J.P. Challet leaves the Windsor Arms (again) to pick up the pieces at Ici Bistro (again)
Master chef J.P. Challet is leaving the Windsor Arms Hotel’s Prime just five months into his tenure—and nine years after doing it the first time. His company Jean-Pierre and Co. unceremoniously pulled out of the steak house after a deal to take over the hotel’s food and beverage program fell through. Challet served his last supper for the Arms at a 2,000-person function at Exhibition Place last Sunday and is now looking to restart construction on his once-hyped Harbord Street project, Ici Bistro.
Challet and hotel owner George Friedman couldn’t cut a deal, explains the chef. The long-time associates (Challet helmed the kitchen for the hotel’s glitzy relaunch in 1999) first got to chatting when Prime’s chef resigned last year. Challet proposed a partnership that would bring his company’s modern flavour (bistro-style small plates) to the hotel and increase the dining room’s dwindling clientele. Challet hoped that his brand would add to the hotel’s appeal; he would share in the profits and have carte blanche when it came to the menu.
The team debuted a slightly modified menu at Winterlicious, but by March, Challet felt he was being kept at arm’s length. “I don’t believe in the steak house. I don’t believe in fine dining anymore,” says Challet. Friedman, who did not respond to calls to discuss the change, clearly does. “He didn’t feel comfortable to make the move,” says the chef. “For him to have my company inside, he could not have control.”
The power struggle started the schism, but money matters proved the final push. Challet claims that his already slim profit margins were eaten by the Arms’s take for overhead and wine from its cellar—a typical bill booster on which Challet got only a small cut. “I cannot stay here if there’s no money for me to be made,” Challet said in April. “I’m running a business.” When Friedman wouldn’t up the ante, the chef and his crew (Jennifer Decorte and Peter Tsang) gave notice that they were leaving immediately after overseeing Richard Andino’s arrival from Flow.
A timely twist at Ici helped Challet walk away from Prime. In January, the bistro was still mired in glitches: liquor licence disputes, inspection issues, a missing building permit and botched plumbing. What a difference five months makes: all new plumbing has now been installed, and the ceiling has been ripped out to meet city standards. Only electrical work is now pending, and Challet hopes to open in July.
The chef points out with a half-pained laugh that he was originally offered the spaces that are now L’Unità and Tati Bistro. On friendly advice, he passed, only to watch two hot spots spawn while Ici sat empty. “It’s like I’m at the beginning all over again.”
While Challet claims he has no regrets—in fact, he is already negotiating a deal to revive a yet-unnamed defunct restaurant—he seems cautious. “When you have your place, it’s always better. It’s your decision, and that’s it.”