Gearing up for Fat Tuesday not so "easy"

February 10, 2010


crawfish etoufee from The Big Easy (photo by Steve Dolinsky)

Well that didn't take very long. Less than a month after opening its doors, chef Jennifer Gavin and The Big Easy (not to be confused with Big Easy Cajun at Old Orchard Shopping Mall) have parted ways. Gavin - a former contestant on "Hell's Kitchen" - had been brought in to help overhaul the new menu and concept in the former JalapeƱo's/Orly's space in Hyde Park, on 55th St.

"She up and quit on us, right in the middle of the shift on Saturday afternoon," said owner David Shopiro. "Jennifer, while a good kitchen person, was more into being a celebrity." Shopiro said the restaurant was pretty busy this past Saturday, and they were expecting a large group from Operation Push to come in around 1 p.m. Gavin had approached him, asking if she could do an exit interview for the Fox TV folks at 1 p.m. "She told me it would take a few minutes, so I thought, o.k.," said Shopiro. Next thing he knows, the kitchen is in the weeds, and the team is clamoring for help. Customers were getting upset that the food was coming out slow. "I went to the office at 1:25 p.m., and it was locked, so I was shaking the door, asking her to‚ get off of the phone, and come out to help," said Shopiro. "By 1:40 p.m., customers were getting pissed off, so I started pounding on door, telling her to give them your phone‚ number and‚ call them back," an exasperated Shopiro recounted. Two minutes later, he says, the chef walked out to the kitchen, told her boss‚ he owed her an apology for yelling at her, and left the premises.

For her part, Gavin says "things were getting a little weird, and the situation was not what I had planned on." She has hired an attorney to assist with her separation from the business. In a recent article from a U of C publication, Shopiro expressed confidence in his new chef/partner, saying she was "skilled in conversing with New Orleans food." The restaurant has promoted Assistant Chef Ronisha Preckwinckle (daughter-in-law of alderman Toni) to lead the kitchen from this point forward. "She is meticulous, and is a team player," Shopiro says. "It's just been chaotic."

Odd timing, frankly. Considering most restaurants with any sort of tangential connection to the Crescent City will be going full-bore over the next few days - Heaven on Seven, Lagniappe, etc. - the restaurant's mantra and title certainly invite comparisons. After one visit early on, I was more impressed with their etouffee and jambalaya (even with the extraneous chicken breast wrapped around the chicken-and-andouille studded rice), but the po-boy proved incongruous: despite the fact they bake all of their breads in-house, the bread used for a perfectly-fried catfish fillet had as much to do with a true Leidenheimer-style loaf as the Bulls do to a world championship team.

Now for the real awkward moment: guess who's interviewed on-camera for my story on The Big Easy that airs Friday on ABC 7 at 11 a.m.?