The Chef Caught in Abramoff's Fall
Signatures' Morou Ouattara Talks About Surviving the Scandal

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?

Our general managers and managers worried about the finances.

A lot of people you cater to were guys, right?

In the kitchen, I don't pay attention to what food is going to what customer. But it's heavily meat with men. When guys go out and entertain, their challenge is their meeting. They don't want to be challenged with food. They like mac and cheese with tenderloin.

Is it really possible not to know who orders what?

Our focus is the food. As chefs we don't pay attention to what's going on. Basically you see what you sell, not who it goes to. Then you order more of that. In the kitchen, all we try to do is sell more and to have a mix of what we'd like them to try.

But you must keep track somehow.

In the kitchen, you stand by the dishwasher to see what's coming back. And every now and then we go out to see what people are eating. And every once in a while you get a note from the manager about a VIP in the house. But in the restaurant business, that could mean a lot of things -- a friend of the business, like a chef or server or cook from other restaurants and sometimes we give them a discount and sometimes we don't. VIP just means pay attention to that table -- maybe try to win them back, maybe even make sure the service doesn't take too long.

I've heard that the restaurant had trouble paying its bills. When did that start?

Money got tight as soon as people stopped coming. A lot of restaurants have problems. It's a tough business. There are a lot of costs you can't control. Everything is on contract. Nothing is COD. You're always paying for things you've used already.

Did it get harder as time went on?

Yes, every time we had an article in the paper.

In a fine-dining restaurant you order daily, and if something is not selling, you don't keep on buying it. We ordered food according to the business.

But our bar was still packed. Tuesday night, sushi night, was fabulous. And when the patio was open, it was still full. But for what I was trying to do -- to bring people in who might want to experience a new kind of cuisine, and not just eat -- it was not up to my standards.

Did you think of leaving?

I don't jump ship. I even signed a contract in August, right in the middle of it. I kept on trying until the last minute to make it better so my employees would have a job. It all happened during the holidays. I wanted everybody to have a job. I was getting paid.

And not everybody was focused on the political part. It's a restaurant. You hope a restaurant is about how well you do the food and how good the service is. In November, I was still cooking. And people were still coming.

At one point, other people were interested in taking over the restaurant. But in the end, it was not a business they wanted, and the lease was never signed. The Post wrote about it. Even the Friday night before it closed, they were trying to find a way to buy it, but over the weekend they decided not to.

At what point did you realize that it was all over?

The Wednesday night of the March of Dimes event [Nov. 16]. That's when I was told. But anyone could tell it could come any day. The company trying to buy it couldn't raise enough money. A lot of things weren't done.

On Thursday, I went back to the restaurant to make a few phone calls, get rid of food that would spoil, and I started to make plans to donate things to the D.C. Central Kitchen. For a few days, I was making calls to try to help my guys get jobs. My sous-chef and my pastry chef stuck with me to do the tryouts for "Iron Chef."

So how do you feel about all that now?

The restaurant business goes up and down. Nothing surprises me anymore. Maybe the reviews aren't good. Maybe the owners don't like you. You try to make sure you're okay. You try to build a reputation through your food, and hard work and the consistency of what you do for the restaurant -- for the next time you're on the street looking for a job, maybe even for the investor. It's all about the reputation.

And Abramoff?

I don't want to get involved in something I don't understand. I don't want to be whining about Signatures. It was a great experience. Jack was one of the best bosses I ever had. A chef wants one thing -- the freedom to do whatever you want. And I had that.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company