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Let's eat.

From Big Sur's killer cliff-clinging eateries to Salinas' unparalleled produce, this blog aims to sniff out all things Monterey County can stomach, via picture and prose, curiosity and appetite, hand and mouth.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gary Obligacion Reflects on Leaving Coastal Luxury Management

At the start of the year, when I was asking Coastal Luxury Management principals David Bernahl and Rob Weakley why their world takeover should involve two new restaurants—I was thinking Pebble Beach Food & Wine and American Institute of Wine & Food and their myriad other epic endeavors, including Bernahl's Pacific Tweed, were plenty to manage already—they told me they had a really compelling reason to take them on. That reason: their then-chief of ops Gary Obligacion (above).

CLM's Number Three had a decorated restaurant rez that includes Chez Panisse, Pebble Beach and Bernardus. Great restaurants are what he does, they said, and does damn well. Plus they had the capital, and the opportunity, and the talent, to make Cannery Row Brewing Company and 1833 Restaurant go. With Gary O. playing GM, they were like Denzel Washington on a train: Unstoppable.

Later Obligacion told me that as much as he loves CRBC, 1833 would be his coup—a real game changer of a place and space, the restaurant Monterey County had been long missing, and his base of operations. Though he could have a spacious office above CRBC, he told me, he was going to set up shop in the claustrophobic upstairs office of the old Stokes Adobe so he could be on site at the signature spot that would further define and differentiate CLM as the hottest thing since grilled cheese. (Read more about CLM's rise and the plans for 1833 here.)

Only now, with the opening of 1833 as little as a few weeks away, Obligacion is gone from the CLM mothership.

Here's what I wrote in this week's Weekly, out today. What follows is thoughts from a candid conversation I had with Obligacion right as we went to press.

It’s like the San Francisco Giants sending Tim Lincecum packing on the cusp of the World Series. OK, maybe Kung Fu Panda. Whatever the case, news that Coastal Luxury Management is parting ways with its restaurants chief Gary Obligacion on the eve of the debut of his baby, Restaurant 1833, in the old Stokes Adobe, comes as a brush-back pitch.

The parties concerned seem good with it. Granted, David Bernahl and Obligacion are as on-message as they come, but even conversations with the more shoot-from-the-hip Rob Weakley—whose wife Michaela was toting around their newborn Allysa at Big Sur Food & Wine—echoed the same refrain: They had diverging visions of what the plan for the landmark eatery should be.

“You don’t want to open a restaurant if you’re not on the same page,” Weakley says. “You don’t want your coach leaving midseason.” (Gary O. as Bruce Bochy?)

The team remains “dear friends.” Obligacion is already considering “new projects and generous offers.” 1833 chef-that-was Tim Mosblech will join him.

Now, without further ado, highlights from my talk with Gary O.:

On the move:
"It's a leap of faith...thankfully in this 26-year career I've had, I've never intentionally burned a bridge. I've gotten some very flattering phone calls. And I have a family, and I don't have the money to go six months without a job, so I'm looking at lots of things."

On word that he wanted to be in a bigger market:
"That's not the case. I do not have any desire to be a star. It's not about that at all for me. If I wanted to be famous, I never would’ve left San Francisco."

On whether all the surprises at 1833—the historic building code hassle, the endless funky rehab and repairs, etc.—fed frustration with the project that led to his leave:
"It had nothing to do with city, nothing to do with code. That's all been incredibly educational. The city's been beyond accommodating, as has the planning commission. [The change] is more due to internal function. I don’t think we as an entity knew what we were trying to do before we got started. [Coastal Luxury Management] doesn’t have a 10-year plan.

"And thank God. Because if they did, CLM wouldn’t be where it is today. They wouldn’t have Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Harvest Food to Table, all these little pieces that now encompass CLM. That said, there comes a time where you stop and see where you are."

On the massive momentum CLM has going:
"Growth is great. They're at a point when a one-year or a three-year or a five-year plan become handy tools—to know that, if if we as a group are going on a trip, and plan that, great. But we haven't decided where we’re going or when we're going. You show up with a suitcase and I say, 'What are you doing? We're not leaving for six months.'

"I think my giving notice was a wake up call of sorts. They’re understanding there is a need to slow down and get to the next logical step. They’re saying that. I’m very optimistic for CLM. The company has a structure and look at the talent pool in that room: [CLM V.P. of Brand Relations] James Velarde, [V.P. of Operations] Anand Menon. When you start walking around and naming names, you see a kick ass team (above).

"They have the ability to move mountains. How they got where they are is due to the members of that team. Each one of us feels failure is not an option. That kind of passion made this crazy success possible. I'm only part of the team that’s done this. I just happened be there day 1, that December, when the only ones on payroll were [Senior Event Coordinator] Tonyia Sampognaro, Rob Weakley and me. I was number three there. Now the employees are well over 100."

On the nuttiness that was starting up PBF&W:
"One of those nights I worked a 43-hour shift to get year one going. Dude, it was crazy what we did to make year one happen. No one has any idea how physically hard it was to make it happen. There were days where Rob and I will tell you we never worked as hard as we did then. Dave was definitely burning the candle at both ends."

On his recruitment from Bernardus:
"You bring in talented people so you can allow them to exercise their talent. 'Here comes Gary'—his aptitude is restaurants, that’s the rhetoric, and it happens to be true. I’ve always been allow to control my environment, shape a restaurant, to enjoy some autonomy, tweak if necessary, make substantial changes if necessary. When I got to [Pebble Beach Company's] Stillwater Grill, it was just a fish house. I was able to teach service points to a staff to where it was the first time when Roy’s didn’t win best restaurant in Pebble Beach, because we provided an experience people didn’t realize could happen outside of Roy’s. When I got to Bernardus, staff was with me, and against me. If you want to change everything, they told me, do it. Over four years, I changed it little by little, building loyalty, and got the template at Marinus and Wickets and started something special.

"Now here we are with 1833, Dave and Rob are much more hands on with details."

On the hype behind 1833:
"Looking at the situation, it's a beautiful, beautiful physical space, and the buzz around it, the hype around it, couldn’t be bigger, and the expectations, we’re gonna open, we're gonna open, there’s gonna be backlash, and if it’s not perfect, now what? Have they raised expectations to point where, well, can they be met?

"If I could adjust one thing, it would be to make it a smaller restaurant, the size of Big Sur Bakery, or Mundaka, or Wickets. Doing something that big that by definition has to appeal to a broad range of people, that's not as much my thing. And the style, it would be a hybrid of those three."

On the departure:
"It never got ugly or nasty at all. The opportunities with CLM were incredible. I couldn’t be more proud of Pebble Beach Food & Wine. No one can ever take away fact that we did the first—it can go for another 50 years or four years, but we did the first, the wonderful template is what we built. When economy was in a tailspin, we grew. As pessimistic as everyone was, we were optimistic to the extreme in another direction.

"We’ve been able to employ a lot of people and make a lot of friends. Dave and Rob (above), are a one-two sales punch that no one can match. That can be polarizing—but they refuse, because they refuse to fail themselves, they know how good they can be, they want the best of the best to come out of the organization.

"Anything they touch, CLM wants it to be the best."