Lessons Learned: David Fhima

Lessons Learned: David Fhima

He’s likely closed more high-profile restaurants than anyone in the Twin Cities. Longtime food writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl asks what he learned along the way.

There was a time in the mid-2000s when it seemed like a different high-dollar restaurant by chef David Fhima was opening or closing every season in the Twin Cities—Mpls. Café, Fhima’s, Louis XIII, LoTo, Zahtar, Faces—what did I miss?

The announcement of a new David Fhima restaurant filled me, a working restaurant critic, with dread: What do you mean I have to set fire to three nights of my life, yet again, to discover a beautiful room full of untrained staff and food that was either very bad or quite good depending on the whims of a kitchen-spread-thin? Eventually, predictably, it all fell apart.

That was then.

Today, Fhima has rebuilt his career from essentially nothing, first by becoming the executive chef for Life Time Fitness, then taking on the equivalent role for the Timberwolves and Lynx at Target Center. Last autumn, he opened Fhima’s Minneapolis in the art deco fantasia born as the Forum Cafeteria. We asked what lessons he learned on this tortuous path that leaves him more confident in his game on the eve of the 2020s. (The interview has been both condensed and edited for clarity.)
—Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

Location, location, location—and get a real estate attorney!

“Today we are in this stunning location, and have this good business partnership with a landlord. You have this romantic, sentimental idea of where you should open a restaurant, and you fall in love with it. But you don’t see the business elements of it. We restaurateurs, there is nobody more emotional than we are. [You] don’t want to ever put the blame on a landlord for tricking you.

Southdale [the home of Louis XIII] was probably the greatest and most difficult lesson I’ve had in my life, from a business standpoint. If I had to do Southdale again—oh! You could have 10 successful restaurants, but if you have one that is not, you will go under. In our business, where the margins are so small, you need great success. At the time I had three restaurants, all doing relatively well. The landlord says: The Cheesecake Factory is doing 10 million in revenue, Maggiano’s is doing 8 million—I say if I do 5 million, if I do 4, we’ll be elated! They say half the build-out will be paid by the landlord. It was adding up OK. In order for it to work, though, it needs to all add up.

What didn’t add up was the rent. A landlord will never give you anything unless they’ve done their own ROI. So $40,000 a month in rent, 15 to 18 years ago, that’s what we ended up at. We built this beautiful restaurant, we hired this great staff, and the No. 1 mistake you make is not concentrating on guests [while you’re] in your kitchen; you’re in your office figuring out how you’re going to make rent.

I’d tell someone starting out: Choose your landlord before you choose your building. A good landlord will work with you when times are bad. And you know how you find a scrupulous landlord? You ask. They’ve had other tenants. I never called anybody before. Now I do. Your biggest expense is rent. It’s not a controllable expense. I can control my food costs, I can control my liquor costs, I can control my labor—but my rent stays the same, it never moves. That’s the one [restaurateurs] do the least amount of due diligence on. I used to think I knew how to read a lease.

I thought I was the best chef, the best owner, the best employer, the best maître d’; I ended up being not good at any of those things. Here’s what every restaurateur does: They do their business plan, and in their business plan the No. 1 line that gets missed or has a very small amount of money dedicated to it is legal. For every year of lease that you’re expecting to have, you should have $5,000 dollars of legal fees set aside. Seriously. You cannot hire a family lawyer.

You have to hire a restaurant real estate lawyer. It’s a different beast. There are so many things in a lease that, if you don’t read them, they come back to haunt you. [For instance] If you’re three days late, you’re now considered in default. A default triggers so many things. Say you have a rent abatement, you say great. But there’s a loophole. Say you’re in default—no abatement! They say your percentage rent will go up every year, 3 percent, say; unless you’re in default, then suddenly it goes to market rate—and the landlord sets that market rate. A good lawyer goes through and says, ‘No, no, no.’ [Landlords] take advantage of the fact that all we do is in our restaurants, and all they do is look at a lease and try to figure out how it can work for them.”

Experience is worth the cost.

“Experience is not bought. Experience takes time. It comes with bumps, bruises, and failures—unfortunately. The luckiest chefs and the luckiest restaurateurs in the world are the ones who failed early, not late. Early enough where you still have enough youth and energy to learn the lesson and start over again. If you fail later in life, this business beats you up, and you don’t have the energy, and you give up. There are so many restaurateurs and chefs who gave up who should never have given up, in my opinion. I have learned what I’m good at. But you have to also be lucky. I’ve gotten burned so many times by not trusting my initial instinct. I believe the universe gives us that gut instinct to protect ourselves, but we don’t listen.”

Talent is the killer app.

“You talk about life lessons; one of them is to hire really good people. I’m not threatened by it any more. There’s not a single restaurant today in Minneapolis that does not [employ] somebody who has worked for me before. It’s a source of pride and malaise—the malaise from having let go of people who are so good and so successful. Don Saunders [chef-owner of the Kenwood], he was a server, he said: ‘I want to be a chef.’ So I said, ‘Go to France.’ And he did. When he came back, he says: ‘I’m looking for a job.’ I should have hired him back! Instead, I connected him with Vincent [Francoual, of longtime Vincent, A Restaurant, and lately head of Cara Irish Pubs]. Actually, Vincent applied to work with us when he moved here from New York, and I should have hired him. I could go on and go on. I was too full of myself. I felt I didn’t need help, I could do it by myself. And things fell through the cracks. I don’t adhere to the philosophy ‘Too many chefs spoil the pot’ anymore. No. Bring it. Bring it! You need talent.”

