The Cook, the Pastry Chef, the Gossip Columnist and the Fax

A former pastry chef at a tony Valley bistro met a violent death on the morning of Sunday, June 27. Twenty-six-year-old Dion Ybarra was killed instantly when a 14-year-old in a stolen minivan smashed into him, hurling him from his vehicle.

But angry friends and former co-workers at Christopher & Paola's Fermier Brasserie claim the young pastry chef's reputation was also broadsided by a baffling--and apparently inaccurate--item that appeared in an Arizona Republic gossip column the very morning of his death.

According to a blurb in Republic staffer Dolores Tropiano's "AZBUZZ" column, chef Christopher Gross had "recently released a pastry chef who had been picked up for traffic violations."

Although Tropiano didn't identify Ybarra by name, she didn't need to. As many in the local restaurant community knew, Dion Ybarra had spent virtually his entire professional life--nine years--working for Gross; furthermore, Ybarra was the only pastry chef to work at Christopher's Fermier since the eatery opened in Biltmore Fashion Park last October.

But Ybarra's often rocky relationship with Gross came to an end several days prior to his death. Upon learning that a new trainee who'd be working under him would be earning as much money, Ybarra quit--he was not "released" from his job.

Despite quotes and paraphrases attributed to him in Tropiano's column, Gross tells New Times that Ybarra indeed left the job by choice and explains that the traffic violations mentioned were two years old and involved unpaid tickets. Those tickets never had any impact on Ybarra's job, Gross says.

However, the unfortunate timing of Gross' comments in Tropiano's column (the blurb was apparently written several days prior to the crash) had considerable impact on local food circle buzz. The most, in fact, since a former partner ousted Gross and wife, Paola, from Christopher's Bistro in a much-publicized restaurant split in early 1998.

Early last week, several newspapers, TV stations, restaurants and local food-industry figures received a fax castigating Gross for telling tales out of the kitchen--and Tropiano for printing them without bothering to verify details.

Signed "Christopher's Crew," the scathing communique characterized Gross as "a suspicious, petty and jealous" publicity hound who'd exploited his long-term working relationship with Ybarra just to get his name in the paper.

Ybarra, by all accounts, was much-loved by co-workers. He was "hugely talented and an artist, just a great kid," says one who knew him.

Claiming that the ill-timed diss on Ybarra was the straw that broke the camel's back, the fax went on to say that practically the entire staff was looking for other jobs.

Gross dismisses the fax as the work of a disgruntled--and as yet unidentified--employee who's "trying to use something that was very tragic" to get back at Gross for "some reason."

"If this [crash] hadn't happened," contends Gross, "Dion would be laughing his butt off."

Gross denies most of the allegations in the fax, including a statement that he'd joked about Ybarra's death the morning following the crash. He concedes, however, that Ybarra had quit, not been fired for living "on the edge of the law," as Tropiano wrote.

"I believe she got it wrong," says Gross.
He went on to explain that he'd made his remarks about Ybarra's legal troubles when Tropiano phoned to ask what ex-governor Fife Symington's future might hold as a pastry chef.

Several sources, including Gross, say that after Ybarra was hauled in for unpaid traffic tickets two years ago, the pastry chef reportedly opted to work as a jail baker in lieu of a stiff fine. (Because of a computer problem, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office couldn't confirm details of the case by press time.)

However, Tropiano didn't even mention Symington's culinary career in the Ybarra item; she only mentioned that the ex-governor was on a trip to Hawaii.

Gross also says his conversation with Tropiano took place in mid-June--two weeks before Ybarra even left his employ.

Some employees speculate Gross may have spoken to Tropiano about Ybarra in an effort to ruin the young man's chances at getting another job.

Dolores Tropiano and Arizona Republic managing editor Julia Wallace did not return calls about the column or fax controversy.

Gross, meanwhile, says he's turning the fax over to his lawyer in an attempt to unmask the culprit.

By all accounts, he'll have no lack of suspects. Last Friday, Gross had already fired one waiter who was suspected of having a hand in the fax.

According to one Phoenix food-and-beverage industry insider who asked to remain anonymous, "Christopher can be difficult--and that's putting it politely."

"Christopher is always defensive when somebody leaves him," says the insider. "Pardon me, but are we so devoid of news that this is all [Dolores Tropiano] can come up with? Has Christopher sunk to the level that the only way he can get his name in the paper is by trading on someone else's name? It appalls me."

One Christopher's Fermier employee says he began questioning his job security when, the morning following the fatal crash, Gross reportedly began making jokes about cremations.

"I've worked at a lot of restaurants, and no employer is ever easy to work with," says the employee. "When I heard him making these cracks--like how Dion should have been prepared for something like this and how the funeral wasn't [Gross'] responsibility--I can't help but look at what this situation holds for me."

Echoing the sentiments of several other employees who spoke anonymously, the source concludes Gross "is looking at this as 'This wouldn't be happening if Dion wasn't dead.' Well, no--this wouldn't be happening if he hadn't gotten on the phone and tried to prevent someone from getting a job somewhere else."

In Ybarra's honor, Gross has announced that a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each Chocolate Tower (the restaurant's signature dessert) will go toward the late pastry chef's funeral fund.

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Dewey Webb