Behind the Scenes - Chef's Insight to Nieuport 17's Good-Bye After 45 Years
Today marks the end of a 45 year legacy in Orange County - Nieuport 17 serves its final meal tonight. Founded in 1969 in Santa Ana by former Navy pilot Bill Bettis, the restaurant got its legs as a themed restaurant focusing on aviation. The walls were and are decorated with what the unaware might consider as mere paraphernalia; rather, the pieces are valued artifacts. Nieuport 17 has a history of hosting the Navy's Blue Angels and the Air Force's Thunderbirds as well, many of whom are also celebrated on the walls. It was not unheard of for guests to visit the restaurant three to four times a week, and the long-serving staff played a big role in this frequency. So when the news hit that Nieuport 17 would be closing, it was as if a dear old friend had announced his imminent passing. "I've got two months to live, loves," it seemed to say, and this close of March marks its last breath. While plenty of outlets have reported on the community and business owner's points of view, we were most curious about what it meant for the staff; what is it like to be part of a restaurant's closing? Chef Jeff Moore inspired us to learn more and enlightened us on this momentous situation.
Those that know Nieuport 17 as it is now have experienced it in Tustin on Newport Boulevard, the location Bettis moved to in 1990 and built out specifically for its purpose. The shift did not impact clientele much though, and the droves kept coming to experience what was not only a favored restaurant but also a piece of admirable history and community. Guests grew close and developed relationships with Bettis and most of the staff there. As the years waned on however, interests started to divert as food evolved into the ever-changing powerhouse it has become presently. Expectations of restaurant price points shifted as it did for atmosphere; fewer found occasion and justification in dressing to the nines for dinner. The recession did not help but surprisingly, Nieuport 17 did not fall as many other restaurants had. However, something had to change.
A long-time customer who had been frequenting the restaurant since childhood, Cameron Irons, purchased and took charge of Nieuport 17 in 2010, primarily managing the day-to-day. The goal was to catch up with the times while maintaining loyal customers. In with the new but not out with the old. Hiring on Chef Greg Moro, formerly Executive Chef at French 75, as the Chef de Cuisine in 2013 was a step in that direction (we featured Chef Moro in an article in February 2014 here). In mid-2014, Irons also hired on several staff who were formerly of Hopscotch Tavern in Fullerton, one of whom was Chef Jeff Moore. Moore claimed that the fallout was nearly palpable right from their start though. A crew that was accustomed to being very busy, they found themselves facing less than 50 covers some night.
How did you end up at Nieuport 17?
"We had done a couple of tasting dinners here and had a really good time. Cameron approached us and said he had bought Nieuport in hopes of taking it somewhere new. We were the last dish - he was going to go all in. He brought us in and the people who had been coming here for 30-40 years balked big time. They didn't want any part of this. 'What are you guys doing? You're taking all the good stuff off the menu.' We somehow ostracized their past clientele and hoped that ours would come in. I come from fine dining so we thought we'd be able to pull it off. The whole place was supposed to be remodeled with a big bar, extended patio, and speakeasy. They had really good intentions but once we came in and did some menu changes, it just wasn't well-received and their business was way down. In Cameron's defense, he did make a really valiant effort but the clientele wouldn't let them change and be different. People say that restaurants age when they lose the ability to change."
At what point did you see backlash in your menu?
"Right off the bat. Cameron wanted us to leave the food the same, to wait until the remodel happened so he could re-brand it as a new restaurant called '17.' He said we could make existing food better. From that, we took that as 'make classic food.' By making things better, in our eyes, we took away the stuff we felt was horrible like the eggplant deep-fried in crushed Goldfish and Ritz crackers. We put on a classic osso bucco and bolognese, dishes we felt were classic continental cuisine. It didn't work. Within the first month, the writing was on the wall. We pretty quickly realized also that they weren't going to do the remodel.
On November 1st, to keep our employees around and people excited about what we were doing, we put our food in. We sous-vide a fish and what we thought were safe but decent items, but it just backfired. Nobody of this age wants to eat sous-vide salmon. To them, it's just wrong. Nobody wants to eat a piece of sous-vide john dory. We released our menu, and it just fell flat on its face. Everybody hated it. People swore up and down that they'd never come back. December, we pared the menu down a little bit but the damage was already done. All the big parties that come year after year after year in December didn't book their 50-peron parties. That was a huge hit to business. That was tough. I wish it would've worked out."Announced in January, the restaurant's closing did not seem very shocking to those intimately involved but to the regular guests, it was a bit of a surprise. Outsiders might have predicted the downfall though as the menu was steeply priced compared to current restaurant expectations and the overall style feels dated. For the staff, Irons did not do what some owners do: close the restaurant without warning. Instead, he made sure that employees knew as did purveyors so that all could be paid what they were owed and staff given the opportunity to find work elsewhere. Moore noted how commendable this was and rare. However, staff began leaving shortly after the news so when we spoke with just three days ago, he only had a crew of eight kitchen members total.
Despite menu changes, the interior never budged. The restaurant itself has a hunting lodge atmosphere in the dining spaces. The historic photos that plaster the walls contain signed copies from several well-known entities including the first Blue Angels. There are also signed photos from fighter pilots from the likes of World War II and the Vietnam War but it was not unheard of for those aviators to also be celebrated (some even being hosted there n the restaurant). No matter what side the men and women fought for, they were able to get their picture on the wall by being an amazing aviator. There were even lithographs at one point with Nazi emblems on them. Some guests have been offended in the past but the reasoning for such display is to acknowledge great skill.
