Sunday, June 1, 2003

Influential chef leaving

After resigning Ruby job, Jimmy Gibson is heading to Florida to open his own place

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati is losing its most influential chef of the past decade. Since arriving in 1989, Jimmy Gibson has created the menus and directed kitchens for some of the city's best restaurants, including those owned by Jeff Ruby.

Chef Jimmy Gibson stands on the roof of the Emery Apartments downtown.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
In December, after opening Ruby's fifth restaurant - Tropicana at Newport on the Levee - Gibson told his boss he was burned out and needed time off. Later, during a January meeting, Ruby told Gibson he could no longer pay him as corporate chef but offered the lesser chef's position at any of his restaurants. Gibson declined, saying it wouldn't be fair to replace a colleague.

So, the sometimes tumultuous but always successful seven-year working relationship between chef and restaurateur ended. Despite rumors, Gibson says there was no anger - only tears. He and Ruby are still close friends.

Within two weeks, Gibson bumped into a friend and former restaurant owner, Scott Hughes, who suggested he join him in a Naples, Fla., restaurant venture. After one visit to the Florida Gulf town, Gibson said yes. The new partners haven't bought a property but they have their sights on several and plan to open by August, serving "steak and something," as Gibson puts it.

Before leaving this week, Gibson, 45, sat in a downtown restaurant bar (not a former employer's) to smoke Marlboros, sip iced tea and talk about leaving town, the genius of Jeff Ruby and the state of dining in Cincinnati.

Jimmy Gibson worked at restaurants in Springfield and Dayton before arriving in Cincinnati in 1989. Since then, he has mostly cooked in Cincinnati kitchens.
• 1989-90: Chef, the Phoenix Restaurant, downtown.
• 1990-91: Chef, Diner on Sycamore, Over-the-Rhine.
• 1991-94: Corporate chef, Ciao Baby (Symmes Township, Hackensack, N.J., and Washington, D.C.).
• 1994-95: Chef, Spazzi, Covington.
• 1995-97: Chef, Plaza 600, downtown.
• 1997-January 2003: Corporate chef, Jeff Ruby Culinary Entertainment, Greater Cincinnati.
Question: Why did you stay in Cincinnati so long?

Answer: Cincinnati made me feel welcome. Cincinnati treated me well. I'm surprised. (Laughs.) You guys are crazy. I'm a lunatic.

Q: So why not open a restaurant here?

A: I need a change. I need a new challenge. Part of the reason is, I'm getting stale. I think I've pretty much done what I can do in Cincinnati. It's time for me to do something different and time for me to do it on my own. Never thought I wanted to do my own restaurant, but there's something different about this.

Q: Why Naples?

A: I was there for only five hours and I fell in love with Naples. I can't explain it. It doesn't seem like Florida. It's not tacky. It's gorgeous. And after we ate out there three times, I knew we could really smoke down there.

Q: Considering his rocky track record with other chefs, how were you able to work for Jeff Ruby so long?.

A: We had a lot of similar philosophies about some of the food. We just hit it off. Maybe it's our personalities. We're both strong-willed and hard-headed.

Q: Is it difficult to work for Ruby?

A: He's demanding. I don't think he's difficult. 'Course, some people would probably say I'm difficult. If you really want to be good, then it doesn't seem like Jeff is so demanding.

Q: Why have the Ruby-owned restaurants been so successful?

A: Jeff knows how to hire. He has an intuition about human beings - not only what they know or their experience. He can see somebody that can come up to the level that he looks for. Sometimes, he doesn't give them enough time; sometimes he does. I think Jeff's strength in the beginning and his strength now is taking care of guests. That's what I'm taking away from this experience. You can't just do it with the food

Q: How has the restaurant business changed since you started working as a chef?

A: People can go anywhere now. There are so many restaurants. Now, there are 10 places to eat steak. Ten places to eat Thai. Ten places for everything.

If people don't get treated right, they're not coming back.

Q: If someone was planning to open a restaurant in Cincinnati, what advice would you give them?

A: Open in Newport. At this point in time, that would be my advice. The city doesn't make it easy for people to do business here, the parking situation is bad and downtown is dirtier than Manhattan.

Q: How do you think downtown restaurants will fare in the near future?

A: I see Jean-Robert (at Pigall's) doing very well, very well for a long time, unless, God forbid, something bad happens on Fourth Street. (Jeff) Ruby's (Steakhouse) will continue to do well downtown.

I think anyone else is going to have a tough time.

Q: Will you say you'll never return to Cincinnati?

A: I guess you can never say never. But I have no intentions of coming back. I'm moving there. I'm moving my life there.

I'm moving my direction there. I'm moving my ambition there. I'm moving everything there.

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