When Yona opened in November, chef Jonah Kim unveiled what would become his signature dish: the uni waffle. Topped with sea urchin, taramasalata and caviar, it created buzz as the most photographed item at the Ballston restaurant, a partnership between Kim and Mike Isabella.
But when Kim left the restaurant recently, the uni waffle disappeared from the menu.
The dish's sudden departure raises an issue common across restaurants: When chefs leave, what becomes of their recipes? The partners at Yona have remained tight-lipped about their split, so what happened in that case remains unclear. (Isabella declined to comment. Kim preferred not to discuss specifics.) In other breakups, the answer has depended on the business relationship between the restaurant owner and the chef.
In partnerships, contracts can determine what would happen to dishes and recipes if the relationship fails. According to Robert Lannan, a Washington lawyer who specializes in hospitality, those issues are better "addressed on the front end rather than the back end." Leave things up in the air, and once a schism happens, those things can get thorny.
Lannan's experience with restaurants lies primarily with those operated by hotels, frequently involving a celebrity chef. In that case, both sides want assurances: The restaurant wants to know it can keep operating after the chef's departure; the chef wants to know their signature dishes won't be used after they leave.
Contracts often rely on general language regarding "signature dishes" or "unique concepts," Lannan said, because of the fact that recipes can't usually be patented.
Having as much in writing as possible provides a road map on how to handle a break-up, he said. But having a written agreement doesn't always ensure a split will go smoothly.
After chef Erik Bruner-Yang left Toki Underground in March, he opened a stall serving ramen at Whole Foods in Foggy Bottom. That didn't sit well with his former partners, who claimed in a letter filed in D.C. Superior Court that Bruner-Yang violated a non-compete clause in Toki's operating agreement by serving "food items similar in nature to the menu at Toki." They argued Bruner-Yang was doing the same thing at Maketto, the chef's coffee shop, retail store and restaurant mashup on H Street NE.
Bruner-Yang responded by filing a lawsuit in June, in part claiming that his former partners tried to obtain ownership of his family recipes. The case remains open.
For chefs who aren't celebrities or partners in a restaurant, a departure can have different implications. In those cases, it's often the owner who seeks to protect recipes. "The main people that put the money up are going to want to protect the name of the restaurant and the intellectual property," said Brian Wolken, who took over Campono in the Watergate with his wife, chef Tracy O'Grady.
If a chef ends up leaving in that scenario, Wolken said, then the recipes likely stay with the restaurant.
That isn't usually a problem. Marjorie Meek-Bradley, the executive chef of Ripple and Roofers Union, has never signed a contract that references her recipes, probably because she's never been in a position of ownership. But the way she views it, as a chef, her dishes belong to the restaurant. "Anything I develop somewhere, that was a dish for that restaurant," said Meek-Bradley, who worked with Isabella at Graffiato and José Andrés's Zaytinya. "If they want to hang onto it, that's fine."
In fact, she might be a little disappointed, if, say, she were to ever leave Roofers Union only to see her popular fried chicken sandwich nixed from the menu.
And even if a dish remains after a chef's departure, chances are the new talent will make some tweaks. When Shannon Overmiller left the Majestic in Alexandria last year, she didn't pass along any of her recipes to the new owners, Overmiller said, including her signature coconut cake. That hasn't stopped them from listing a "Majestic coconut cake" on the menu.
She's unperturbed. The Majestic's version isn't her exact recipe, which is available at her current kitchen, Society Fair.
A similar situation has unfolded at Blue Duck Tavern. The restaurant's roasted bone marrow appetizer came onto the menu thanks to its opening chef. Since then, several others have come through, each putting their own spin on the dish. When chefs leave, "recipes tend to stay and get passed on," Joseph Cerione, Blue Duck Tavern's general manager, said.
At Yona, that's certainly the case for some of the menu. Holdovers include the Kim-Fil-A, a fried chicken sandwich named after the restaurant's former chef.
As for that dish? Kim said: "It's obvious it's still mine."