Eat, Drink, and Burn Bridges
Fort Worth’s most famous celebrity chef will begin spreading his brand even further this month with the television premiere of Restaurant Startup. Restaurateur Tim Love stars opposite MasterChef judge Joe Bastianich in the Shark Tank-meets-Top Chef series to debut July 8 on CNBC. The two celebri-chefs will compete to invest their money in various food concepts presented by fledgling entrepreneurs.
The timing is ironic.
Love’s been struggling with his own concepts lately. His 2012 partnership with the huge food service company Sodexo to provide food at Texas Christian University football stadium events recently ended amid grumbling that Love wasn’t particularly easy to work with, a complaint lobbed at him in the past. In June, Sodexo tapped another top local chef, Jon Bonnell, to take over as the new food consultant at TCU.
Meanwhile, Love’s first shot at overseeing concessions at the nationally known Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial golf tournament last month could generously be compared to a double bogey. Long lines, food shortages, and poor service were among the complaints. Tournament officials haven’t decided whether to bring Love back next year.
“The feedback coming to us is everything from poor to good,” said tournament president Michael Tothe. “We’re going to take a look at all our surveys. We’ll have a meeting with Tim in the next couple of weeks and get his take operationally on how he thinks it went, like we do with all of our new vendors.”
Juggling four restaurants, huge catering jobs, TV shows, cookbook deals, and family obligations (wife and three kids) can’t be easy. But Love has done it all for years, and done it well, despite his share of setbacks. Local chef Brian Olenjack described Love’s Colonial experience as a rough lesson but said he’s confident that his friend will figure things out and prevail.
“All chefs would love to get in that big arena, but a lot of us stay away from it because it’s a world of the unknown,” said Olenjack, owner and executive chef at Olenjack’s Grill in Arlington. “It’s definitely a different world than running a restaurant where you only have so many seats. I can’t fault him for wanting to do it. It’s great revenue, and if you’re successful it’s helpful to your career, and it opens a lot of doors.”
On the flip side, blow it and you might find doors closing in your face. Disappointing people at high-profile institutions like TCU and the Colonial creates uncertainty among the deep-pocketed, well-connected arts and sports patrons who gravitate toward celebrity chefs. Fifteen years ago, Grady Spears was Fort Worth’s top cowboy celeb-chef, with a TV-ready smile and a never-ending supply of new food ideas and smitten investors.
As one local chef who asked not to be named said, it’s crucial to stay connected with the money crowd who think it’s “cool to know a celebrity chef and have the best seat in the house.”
Now Spears is mostly a foodie memory here, having departed to tiny Tolar after disappointing too many people in Fort Worth with his erratic behavior and haphazard management style.
Nobody’s putting Love in that boat. He’s still Tarrant County’s most recognizable chef, with a successful overall track record. Sure, New Yorkers hooted him and his Lonesome Dove restaurant out of the Big Apple, but that’s like a badge of honor around here. Even local detractors acknowledge that he’s a tireless worker and a whiz with urban Western cuisine. He’s continuously spreading his brand around the state by participating in food festivals. His frequent appearances on the Food Network and morning news programs such as Good Morning America and the Today show have spread his fame nationally. He remains in an upward trajectory. Whether he keeps going in that direction remains to be seen.
Another local chef said Love’s main problem is ego. Plastering your name and logos over everything, blaming others for mistakes, and refusing to take advice can be some of the side effects.
Love told Fort Worth Weekly 11 years ago that he makes mistakes all the time, but “I don’t regret my mistakes because I learn from them.” Some wonder if he’s learning as much as he thinks.
“Even in a room full of chefs, who all have egos, even they say, ‘My God, get a load of this guy,’ whenever Tim comes in the room,” the local chef said.
Complaints like those coming from TCU and the Colonial about Love’s intense –– some say arrogant –– persona aren’t new. Love can dish out vocal scrutiny but is thin-skinned as a grape when he’s on the receiving end. His well-publicized toothy smile and happy-go-lucky motto “Eat, Drink & Live Well” look good on paper. He is described on his website as a “de-facto ambassador for Texas” and being known “as much for his freewheeling personality as his signature urban Western cuisine.” He wears a cowboy hat and downs tequila shots during cooking segments.
In reality, Love is a serious, self-promoting, workaholic businessman striving to build a food empire. Sometimes he bites off more than he can chew. Sometimes he bites off heads along the way. Sometimes he forgets he’s supposed to be an affable good ol’ boy and instead turns into his thorny self. But he does things his own way and without apology.
The international food services company that oversees concessions at Amon G. Carter Stadium announced its partnership with Love in the summer of 2012 amid a big publicity push. Sodexo outfitted Love with a big, purple custom food truck, and the stadium menu and hospitality suites soon included some of Love’s familiar fare.
Love, in typical fashion, was looking ahead before the ink had even dried. He told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he wanted to “expand the relationship first at TCU and then move on from there.”
Rumors of the breakup of the relationship began surfacing a couple of months ago, less than two years after it was formed. The Weekly called TCU in early June to find out what happened, but officials weren’t talking.
“We contract with Sodexo for food service, and they bring on subcontractors,” said school spokesperson Lisa Albert. She referred questions to Sodexo general manager Stephen Miller.
Miller, who sang Love’s praises back in 2012, was tight-lipped when asked if Love was still working with the company.
“I’m not for sure. I don’t have that information,” he said.
Two weeks later, Bonnell’s announcement that he’d been hired as the new face of food at Amon G. Carter Stadium served as the first public acknowledgment of Love’s departure.
Bonnell said he doesn’t know why Sodexo and Love parted ways.
“Their relationship ended prematurely, and I was asked if I could come in and do it,” he said. “We’re going to have fun and make a lot of people happy.”