Mitch Omer presented his huge ideas for the future of Hell’s Kitchen with a dramatic flourish.
Omer, who coped with alcohol addiction and mental illness, died in December.
Last week I was talking to his wife of 15 years, Cynthia Gerdes, about whether Hell’s Kitchen was going to survive without its muse and founder, who pulled back from duties as exec chef a few years ago. She said customers and employees have wondered the same and she believes the answer is yes: “We have a solid, solid group there. Mitch wasn’t the only owner. He, Steve Meyer and I founded it. I’ve always been CEO and running the business end of things.
“Last January, our GM pulled us all together, the owners and senior managers, and said Let’s come up with what the company’s going to do for the next five years: What’s the plan and where are we going? She had us doing our homework. We came back with a flurry of ideas,” said Gerdes. “Some of the stuff was great. But the fun thing was Mitch pulled out this almost like a scroll, where [the rest of us] had a paragraph. He pulled out this 3-foot long typewritten thing and it’s a vision for the next 20 years. A vision in Technicolor. It dropped us. Here, I live with the guy and he doesn’t mention that he’s working on a vision. I hadn’t heard a word of it until he read it to all of us.
“It’s just crazy,” she said. “Of course, we can’t go into the details but some of the stuff is great, some of the stuff is Mitch-where-were-you-on-that-one? And some of it we’ve already started implementing.”
Omer opened Hell’s Kitchen in 2002 because he was tired of getting fired, not that he didn’t understand the dismissals. “He had gotten fired from yet another job and he said That’s what chefs do. This was before the trend of chefs owning restaurants. They were always employees,” Gerdes said. “It was at Lowell Inn and they had a new owner. Hey, anytime a new owner comes in they have every right to bring in their own team, he said. I will never [complain]. That’s their business. They know what they are doing. That’s why chefs keep moving around, kind of a nomadic thing. But he said I’m tired of winning awards for other people. That’s when I said, ‘pee or get off the pot. I’ve got a business background [she is founder of Creative Kidstuff, which she no longer owns]. Let’s pull the money together, do our own thing.’
“We made the plan. Then one night in the middle of the night he said I know what I’m going to call it: Hell’s Kitchen. I bolted up and said, ‘Are you out of your … mind? That’ll guarantee you’re going to close before you open. Why would you do that?’ Then over the next couple days I thought, ‘That’s a great idea.’ So we ran with it.”
The name was fueled by the heat of professional kitchens, as “most restaurant kitchens are not air-conditioned,” she said.
A long time ago, I asked a friend to meet me at Hell’s Kitchen, and she balked hard. She’s a very Christian foodie. The day I told Omer that my friend wouldn’t set foot in his restaurant because of the name, the look on his face was one of pure befuddlement.
“Yes, I remember that,” said Gerdes. “The interesting thing is that when the downtown churches let out, that’s the big rush on Sundays; the church people come. When the Episcopalians had a national conference, where all the priests wear purple, the place was full of priests in their purple vestments. Mitch [told them] You’re not getting any food until you sing for your breakfast. They got up, started singing some choir songs, and the entire restaurant, which was tiny then, just stopped. There was huge applause afterward.
“I get it. There are always going to be some people” who don’t like the name, said Gerdes. “We’re not offended. Mitch was kind of like It’s a cheeky thing from how hot it is. Its not a religion thing at all.”
Rest well, Mitch.
After placing a photo of adorable “Empire” star Jussie Smollett’s next to a pic of Christopher Tounsel’s, I realized they look nothing alike. But for a split second, as Tounsel sat next to me on a Delta flight, I thought I was flying back to Minnesota in the company of a red-hot celebrity.
A visiting assistant professor in history at Macalester College, Tounsel said he’s sometimes mistaken for Smollett. Tounsel is a perfectly attractive fellow, but he looks like himself. When Tounsel told me where he worked Oh, God escaped my lips four times, almost involuntarily, as I flashed back to a rather traumatic experience with a former Mac faculty member.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Jason Show.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count. Attachments are not opened.