Many of these pieces will be given back to the families who had donated them in the first place. There are also several air museums taking the artifacts. Bettis' own collection has slowly been taken back home, and those who had shared a photo of their father/mother have returned to collect those as well. Pieces such as letters from the Wright Brothers will serve their place and time within museums. Bettis had previously donated to DC's Smithsonian, the National Naval Aviation Museum, and even small Orange County spaces. Kitchen equipment will likely find their ways into auctions for other businesses.
It is rare to see a restaurant with such a legacy in Orange County closing; in fact, it's rare to even see a place last so long. The industry is tough. Irons had some guidance from the owner of Mr. Stox which recently closed as well but Moore and his kitchen staff had no one to turn to. Most places just close but Nieuport 17 gave warning, making sure that their loyal employees had time to make their money and say good-bye to guests. Plenty of the servers had been there since the restaurant was in Santa Ana; one well-known server, Patty, had even served Irons since he was a child. These folks stayed on as they anticipated how busy the nights would get after the closing announcement. The crowds flocked over but unfortunately, the kitchen experienced the greatest staff loss in the time of abundance. Past employees showed up to help cook for the remaining months.
Payroll checks have not bounced, something expected of restaurants going downhill but luckily not here. Moore stated, "Had that come to fruition, I wouldn't have expected anyone to stay. I stayed because I gave my word and I stick to my word." Strain has been showing itself outside of the daily bustle as well.
"Having a kitchen full of good people that I've always tried to take care of looking to me for leadership has been stressful. It's been a goal of mine to make sure everybody's placed. One of my line cooks is now sous chef at Cellar. My current sous chef staged at Broadway, Tavern on 2, and other places. Placing people is definitely a priority but that's tough. I don't want people to be out of work."Nieuport 17 managed to hold onto some with solid wages. It couldn't do the same with all vendors and ordering had to be cut back to every other day or less frequently instead of daily.
"It's been disheartening. The whole thing is disheartening including cooking sub-par food."After the announcement, the crew dug up all of the previously discarded recipes to prepare for the onslaught of regulars returning. Those who had sworn off of the restaurant six months prior started to come back for their customary three or four visits per week. Weekend night covers started hitting 250 instead of the 30 before. It has been booked out all the way until closing. Luckily, the menu had been pared down to just eight entrees which alleviated the understaffed kitchen as well as made ordering from vendors easier. The key chefs lost from Moore's crew made orders more difficult to execute.
One surprising revelation Moore had was that dishwashers were the hardest position to keep on, and since the announcement, the sous chef(s) and he have ended up washing dishes at the end of the night. As Moore jokes, "We are the highest paid dishwashers here!" Another unexpected situation was the sudden shift in staff attitude. Asking a busser to help with dishes has led to bussers walking out right then and there. Vendors have had to put Nieuport 17 on COD meaning that checks had to be available before anything could be delivered. This made ordering difficult in emergency situations when the kitchen only needed three cases of one item. Some vendors such as OC Baking Company and Santa Monica Seafood have maintained steady relationships with the restaurant but others such as their regular meat supplier and produce purveyor have dropped out. As aforementioned, reducing the menu has helped mitigate these difficulties but so has buying bulk (mainly meats) and freezing. Before the pastry chef left, she made 200 fudge pies to be frozen ("We'd have to sell 98 slices a day to go through them all!"). Lunch has cooks working their knuckles to the bone trying to keep up but overall, there were a couple things Moore didn't want to stop doing.
"I didn't want to stop making our own stock. Before, they used beef scraps and cooked them in water. It's a very traditional way of making stock but not very good. They would also order stock in buckets. I also thought I was going to stop making pasta but when I got in some dried pasta and cooked a little, I was so offended by how bad it was! There was also the meat - I grew up in a butcher shop so cutting everything was second-nature. We had to go to pre-portioned filets to save time and labor. The biggest hit was ordering pre-made salad dressings but most people have no idea the difference in a Bleu cheese dressing made with Point Reyes Blue and housemade creme fraiche versus big box premade. We have not had one complaint about salad dressings."
What was an unexpected challenge for you in the closing?
"The morale of the kitchen. Both ways. I was surprised to see people with such bad morale and at the same time, I was surprised to see people have such great morale. That's what's kept it going. The last two days have really shown that even people who had been doing a good job will shift, myself included. We're going to finish it out and put out the best product we can with what we're given but we're frustrated. It's been challenging seeing people completely fall off the map and go from being great employees to someone you don't even want in the kitchen. On the other hand, some have stepped up and are okay working more hours, saying 'Hell yeah, I'll work doubles and 16-hour days! Let's do it!' I had one employee whose attitude fell apart because he was angry he couldn't make stuff fresh anymore. We're all angry though so why do you get to be upset?"Conversely, the morale out in the dining rooms have not been as full of angst. The guests have just been nostalgic and coming in to experience their last meal at Nieuport 17. They are accommodated as best as they can be but Moore admits that the running joke the past few days throughout has been the attitude of "If someone's upset, what are they going to do? Not come back?"
"I hope I'm never part of a closing restaurant again."Those that did leave before the final hour have gone on to exciting opportunities such as working at Michelin-starred restaurants and even opening their own spots. Moore himself is unsure where to fit himself next in the Orange County food scene. He is considering going back to Utah where he had held a previous stint as an Executive Chef at a hotel for five years; the relationships are still strong there. However, we may also hear about him hereabouts if he accepts offers to help open some restaurants in Newport Beach...but we'll leave the mystery as is for now. The open doors will have to wait until the ultimate close of Nieuport 17's doors. It is a somber time for the Orange County restaurant community as the establishment of nearly half a century ends its business today.
"A lot of people around here are sad to see it go. If it had worked out, it would have been really a great thing. It could've succeeded and been a lot of fun but unfortunately, that didn't happen and we're ready to move on."Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebbook here.