Update: After this piece was published, Wisniewski called to clarify that Payton Curry wasn't overpaid, but was getting expensive.
Charleen Badman, Bernie Kantak, Silvana Salcido Esparza -- who needs 'em? Jay Wisniewski, owner of Caffe Boa, the Italian-inspired eatery in Tempe, is convinced you don't need a big-name chef to have a successful restaurant -- and he believes the public doesn't want them, either.
On Payton Curry, Caffe Boa's executive chef for a year and a half and infamously known for his adventurous Christmas reindeer and Easter rabbit dinners, Wisniewski says he was overpaid and, although he loved and supported Payton's dishes, Caffe Boa's guests did not.
"There was a backlash," Wisniewski says. "People thought some of it tasted too gamey and didn't understand what a lot of it was. They also thought they were paying more because we had a big-name chef at our restaurant."
He adds, "The public doesn't want a big-name chef. They love an underdog and, ultimately, they pay the bills."
Chef Matt Smith, Curry's sous chef and executive chef of Caffe Boa after his departure, was the next to go.,
Guest comments about Curry's food, much of which chef Matt Smith continued after his departure, eventually led Wisniewski to make some menu changes with Smith, but Smith struggled with the new menu and and gave his notice last week after being with Caffe Boa for less than six months.
Ultimately, it was a control issue," the owner concludes. "He [Smith] wanted to be the one with the final say, but there were things I needed to do."
Wisniewski says the split was amicable.
With big-name chef Payton Curry out of the picture, and not-so-big-name chef Matt Smith gone as well, who will be Caffe Boa's new, non-big-name executive chef?
Turns out, no one.
"We have a solid kitchen full of good people. There's a guy who's at the helm, but we're not calling him an executive chef, and he doesn't want to be called that, either," Wisniewski says. "You don't need a big name in the kitchen to have a great restaurant. The public is moving away from that idea."
Will not having a big name chef at Caffe Boa be for the best? Wisniewski tells me the changes have been for the better and guests are responding positively. And he says he'll continue to use fresh ingredients from Maya's Farm and McClendon's Select, make his own pasta, and serve up great tasting food. He's also planning to add some natural wines to his menu.
All good things, but could Wisniewski's rejection of a "big-name chef" at his restaurant have more to do with financial woes than matters of taste? After all, Caffe Boa Bistro -- the Wisniewski's second location in Mesa -- closed after just a year and half, not having an executive chef at the Tempe location means not paying for one and, after getting rid of everyone who "wasn't on the same page," at the Tempe location, Wisniewski hired some new team members, including his sister, who will share in managing the restaurant, and her husband, who'll work the bar.
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"When you have the passion and the knowledge," Wisniewski says, "sometimes you have to do things yourself to be successful."
In the end time (and food) will tell.
Note: I've reached out to Payton Curry for a comment and have not heard back yet, but I'll keep you posted.