It’s Sunday afternoon and the brunch rush at fire is over. Owner-chef Doug Katz finally can take time to sit down with Rocco Whalen, who holds the same title at Fahrenheit across town. They have a few things in common, besides running two of Cleveland’s hottest dining destinations. Both are hometown boys — Katz grew up in Shaker Heights, Whalen in Mentor — and headed west and then came home to nest.
They got together to talk to Feast! about why they left, why they returned and what they like — and don’t — about cooking in Cleveland.
RW: “There were fewer opportunities in Cleveland in 1996. I was after knowledge and experience. Cleveland wouldn’t take me to the next level. I had $600 in my pocket and wanted to work in L.A., but the cost of living there was too high, so I ended up in Phoenix.
DK: “After [Culinary Institute of America], I worked at Boston Harbor Hotel, then Wildwood in Portland, Ore. I wanted to spend time in coastal cities and work with fresh local ingredients. In Portland, there were 50 farmers on Sauvie’s Island growing berries, greens and mushrooms. And, of course, fresh fish and shellfish were available there and in Boston.”
RW: “I finished at Pennsylvania Institute when I was 18. I was wild [and] had a great time. I worked with Wolfgang Puck at Oberchine in Phoenix and at Spago’s in L.A. I spent time in Las Vegas, saw restaurants spend money like casinos make money. Beluga caviar? We had shelves stacked full of giant tins of the stuff.”
DK: “I came back home after ski season in 1998 and heard that Moxie needed a chef. It was my first opportunity to be a head chef. And I wanted to test the market.”
RW: “My mom became seriously ill in 2000, battling cancer. Family became my first priority. I came home, worked at Lockkeepers, Hyde Park and Blue Point Grille.
Two guys, two restaurants, two women … and two more restaurants
DK: “I met my wife, Karen, at Moxie. She came in for dinner with her mom. Her mom and my mom grew up together, but Karen and I had never met. We got married about two and a half years after that.”
RW: “I met my fiancée, Kelly Repas, in 2001. I was a sous chef at the Blue Point and she worked there as the hostess. At Fahrenheit, I’m working with Kelly and her sister, Kim. It’s challenging personally and professionally. Kelly makes my job easier — allows me to focus on being the chef. Working with a loved one who’s involved in the business is not easy, but we’re united in wanting Fahrenheit to succeed. We try to leave work at work, and just be at home when we’re home.”
DK: “Karen helped a lot with the design of fire, and in the front of the house for about five months after we opened. Since we had the twins — they turned 2 in April — she’s much less involved with the restaurant.”
RW: “While I was helping to open the new Lockkeepers, I was looking for a place. The first time I saw the 88 Keys space, it had only been closed a week — there were still flowers in the vases on the tables — and a grand piano. We sold the piano, brightened the color scheme. Then in December of 2003, we expanded our seating from 80 to 150.”
DK: “Our first two years here were just amazing. We were busy every night. It was like a Friday or Saturday night all week, with bookings solid from 5 to 9 [p.m.]. Then stores left the Square and new malls opened. We had to adjust, but saw it as a learning experience. I look forward to seeing this area build up again.”
A Town Times-2
DK: “Shaker Square reminds me of parts of Boston. Tremont is more New York. And when you think ‘Tremont,’ you think ‘restaurants.’ ”
RW: “I like both areas, but it’s a challenge to get customers to these neighborhoods. Once they do, they think, How nice.”
DK: “There used to be the issue of the river — why cross it? For some customers, ‘safety’ is still an issue.”
RW: “Even for Shaker Square? I still hear that about Tremont. It must be a component of ‘the Beachwood crowd.’ ”
DK: “But I think Fahrenheit and fire appeal to a generation and a customer base that is more urban, more into culture and art.”
RW: “The top-10 restaurants on the East and West side share clients. Fire would do well in Tremont. I think it’s an area that’s receptive to chef-owned restaurants. Our customers expect a personal touch. There’s the expectation that chefs come out and visit with their guests. They want to put a face with the food. And you’ve got more than the food quality — you’re a people person, too.”
DK: “I like getting to know my customers and have them become regulars — instead of having tourists who may only visit once.”
RW: “Yeah, I want regulars who come in on Monday evening with their buddies and on Saturday night with their wives.”
DK: “Rocco in Shaker Square? Also a nice fit. You’d tap into that group of new customers who still won’t drive to Tremont. There’s a regular customer base that lives close to the Square, but Tremont is still a destination. And Shaker Square may be more challenging to market. The easiest directions to get here are to take the Shaker Rapid from Public Square — but Clevelanders just won’t do it. Not like Boston.”
The good, the bad and the getting better in local dining
RW: “Clevelanders make the investment and the choice to visit New York and Chicago, but food in Cleveland has become as sophisticated. Cleveland may not have as many ‘tasting menus’ and restaurants here don’t have unlimited budgets, but we can charge $22 to $26 for a veal chop instead of $50. Too bad it’s nearly impossible to get cab service. I finally contracted with a limo driver who is ‘on call’ as a service for our guests.”
DK: “Cleveland has a worldly clientele. They’re picky and knowledgeable. I don’t think Cleveland is a meat-and-potatoes town anymore.”
RW: “I agree. The meat-and-potatoes thing is an old adage. People are more savvy now. They watch the Food Network: ‘Iron Chef America’ and ‘Emeril.’ It helps me when the clientele becomes more educated.”
DK: “It’s an interesting time to be here.”
RW: “Cleveland is a great place to cook.”