Clooney restaurant closes after stoush between owner and celebrity chef
In February, the owner of one of Auckland's most expensive restaurants made a very high-profile hire.
Tony Stewart, the 48-year-old restaurateur behind Clooney, revealed that he'd appointed Jacob Kear as head chef - the talented 35-year-old Japanese-American who'd most recently worked at the two-Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma. Their goal was lofty: to get Clooney on the list of the world's top 50 restaurants.
In an Instagram post from March, Kear thanked Stewart "for believing in me and providing me with everything I possibly needed to rebrand your precious baby, your one and only CLOONEY that you cherished for the last 10years [sic]".
But 10 months later, the relationship had turned "septic", as Stewart tells it, and this week it unfolded publicly. Kear was dismissed from the restaurant, and on Tuesday Stewart announced he would close Clooney for good in January, after 11 years.
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"I feel like I've had the s... kicked out of me. I never want to go through this again with a chef," says Stewart. "It's absolutely heartbreaking."
Kear, too, is devastated: "It hurts so much, but I'm not going to say anything negative about Tony."
Since Kear joined the Clooney kitchen in February, reviews have been unanimously positive. In its Good Food Guide, Cuisine gave the restaurant three hats, the highest possible rating, saying Kear's menu was "progressive bordering on avant garde". A new kitchen was installed; the interior was renovated. "I've thrown over $200,000 into a change to try and give one person the platform to achieve our goal," says Stewart
But business was slow during winter. Stewart hoped that, after a quiet Christmas period in 2016, Kear's reputation would generate new customers. "I committed a huge amount of money to Jacob starting, and, dare I say it, I was thinking, with the hype and the perception of what we were about to offer, we would have been busier," he said.
Kear believes that money was actually at the heart of Clooney's problems, citing calls and invoices which he believed showed the restaurant was falling behind in paying its bills. Stewart strongly denies the business was in serious debt, and one supplier who was owed money, Yellow Brick Road, said it had never had trouble working with Clooney.
Stewart said it was common for restaurants to owe money to their suppliers and many would be in the same position as Clooney.
Still, Kear felt he was kept in the dark. Had he known more, he says, "I would not have moved my whole family here. If I knew that Clooney was slow, I would not have moved my family here," he says.
For his part, Stewart began to feel that Kear was using Clooney to leverage his own profile, rather than the restaurant's. "He's after Instagram followers. He's after exposure for himself."
Kear flatly rejects this: "I did not use Clooney to get my name out," he says. "My number one goal was to put Clooney somewhere on the world 50, top 100 restaurants. I was pushing for that. But I was never using Clooney for myself, never."
The tension came to a head on Friday last week, when they argued in the kitchen at around 5.30pm. Clooney employees contacted by Stuff would not verify either man's account of the exchange, but it ended with Stewart requesting an apology, and Kear completing the dinner service. It would be his last.
"I'm not prepared to go into it because it is quite a serious reason for dismissal," says Stewart. In an email to Stewart sent on Monday, reviewed by Stuff, Kear wrote: "I'm sorry to have reacted like that, BUT I swear to god and my kids that I did NOT try to swing a punch toward [a staff member] and I did not say 'I will kill you'."
Kear believes the restaurant would have closed with or without last week's argument, and is worried that the fallout has tarnished his reputation.
Clooney, which has a staff of 22, will close on January 28, but Stewart hopes to open a new restaurant in the same building come March. His new venture will be more casual, allowing him to spend time with his son. After being hospitalised for a heart condition earlier this year and undergoing surgery, Stewart is ready for a change of pace.
"It's going to be more casual, it's going to be more relevant to where the economy is, and more relevant to the immediate area the restaurant is located in, and I will get more enjoyment out of it."
Kear, now unemployed, is looking for work and a new home for his family - until now, he was living in a Grey Lynn house hired by Stewart. Today Stewart told him he has to leave. "What am I supposed to do?" he asks. "I have a wife, three kids, a dog. I have nowhere to go."