Loose Cannon: Chris Cannon Sounds off on Bitter Breakups, Fear, and All'Onda
All'Onda via Facebook
Last week, we checked in on All'Onda (22 East 13th Street, 212-231-2236), the new Japanese-influenced Italian restaurant from chef Chris Jaeckle and restaurateur Chris Cannon. Our first taste was promising, and others seem to agree: So far the early word on the place is unanimously good.
But to cover the opening alone misses a big part of the story. Much has been made of Cannon's bitter breakup with Altamarea group, the umbrella organization for Michael White's ever-growing international portfolio, which includes Marea, Ai Fiori, Osteria Morini, and, more recently, Costata, the Butterfly, and Ristorante Morini, which just barely opened uptown.
Before all that, a young, not-yet-famous Michael White was living in Wisconsin with his family when Chris Cannon called him in to take over midtown outposts Alto and L'Impero (later renamed Convivio), after Scott Conant took off for greener pastures (read: to open Scarpetta).
With White in the kitchen, the restaurants (and White's career) took off, and Cannon and White, with capital from Ahmass Fakahany, opened Marea in 2009.
But trouble was brewing. Cannon says for him, the story began to get ugly in 2008. The economy had tanked, but he and White wanted to build on the momentum they had going from Alto and Convivio: "It was like, Michael [White] and I were hotter than hell and doing a great job, and we were like, 'We want to do another restaurant, we've got to do this thing now," and they turned to Ahmass Fakahany for capital to open Marea. The restaurant got three stars in the New York Times, best new restaurant in the country in GQ, and two Michelin stars.
Not long after, Cannon was ejected from his seat at the Altamarea table. The ensuing White-Fakahany-Cannon divorce was plenty publicized, but Cannon hasn't said much about it publicly -- until now.
We ask Cannon what mistakes he learned from during that time. He avoids naming names but says he was really nervous about giving too much control to one investor. Read between the lines, however, and find Altamarea principal Ahmass Fakahany's name in bold lettering. "The one mistake I made was allowing one investor to basically define everything; I had no leverage," Cannon says. "I would never have done that but for the fact that it was October 2008 and the whole economy shut off...access to capital was completely cut off."
After Marea's success, though, Cannon felt better about his position: "After we got the stars I thought, 'Well, he'd be out of his mind to get rid of me.' Well, months later, he got rid of me." It was late 2010 and Cannon had just assembled a FOH team for Osteria Morini: "I even got [the sommelier] from Jean Georges to come over -- I did all the purchasing and put everything together, and then my partners decided to eliminate me."
Cannon kept Alto and Convivio, and White/Fakahany got Marea and the other newer places, which White had a hand in building and continues to oversee today. Then, in early 2011, Cannon abruptly closed his restaurants, auctioned off his wine stock, and headed for the hills. Hosts had to call the day's reservations and cancel them. In a gross display of unsavory behavior, bartenders pillaged the bar for bottles. Rumors circulated; people landed in the unemployment line.
The closures stemmed from fallout from the break and an ugly tip-sharing lawsuit (which named Marea as a co-defendant), and Cannon retreated to New Jersey for some soul-searching: "I spent a year thinking about, you know, what do I want to be doing, and I realized, yeah, I do want to do this. It was stupid to even think that way because the only thing I like, or that excites me is restaurants. And that's all I've ever done."
At that point, we begin to say that it must have been devastating to close the restaurants, which were so beloved, so critically acclaimed. Cannon doesn't even let us finish: "No! You know, it wasn't even devastating. When you've done a lot in your life, and you've seen so many things happen over the course of the years, it's just like, keep your eyes forward and keep going. You can do great things over and over and over again. It's not a big deal...At a certain point, I was like, 'Am I going to let these guys, who are these total -- whatever they did to me was not ethically wonderful -- am I going to let these people make me hate the thing that I love most in the world?' And I was like, 'No fucking way.' You know, there's no fucking way I'm going to do that. So that's driving me a lot now."
