Brian Laird says he wasn't "a good fit" at Russo's Kitchen + Tavern

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Lori Midson
Don't blame Brian Laird for leaving Russo's Kitchen + Tavern: Blame the decor
Several months ago, Brian Laird, who'd been spearheading the burners at Barolo Grill for more than a decade, parted ways, amicably, with Barolo owner Blair Taylor and his venerable Italian restaurant. Laird took a few weeks off to soak up the sun in Hawaii and mull over a new offer -- specifically, to command the kitchen of Russo's Kitchen + Tavern, a new restaurant that was opening at the Vallagio at Inverness, a south suburban retail, restaurant and loft development that's the vision of Peter Kudla, the COO of Metropolitan Homes. At the time, Kudla told me that he was "giving Brian the ability and opportunity to do whatever he wants...and the opportunity to feel the passion -- the juice -- and he can get as creative as he wants."

As "creative as he wants," just as long as Laird adhered to Kudla's silly quirks, stamping his menu with Kudla's self-named matzo ball soup, for example, along with fried calamari, zucchini strips and artichoke chips, all of which are far better suited to Applebee's than a chef-driven restaurant, which is what Kudla, and Mark Dym, the owner of Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria, and a partner in the operation, had envisioned when they opened Russo's.

"He definitely has an offer where he could become a potential partner," Dym said in March, just prior to Russo's opening. And since the restaurants at Vallagio, which also include a second Marco's outpost and Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, a restaurant from Parallel 17 owner Mary Nguyen, are owner-operated, Dym reiterated Kudla's claim that the chefs have the freedom to "do their own thing and make their kitchen their own."

Kudla, though, apparently didn't fancy the way that Laird was running the kitchen at Russo's -- not selling enough of those matzo ball soups? -- and fired him just over a week ago.

"In a nutshell, we just didn't see eye to eye -- we just didn't fit," said Laird when I caught up with him yesterday over beers at the Cherry Cricket. "Peter gave me the opportunity to change things -- to change Russo's into a 'joint' -- and I told him I wasn't going to do that, so he fired me."

And that prompts the question: If you want to run a restaurant with a menu parading a bunch of fried crap, along with burgers and sandwiches that Laird could make with his eyes closed, hands tied behind his knees, then why the hell do you red carpet ride a guy whose culinary pedigree far, far surpasses your needs? "Peter wants a joint-joint -- and that's not what I do, which he knew going into this," notes Laird. "The bottom line is that my idea of food doesn't come from a plastic bag. Food quality, and the caring, preparation and execution of ingredients is a lot more important to me than him, and while my goal was to make this work, that's hard to do when someone is telling you to match the food to the decor."

Laird says that he knew relatively early on that there were issues, but he was determined to stick it out, even if it meant that he had to dumb down his food. "I'm not a quitter, and I seriously gave this all I had, but the chemistry wasn't there, eventually my heart wasn't in it, and we wanted the menu to go in different directions -- I was clearly not the right match for them."

And that's just fine with him. "I'm getting a bunch of things done that I haven't had time to do, I'm chilling -- I even went rock climbing -- and enjoying time with my son, who I hardly got to see at all while I was working," says Laird, who plans to take the summer off entirely. "I've got some ideas that I'm thinking about, and eventually I'll put those into motion, but right now, I just want to get caught up on life."

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14 comments
Chefinthekno
Chefinthekno

Boy does that story sound familiar! All of it except for the Executive Chef's name.. Dante Tripi, a fabulous chef who was originally slotted to run Russo's endured the continuing interference and changing vision for this restaurant until he too was no longer a good fit!! Wake up and smell the roses Peter.....stick with what you know how to do best and let the Chef do what he knows best. Quit living in the past and trying to create a "joint". There are plenty of them all over. Your neighborhood does not support "joints". You've been through several excellent chefs who refused to serve your old memories instead of cutting edge fusion style food which is what sells! If your reviews continue the down slide much longer you will be out a lot of money unless you take a step back, bring on a knowledgable Executive Chef and trust him to do what he knows best!

Lbortolotto
Lbortolotto

Brian will more than 'land on his feet.'  A talented chef like this will make his mark and it will be HUGE.  By the way, does this support the concept that the vast expanse of land south of Hampden is a 'restaurant-free-zone?'

DD
DD

I've met Peter he is an ass and thinks he knows everything, good choice Brian, we all what a great chef you are. 

watBaddaU?
watBaddaU?

Chef Jackson is the dawn.... I highly suggest you taste what he can do... Brian Laird will soon be forgotten

Jeff
Jeff

I went to Russo's once, and it was a crushing disappointment.  I have the utmost respect for Laird, and I know what Barolo was like at its peak. 

Russo's was such a mess and it sounds like it's going to get worse.  You already couldn't sense Laird's influence anywhere on the menu.  I really hope that he lands on his feet, and I hope that Kudla eventually comes to the realization that he clearly doesn't know food and that nobody is going to come eat his plastic bag bullshit.

Sarah Broderick
Sarah Broderick

I've heard nothing good about Russo's, the place sounds like one hot mess.

Tico
Tico

know the feeling, I once ran a place where the owners' wife wanted escargot on the menu and he wanted nachos...

Ebethcheese
Ebethcheese

It's Kudla's loss.  I have no doubt that whatever Brian decides to do next it will be delicious.  That boy sure can cook!

nd
nd

I was excited to try it until I took a look at the menu online.  It took me 3 seconds to decide it wasn't worth a visit.  Best of luck to Brian where his talents can be showcased.

Mantonat
Mantonat

Note to Peter Kudla: the suburbs have enough joints serving the same old stuff with a giant beer sign on the wall. I think this area of town is sophisticated enough to support a place that is casual and welcoming but offers creative, chef-driven food. If you aren't sure what this looks like, check out Euclid Hall, Jonesy's, Argyll, Fuel Cafe, etc.

Elwood
Elwood

Went there one night for drinks.  Brian ended up bringing us three off-menu items completely out of the blue.  The food was great and you could tell he liked the opportunity to show off what he can really do when not constrained.  Looking forward to where he lands next.   

Christopher Cina
Christopher Cina

I've been there.  Brian is a killer chef, he'll land on his feet somewhere.

Jamey fader
Jamey fader

while whomever is over the stove there now may be doing a fine job, you need to learn your denver culinary history and know that there are thousands of sound reasons why brian is known, will continue to be sought after and is well respected in this town.

DD
DD

Okay Peter or is this Chef Jackson?

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