The Chef Caught in Abramoff's Fall

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

The restaurant business has never been known for job security. But no chef expects to lose his job over a congressional corruption scandal. That's what happened to Signatures chef Morou Ouattara amid revelations that lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who owned the Penn Quarter restaurant, used it as the site of free meals and fancy fundraisers to sway lawmakers.

Signatures shut down on Nov. 16, shortly before Abramoff pleaded guilty to defrauding Indian tribe clients, conspiring to bribe members of Congress and evading taxes. Abramoff is awaiting sentencing. His plea agreement requires him to provide evidence about members of Congress.

Meanwhile, Morou -- who goes by his first name -- has been busy trying to help his former staff find jobs, cooking at a March of Dimes gala the day the restaurant closed and representing Washington on Food Network's "Iron Chef America."

This month, as he and his wife expect their second child, Morou, 40, is consulting, catering and figuring out what to do next. He talked about his experience at Signatures with staff writer Judith Weinraub last week.

Q What is it like for a chef to be at the center of a political scandal?

A It's hard. You wish that people will see your restaurant as a place to get good food. But everyone has investors. It's terrible when people start associating an investor's personal life with the restaurant.

Jack was a good boss. He gave us a restaurant to run, and we got good PR. We were doing a good job. It was great. People were still raving about the food. We didn't lose faith in what we did.

How did it affect the restaurant?

A lot of people stopped coming. Our client base was on Capitol Hill. And right at the beginning when the media started pointing fingers, people stopped coming. When your base clientele stops coming, it hurts financially. If they didn't want to be talked about, they didn't show up. We had to go out and start seeking a nonpolitical clientele.

Was it a dramatic drop?

Yes, of course -- almost half the clientele. . . . When you're in the back cooking, if you make somebody unhappy they will tell their friends. This was different. These were whole delegations. The Texas delegation didn't show up anymore. And their friends. And their girlfriends. You lose that clientele.

Did you worry about the money you were losing?

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