2 Qualities You Must Hire For:

“For front of the house, 100 percent, unequivocally you need one quality: Amiability. Someone you can look at and say: He could be, or she could be, my friend. I can teach anyone the proper French service and how a table should be set. But to be amiable, that is [innate].

In the kitchen, you need work ethic. Work ethic comes with integrity—they do their best and stand behind the work, they always show up.

Of course, if you only have work ethic and amiability and no skill, you’re going to die, there has to be a balance. But you can find both [skill and those qualities]. Jackie has been with me for 21 years, she’s our event director. Umberto, one of my cooks, 19 years. If I’m so bad, how come they’re still with me?”

Authentic always wins.

“I lost the basics a while ago, but I got them back. I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I worked for chefs in Los Angeles who were doing molecular gastronomy before anyone was, and I thought: I want to do that. But that wasn’t me. I got lost in the vanity of our business.

My dad and mom did not know how to read, did not know how to write, never drove a car. I’m one of 17 brothers and sisters. But my parents were the wisest human beings you’ll ever meet in your life. They would talk about poetry, philosophy, Socrates, history …. the conversations! I think I got the talking from my dad. My mother and her family is from the Costa del Sol in Spain, from a Jewish background. My dad was Sicilian Catholic. I was born in Morocco, my dad was in the leather business, so they’d bring cowhides from Italy to Morocco for tanning. At five or six years old, we moved to Paris, to London, then I went to different boarding schools, one in Strasbourg.

My mother to me is the greatest cook you’ll ever meet, with all due respect to mothers everywhere. My first experiences in food: I’m 7 years old: They bring a cow home, turn it upside down, slash its throat. My dad opens it up, takes the intestines, gives them to me. They’re hot in my hands. He says, ‘Give them to your mother.’ She says, ‘We need to wash them.’ My Sicilian grandmother is cutting them with scissors. We boiled them for three days for a Sicilian tripe soup. You grow up in that environment [and think] ‘What the f–- are you doing making scrambled quail eggs with Beluga caviar?’

Now I want to be my mother. Think about it. Who needs a Michelin star to do that kind of stuff? The shakshuka, the carrot salad, the lettuce salad. I want to take all my training, and make my mother’s food. I realized it four or five years ago. I found my way back when I was making dinner at home, and I started making Jewish cooking at home, making what my mom was making.

Everyone was saying, “This is so good!” Have you ever had a lamb meatball cooked in celery and turmeric juice? It is stunning. The more I cooked that, the more I realized how stupid I was for so long. So even though I’ve had a long career, I feel like I have just begun. I want to serve these flavors, my mother’s flavors. If we do two of those meatballs, with some phenomenally good bread, and smen [Moroccan fermented butter], don’t you think that would be so good? Going back to the basics and doing them well is my lifelong lesson. I only wish I would have done it sooner. This year, I’m going to do a Sephardic seder, a real Sephardic seder, and I’m going to invite you. Will you come?”

Friends: Keep them close.

“[Life Time Fitness founder] Bahram Akradi is probably one of the most generous, nicest human beings you’ll ever meet. I met him when I first moved to Minneapolis from Los Angeles. My first wife introduced me to him, she was in the fitness business. He hadn’t even opened Life Time [Fitness] yet. I did a lot of things when I first got here. Then, when I was going through a divorce, Bahram called me, he says, ‘I hear you’re going through a divorce. Where are you staying?’ I said, ‘I’m trying to look for a place.’ He says, ‘I have a big house, bring your kids and stay with me.’ I barely knew this guy! As divorces go, it was not easy. I called him and said, ‘While I’m looking, for a week or two, I will. Thank you.’ We stayed there 18 months.

“Remember LoTo [his restaurant in Lowertown St. Paul]? When I closed Louis XIII, when I was in financial difficulties, [Bahram] called me, he goes: ‘Why don’t you turn LoTo into a commissary for Life Time?’ Life Time bought it. We were making all the baked goods. We are still making their bread, their cookies, their muffins. When I was down on my luck, when I couldn’t pay my taxes and was in trouble financially, he said, ‘David, take a break. Come and work for us.’ I was in the corporate offices, he said, ‘You have carte blanche, redesign the cafés, redesign the menus.’ We went 100 percent organic. Friendships are not made, they’re nurtured, they’re worked on. We all are busy, but I have such awesome friends. I have so much support.”

Don’t call it stress.

“I used to hate the stress of this business, but we have a rule in this kitchen: We don’t call it stress. We call it a “test”—we are being tested. The language you put on things works in your head to tell your body how to react.”

Family first, last, always.

“We have a rule here: two days off in a row every week for everybody. Nobody works more than four nights. Your fifth day is a day [shift]. The mental [health] part of our industry is the least talked about, but needs the most attention. You have to make time for family. If you are the boss, lead by example. If you’re not the boss, tell the boss. Anyone who wants to work six, seven days a week doesn’t get it.”