The recent departure of Chef Victor Albisu appears to have left a huge creative void at the DC restaurant and lots of confusion as to what lies ahead, according to a BLT Steak insider who spoke to Forking DC on the condition of anonymity. According to the former employee, Albisu left because he was asked to sign an agreement stipulating that all recipes he created for BLT were the exclusively property of BLT. Such an agreement, while not necessarily uncommon, is usually negotiated before a chef comes on board, not after he’s been in the kitchen for five years and served as executive chef for the last two. The insider noted the diminished confidence in the restaurant and its corporate management that resulted from the way thing “went down” with Albisu and led to the departures of the sous and pastry chefs and many front-of-the-house staff members within two months of Albisu’s departure.
A spokesperson for BLT’s parent company, ESquared Hospitality, denied the former employee’s statements, stating that this was not the first time Albisu was asked to sign an agreement, BLT’s failure to obtain his signature earlier was an oversight, and the agreement — which protected recipes used throughout the BLT Steak family of restaurants — excluded any recipes Albisu created himself. Albisu, through his publicist, declined to comment on this story or Esquared’s statements.
While there appear to be conflicting stories, the BLT Steak restaurant group has dealt with a similar issue during its prolonged and unsuccessful legal battle with Laurent Tourondel, the group’s partner and creative talent. BLT tried to claim Tourondel’s recipes were BLT’s property after the chef parted ways with the restaurant in 2010.
According to the Washingtonian’s 100 Best Restaurants 2012, Albisu “continually ups the culinary ante” at BLT. It was Chef Albisu’s talent that appeared to keep BLT on many food critics’ lists of top DC restaurants even after the split with Tourondel. Whether it was through his political burger board, competing in a local cooking competitions with other notable chefs, or holding cooking classes, Chef Albisu seemed to constantly promote BLT Steak.
The restaurant, now forced to train a whole new staff under the leadership of a new General Manager and new executive Chef Jon Mathieson, also appears to be facing criticism and possibly diminishing loyalty from regular patrons as well. According to the insider, regular patrons are disappointed not only with the departure of Albisu, but also with other changes that are perceived as hurting BLT’s status as a power restaurant, just blocks from the White House, where lobbyists, businessmen, and politicians regularly dine. For example, in the past year, BLT has relaxed the dress code and started offering a 5 for $5 happy hour menu, thereby appealing to a broader clientele.
Maybe it’s too early for a final verdict on the new executive chef, whose previous tenures as executive chef at several area restaurants ended when the restaurants went out of business. Yet, the former employee points to recent kitchen woes as an indicator of where things are headed. For example, there have been one too many problems executing the regular menu items at the quality and consistency one would expect from a fine dining establishment. On several occasions, the restaurant has also run out of popular items on the menu.
While it seems unlikely that BLT will suffer the same fate as its recently defunct sister restaurant, Casa Nonna, only time will tell what BLT’s future holds. Will the new kitchen staff continually “up the culinary ante” or will they simply stick to the BLT-corporate cookbook? I hope for everyone’s sake that good times are ahead for BLT. I used to frequent the restaurant not only because of its convenient location, but also because I could always find some of my favorite things there — a comfortable, jostle-free seat at the bar, an excellent dirty martini, a stellar popover, and the best bacon appetizer known to man. It just doesn’t seem the same anymore.