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Michael White and Chris Cannon: A Breakup Story

2010 December 16

The greatest Italian couple that New York has ever seen is getting a divorce.  Last month, Eater reported that chef Michael White and his business partner, restauranteur Chris Cannon, were “heading for splitsville,” effective immediately.  Sources say that tensions between the two had been building for the past seven months, with White receiving the lion’s share of the praise for the recent, prodigious success of Marea.  Though nothing has been confirmed, the signs of separation are undeniable. The two have begun wielding separate PR firms (both of which deny the allegations of divorce), and pose timorously together for pictures; and in the literature for White’s newest venture, Ai Fiori, which opened last week, Cannon’s name is tellingly absent.

In the food world, which largely revolves around New York, this breakup is big news.  Earlier this year, White and Cannon took home a James Beard award for Marea, which won Best New Restaurant, one of the industry’s highest honors.  Opened in May 2009, as Frank Bruni wrote, “at a particularly low point in the recession,” Marea managed to bring in $13.4 million in its first year, according to its proprietors, a seismic profit even in fine dining ventures.  This fact, coupled with its uber-opulent decor and the veritable richness of its cuisine, caused New York Times food critic Sam Sifton to proclaim, in the opening line of his review: “This recession’s over.”  Sifton awarded Marea 3-stars, and with 2 Michelin stars in the bank, it sits in a category with New York’s finest restaurants, just a step below the top.

Marea certainly put Cannon and White among an elite group.  But what set them apart, and in many ways what makes theirs a unique story, is that together the pair have not one 3-star restaurant, not two, but three.  Convivio and Alto, where White began his partnership with Cannon, received 3-stars each from Bruni (who, if you can’t tell already, is a White admirer par excellence) and marked White’s reentry into the New York food scene after an unceremonious exit from his former restaurant, Fiamma, in 2006.

White’s break with Stephen Hanson, owner of the B.R. Guest Restaurant Group and notorious culinary populist, sent him spiraling out of New York, landing in his parents’ home in Beloit, Wisconsin, with his wife and two-year-old daughter.  There is little information available about the time he spent in limbo, withdrawn from the New York scene; but an ABC piece, written after the Times’ review of Convivio, focuses extensively on White’s life in Wisconsin, food memories from childhood, and the effect of being a midwesterner on his cooking.  This is what seems to have been fresh in his mind upon returning to New York:

I grew up in the Midwest in Beloit, Wis., and as a young person, food was always important to us. We were always cooking. You know, when it’s cold out in the winter time, you’re not going to running around,” he said. “I mean, you know, it’s cold, cold in Wisconsin, and so we were always baking bread and these types of things.

After debuting with 3-stars at Fiamma in 2002, he had partnered with Hanson to open Vento in the Meatpacking District in 2004.  Sam Sifton (then a beat writer) had less than stellar things things to say about the restaurant, but chalked the disappointment up to Hanson’s cheese, not White’s cooking.

As the shaky old men at the bar down at Milano’s on Houston Street used to put it, over ice-flecked Rolling Rock on a long stream of tobacco smoke: ”Once you’re a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again.” For Mr. Hanson, exploitation of the market is natural law, as immutable as death and delays on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway.

The story of White’s return to the Big Apple is about as American as it gets.  After descending homeward in uncertainty, White gets a call from a man named Chris Cannon, a fellow worshipper at The Church of Italian Cuisine.  Cannon has just split from his former partner, chef Scott Conant, and is looking for a chef to head up L’Imperio and another restaurant, Alto; he offers White the job as Executive Chef.  White succeeds, and succeeds spectacularly.  The pattern is thus: rise, fall, rise.

With two new restaurants this fall, the laid-back Osteria Morini, and the lux Ai Fiori, which promises to single-handedly revive the hotel dining tradition, Michael White seems poised for world domination.

But wait: I seem to be leaving out a full ½ of the partnership.  What of Mr. Cannon?  Before Michael White burst on the scene, Cannon was mostly known for the split with his previous chef, the aforementioned Scott Conant.  After an amicable break, supposedly over long-term disagreements, Conant was famously quoted as saying: “There is such a thing as the Peter Principle, where people rise to their level of incompetence. And it just became clear to me that maybe I was associated with a group that was in that category.”

Conant eventually sued Cannon for $104,440.67 in alleged differed compensation, which was followed by a counter-suit by Cannon for defamation, in which Conant was accused of violating the separation agreement.  The litigation lasted for almost three years, with judge O. Peter Sherwood eventually ruling in the New York Supreme Court that neither party met their burden.  The cases were thrown out.  When asked about the split, Cannon gave this appraisal of the breakup to the New York Observer:

Part of the reason I’m in the position I’m in right now with my ex-chef is that I never really sought press. I never really got any notoriety or any reputation or anything. For me, it was always about the restaurant doing well and that was it. And, you know, the nature of the business in the last 25 years has been very chef-driven. … A lot of the reason we split up was because, basically, leverage. In any relationship, there’s leverage, either with your wife or whomever. In this situation, it was with a chef, and the chef felt that, because I was getting no notoriety, that he could do whatever he wanted. So things happened that led to the whole thing falling apart.

If this was indeed the problem with his former chef, Mr. Conant, then it seems that Mr. Cannon has erred a second time; however, this one will go down as the more costly mistake.  In the era of Top Chef, White is the face of the business, and has badly stolen the spotlight, becoming a household name in New York and relegating Cannon to an afterthought.

In the Altamarea group, in which White and Cannon are partners, there is a third, crucial partner, who has been left out of the equation.  Ahmass Fakahany, former Co-President of Merrill Lynch, has been the financier for White and Cannon since leaving his position in 2007, and he has known White since his days at Fiamma. It was with Fakahany’s help, and $6 million of his own money, that Marea made the splash that it did, when it did, and it was with Fakahany’s expertise that deals and loans for Osteria and Ai Fiori went off simultaneously.

“They all drank the Kool-Aid…they’re buying into it and they love it. And we’re going to win-win-win all the time. We’re going to win!” says White.  Powerful rhetoric, and deservedly so.  With each new restaurant, Fakahany is backing White’s cooking up with plans to franchise.  In a Tom Colicchio turn (of Craft fame), White has spoken about opening a pasta place in the vein of the sandwich shop ‘Wichcraft, a bonifide success.  There are also plans to clone the duo’s newest projects.  “This will be our first hotel brand that could be, if all goes well, portable to other hotels,” Fakahany says of Ai Fiori.  In August, he similarly told Frank Bruni “Osteria Morini could be repeated again…we know now where to get the beams, the bricks, how to go to the antique markets.”

White’s most recent award was being named one of the 40 under 40 in Crain’s, an honor he shares with the principals of private equity firms and company presidents.  Once more, this begs the question: where is Chris Cannon to be found?  Now White is the chef, and the business visionary?  In his interview with Crain’s, he proclaimed, after some well-earned gloating, “We will be a $100 million dollar company.”

Many are speculating that the split will leave Mr. Cannon with his original holdings, Alto and Convivio, and that Mr. Fakahany and Mr. White will buy out his minority holdings of Marea. Cannon, who brought White back to New York and back to prominence seems to be right back where he started: in search of a chef yet again.  Yet one wonders about the fate of White and Fakahany.  Can they avoid the populist trap that White’s former boss, Stephen Hanson, fell into?  It seems that the more places that are accumulated, the more cookie-cutter the attitude, and while that might be the right attitude for building a massive company, it probably won’t earn White his usual allotment of stars.  Yes, I said it: without Cannon to hold him at attention, White will takeoff in a big way.  He will probably reach his coveted $100 million mark, but we will never see an effort from him like Marea again.

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