law, while selling concert tickets and T-shirts with his friend Howard Weinberg. The two then graduated to coproducing Latin-music and jazz concerts.

After returning to L.A., Chait was delivering pies at Jacopo’s Pizzeria when he became interested in the way the business was operated. “Restaurants were offering a higher quality of food, especially Italian restaurants,” he recalls. At 26, with a loan from his mother, he bought a trattoria in Santa Monica called Louise’s. The next year, 1987, he launched a second location on Montana Avenue, after which Weinberg became a partner. A chain was born. It was also in 1987, at the Montana location, when a model by the name of Elizabeth Moore walked in. Acquaintances from childhood, she and Chait would marry three months later and raise three kids before separating in 2008. Moore, a Transcendental Meditation teacher, also handles human resources and manages kitchen injuries for Sprout. Chait’s girlfriend, Julie Mills, who works for Sprout partner Aileen Getty, introduced her to Chait.

The person who may have been the true love of Chait’s life, though, was his friend Mauro Vincenti. Chait never tires of talking about the boisterous, bearish Italian whom he met through the late Joan Luther, a legendary restaurant publicist. At the time Vincenti was running Rex Il Ristorante, perhaps the city’s first serious Italian restaurant, located in the Oviatt Building, an art deco classic on Olive Street. Soon after they met, Chait went with Vincenti on one of his frequent jaunts to Italy. “In Rome we had to visit what Mauro believed are the two essential luxuries for a man: his tailor and his barber,” says Chait, laughing.

With Vincenti talking and smoking continuously (Chait is allergic) as he drove 100 miles an hour, they toured Italy. Chait remembers “grueling, incredible meals” in towns of all sizes. “I’d jog during the day so as not to pass out from lunch, dinner, and then we’d eat again at 9.” Chait was transfixed by Vincenti. “He was a true intellectual,” he says. “He spoke Greek and Latin. He talked not about food and business but about life. Like a lot of Italians, he was a tremendous optimist. It’s OK to live for the day, to take chances—you’re never going to get anywhere if you stick to the familiar. Live passionately, whether you’re talking about women or food.”

Vincenti was always bringing chefs back to America—among them Gino Angelini, who would go on to launch Angelini Osteria and, more recently, RivaBella. “We usually had about ten Italians living in our house,” recalls Vincenti’s wife, Maureen, who now owns Vincenti Ristorante in Brentwood. “When Mauro talked, Bill listened. He was like a sponge; he picked up the Italian culture like no one I ever saw,” she says. “And Mauro had a lot of respect for Bill; he knew how smart he was.”

With the guidance of his mentor, Chait began to import products and chefs from Italy. “I think the idea was to put an Italian in every Louise’s,” says Maureen. The chain’s spaghetti aglio e olio lost its mushrooms and olives and was served simply with olive oil and garlic, as they do in Roma. The pasta machines, olive oil, cheese, ham, and canned tomatoes for sauce were now coming from Italy, and the pizzas were no longer overcheesed.

Chait experienced a lot of pushback from regulars, who resented the tinkering with their favorite dishes, and his relationship with Weinberg was fraying (“one of the great regrets of my life,” Chait says) as the chain struggled with its expansion from the West Coast to Georgetown, Bethesda, and Philadelphia. “We were moving our best people to the east to try to solve the problems there. We sent one of our finest Italian chefs to Philadelphia, and within a year we had to close it down,” says Chait. Liquidation followed, with Chait’s brother stepping in as a white knight to buy the company for $7.2 million (he and Bill are still on the Louise’s board). In the midst of the tumult Bill received another blow: Mauro died from a recurrence of colon cancer. He was 53. Chait doesn’t talk about that part of the story.

The first time I interviewed Bill Chait, at République’s bar, I filled an entire notebook and my pen ran out of ink. He neither ate nor drank and remained intensely focused on getting across his ideas, eschewing any attempt at chitchat or banter. He looks at business models the way a jeweler looks at diamonds—from every angle and over and over again, whether it’s Starbucks or a South American diner that includes a tax for silverware, which is really to supplement kitchen salaries.

For a libertarian, he has strong ideas about social engineering. Witness the 3 percent surcharge on all checks at République. Among other things, the move exposed a dirty not-so-secret secret of the industry—that it offers many low-wage, high-burnout jobs, relying on tips to subsidize only those workers who serve the diners. At most mid- or higher-priced restaurants, waiters take home four times as much as line cooks and dishwashers, who earn about $475 for a 40-hour workweek before taxes and other deductions. “The distribution of tips has never been right,” says Manzke. “I’ll hear a waiter complaining that he only made $400 in cash that night, and I know that my line cook can’t pay his rent.” Chait’s concern is pragmatic: “If we don’t take care of our people, we will lose them to the hotel chains.”

Some diners take offense at the surcharge; Chait still gets buttonholed by people asking him why they should pay for health insurance for his staff. But now 3 percent charges for worker health care have been instituted by Josiah Citrin at Mélisse, Suzanne Goin at Lucques and her other restaurants, and Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan at Rustic Canyon.

That the surcharge helps to minimize inequity without taking money out of Chait’s or the chef’s pocket is something “Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly touched on when he invited Chait and Manzke to appear on his TV show and asked the logical question: Why not just raise the food prices? Chait’s answer was relevant but shrewd. He mentioned state restrictions that prevent him from moving tips from the front to the back of the house.

Chait wants to be the kind of entrepreneur who contributes thoughtfully to the life of his city, and he frankly admires how his newest business partner, Eli Broad, has become a civic leader. For the restaurant adjacent to the $140 million Broad museum (slated to open at the end of next summer), Chait plans to offer subsidized lunches to schoolkids who visit the museum, and he has partnered with Tim Hollingsworth, formerly chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, to work on a menu of “approachable food” that will appeal to a wide audience.

While Broad is famously controlling (he still gets asked questions by reporters about his clashes with architects Frank Gehry and Renzo Piano over Disney Hall and the Broad Contemporary Art Museum, respectively), Chait anticipates no battles. “About architecture Eli has strong opinions,” he says. “But he and I are in accord: We agree about midpriced food for the restaurant, we agree that the plaza outside should be a gathering space with speakers and entertainment and film, and we agree that the minimum wage should be $15.”

Chait has proved himself a deft entrepreneur in a tough economy and a tougher business, but now he is entering the phase of his career where his mark will be measured not so much by going wider, as in opening more and more restaurants, but by going deeper. The question before him is whether he’ll be known for more than simply improving life for Californians who can afford $36 for a pork chop with, admittedly, some really excellent polenta and apple mostarda di frutta on the side. That would be a big enough contribution for most. But one gets the sense that Chait is still interested in transforming, and he’s still working out the next chapter of a carefully plotted story.

This feature originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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