All'Onda via Facebook
When Chris Jaeckle approached him regarding a new project, Cannon was happy to jump on board as a consultant. Both had done time at Altamarea, and they crossed paths briefly as they set up shop for Ai Fiori, where Jaeckle worked for years. When we speak the day All'Onda finally opened, after months of delays, Cannon iss chatty with excitement. It rippled through the phone line.
"I can't imagine a better location," he says. "And there really hasn't been anything interesting opened in that part of Greenwich Village in a really long time." Cannon says he saw a natural connection between Venetian and Japanese food, and he urged Jaeckle, with his background at Ai Fiori and Morimoto, to explore the relationship: "One of the things I've noticed over the years with Italians and Japanese is how much they love each other's culture," Cannon says. "Their philosophy of food is similar...They take really amazing ingredients and stay out of the way -- just let it be what it is."
And Cannon wanted to see more than the obvious upscale Italian place: "[Jaeckle] could have opened up a Venetian restaurant, and it would have just been another Italian restaurant in New York. And I was like, 'You shouldn't do that -- you should really think about what drives you, and what juices you, and gets you excited, and a lot of that comes from where you've worked and what you've done, and you spent however many years at Morimoto.'"
The location helped. Cannon says downtowners are more open-minded, willing to try new things -- just outside Union Square, people want to try Japanese-Italian food, while "in midtown, it's like, you've got to do it this way, and you've got to have a big steak, and you have to have this, you have to have that. That's not really what I'm interested in doing anymore. So it's great to be downtown."
And taking a new tack in a casual setting allows them to keep things affordable.
In the Great Recession economy, All'Onda is searching for the sweet spot where sophistication and affordability meet, as rents climb ever higher, even as guests opt for cheaper eats. It's important to keep prices in the casual range, because, Cannon notes, if you don't, "you run the risk that everyone wants to go to the new place. So you can be busy for eight months or a year and then no one gives a shit anymore because you were too expensive and everyone's like 'Oh, we've seen that already.'"
So, Cannon and Jaeckle built value into the fabric of restaurant. "It's [about] choices you make: from the place that you rent, to the wines you sell and the products you use. You know?"
Just look at the wine list: Cannon compiled 150 bottles and kept most of them under $60 by focusing on lesser-known grapes and winemakers, bringing new wines into the conversation, educating consumers, and giving them value. "No one buys these wines," Cannon says. "So they're really inexpensive. It's just supply and demand."
And since Northern Italy is historically home to many sparkling wines -- ranging from slightly effervescent to big, fisheye bubbles in a rainbow of colors, Cannon let that drive the list: "Especially in Italy, even as late as 1985, 1986 most of the whites had a little spritz to them; they were frizzante." Cannon says in the late 1980s, the international market rejected these wines but recently, many winemakers have gone back to bubbles. "A lot of producers were like, 'screw that, we like this kind of wine,' so you've got guys making things like this really cool rose Pinot Grigio sparkling, and it's really interesting."
And Cannon says everything tastes better when it's less expensive. "You know, you go to Per Se, and you're going to drop $600 per person, and it's like, I don't go back there. Because as good as it can be, it's not that good."
But he's feeling good about All'Onda: "When it's been a long time, and you're in a restaurant and you start seeing customers in it, there are certain restaurants that have it, and certain restaurants that don't have it. And whatever 'it' is, this restaurant's got it."
And for now, he's relishing the honeymoon. "Right now, people are going to come and discover us. I always tell my staff, OK, you want to be proud of where you work. But that doesn't come from us, that comes from you. So you've got to work your ass off. And then if you're successful, you've got to work your ass off even more...Let's say you get really great reviews and everyone wants to come to your place. Then you have a problem, because then you have to meet everyone's expectations."
But those expectations are for later, and for now, Cannon's not squirming about his return to New York's dining scene: "Somebody asked me the other day, 'Oh, are you nervous?' [about the opening]?' It's like, nope, I don't really get nervous anymore. I still take it just as seriously, but at this point, it's like, what is there to fear?"
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