Award-winning chef and multi-concept operator Daniel Patterson (Coi, Aster) had a bold idea that appears to be unraveling.
The San Francisco-based chef and restaurateur launched a reinvention of his restaurant group in 2017, renaming it Alta Group and partnering with Restaurant Opportunities Center to tackle racial equity. By early 2018, Patterson started transforming Alta restaurants into new concepts with executive chefs of color at the helm, lending his tools for opportunity, visibility and success to up-and-coming figures in the food world, according to Skift Table.
But since April, three chefs have parted ways with the restaurant group reportedly citing reasons like operational control and exploitation: Heena Patel (Besharam) who left in April, as well as Reem Assil (Dyafa) and Nigel Jones (Kaya,) who both left in May.
Jones has made the decision to close Kaya and also filed a lawsuit against Patterson, citing unfulfillment of financial obligations as originally outlined in their partnership, although Patterson has denied all accusations, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Patel meanwhile has since bowed out of her partnership with Patterson and gained total control of her restaurant, Besharam in San Francisco, which will reopen in July under her sole ownership. Assil chose to terminate her consulting agreement with Alta Group starting Aug. 9.
“I think many of the relationships end up exploiting [people of color] and women for the social capital they bring rather than helping them build more social capital,” chef Assil told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We end up getting tokenized without getting enough in return and are not recognized for the full value we bring to the table.”
These complaints clash with Patterson’s original intent of the reimagined Alta Group concept, which was to bring attention to restaurant-level inequities by giving advantages to chefs who are often sidelined as members of minority groups. He told Skift Table in a December interview that he would be involved “at the highest level” regarding systemwide standards and strategies for the business incubator-like restaurant group, but that each chef would operate his or her restaurant independently.
“I see my role is as an editor,” Patterson said at the time. “I work intensely with them in the beginning, but I don’t want to change someone’s voice. Just help make it better.”
Although each of the chefs received national recognition for their concepts, in recent interviews, each of the three chefs involved suggested their vision was cast aside in favor of Patterson’s overall strategy for his restaurant group concept. Jones stated that he was agreeing to menu suggestions “from business partners he barely knew,” and he felt the restaurant was no longer his.
Chef Assil also referred to the strings attached to her partnership with Patterson:
“I need to focus on projects where I have operating control and can prioritize my values,” she told Eater.
When he was in the process of creating the new Alta Group and looking for business partners, Patterson approached La Cocina, a culinary incubator that provides entrepreneurial opportunities for women, immigrants, and people of color. While La Cocina is not directly involved with Alta Group, both chefs Assil and Patel are graduates of the San Francisco-based culinary incubator.
“Generally, any intentional work to create more equitable opportunities for chefs that have faced artificial barriers to entry in the marketplace are welcome,” a representative from La Cocina told Restaurant Hospitality.
“Like much of our economy however, capital controls the flow of ideas and wealth, and we should all be interested in seeing more equitable distribution of that opportunity as it will inspire innovation, greater diversity in our options and a healthier eco-system generally,” the La Cocina spokesperson continued. “In any partnership, both parties have a tacit understanding of what they might gain. In some cases, it’s capital and access, in others it’s brand, innovation or inspiration. In all cases, that exchange is mutual, and when it’s not treated as such, it’s destined to fail or feel insincere.”
Patterson did not respond to requests for comment. But in an emailed statement to the San Francisco Chronicle, he said, “I wish we’d taken on less and been able to do a better job in some cases building trust through communication, and I feel badly about that.”
Alta Group also reportedly pulled out of an agreement to open an Alta restaurant in the Yotel Hotel in San Francisco earlier this month, although the chef told Eater that he still retains the lease and will be bringing “something” to the hotel’s dining program.
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