Norman Abates

Legendary restaurateur Norman Fierros skips out on the check

"I blame Tim 90 percent because he was in charge of the business," says the controller. "I've never come across someone as sloppy, unprofessional and unethical as Tim, to put it nicely. Tim procrastinated so much. At one point he had $9,000 to $12,000 in certified checks sitting at the house. They were made out to the state, but he never sent them in.

"Still, Norman let it happen."

Neither Fierros nor Rohr could be reached for comment. Their home phone number is disconnected; the central Phoenix home itself is in foreclosure. And Fierros even had his driver's license taken away two days after Christmas for failure to appear on a traffic violation -- no proof of insurance.

Fierros and Rohr are no strangers to financial chaos. Over the past 20 years, Fierros has staged a string of dramatic restaurant openings, sudden closings and unsettling incidents. The chef -- a former Beverly Hills hairstylist -- became a kind of culinary urban legend after debuting his first eatery, Fina Cocina. It was a combination taco stand and art gallery located next to a drug halfway house, and an immediate success with its innovative approach to Mexican cuisine. After moving to a larger location (the result of a bungled lease deal), Fina Cocina fell in 1990 when the health department traced six cases of typhoid to the restaurant and one victim sued. Fierros, meanwhile, had allowed his personal liability insurance to lapse, so he filed for bankruptcy, even as he claimed another jealous restaurateur had spiked his salsa with the disease.

In between catering ventures, Fierros opened another well-received but ill-fated restaurant: Chata's at Central and Camelback. The night Chata's opened, Fierros discovered his investor's bankroll had been stolen from another party's pension fund and that he didn't have a legitimate lease for the property. The restaurant closed.

Next up was the short-lived La Pila at Central and Palm, a restaurant patrons had trouble finding since its sign read Megabites, and no listing ever appeared for either name in the phone directory. That restaurant was lost to bankruptcy in 1995.

Now, Norman's property on 40th Street has been snatched up by Tom and Chrysa Kaufman, owners of Scottsdale's Rancho Pinot Grill and partners in Restaurant Hapa and Restaurant Arcadia. A new restaurant, Nonni's Kitchen -- named after Chrysa Kaufman's grandmother -- will serve casual but sophisticated Italian-style "comfort food." Items will emphasize simple, seasonal food, says Chrysa, drawing largely from local organic producers, with specialties including mesquite-grilled fish, poultry, flatbreads, pizzas and hand-made pastas.

Chrysa says she considers the takeover "the opportunity of a lifetime," adding that many other chefs wanted to snag Norman's "really great location" and the fixtures that weren't seized by the revenue officers.

This may be the last the Valley will hear of Fierros, who was lauded by national media for his revolutionary approach to cooking, and for celebrating Hispanic culinary classics.

According to the controller, Fierros and Rohr have dissolved their personal and financial relationship of more than a decade. And although Fierros is known for his close family ties -- he was the 13th in a family of 14 children -- the controller says the family isn't quite sure where Fierros is now.

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