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Top chef’s bitter fall: a Miami story

If chef Jonathan Eismann’s life were a roller coaster, it just took a stomach-plunging dip and sits teetering on the edge of the tracks.

Once the golden boy of Lincoln Road and a pioneer in Miami’s food culture, Eismann saw his professional career take a dive from that peak in late 2010 as his ambitious plan to become the restaurant king of Miami’s Design District ended in financial disaster. He was forced to close all four restaurants, leaving the chef in debt to suppliers and facing foreclosure proceedings on his multi-million-dollar Miami Beach home.

But in recent months Eismann had started the climb back up. He had reinvented himself as a real estate broker, saved his house from foreclosure, paid off his debts and was talking of opening a new restaurant. Then came the tragic morning less than two weeks ago in West Miami-Dade when the once prominent Miami chef was involved in a baffling traffic accident.

Now, Eismann faces the possibility of criminal charges for killing pedestrian Jean Carlos Ruiz, a young father who was on his way to work at an import-export company.

It all started with Eismann getting into what should have been a simple car accident just before 9 a.m. on Oct. 10, rear ending a car on Northwest 72nd Avenue. But then, police reports say, he fled the scene of the wreck, only to lose control of his Ford Explorer moments later, swerve off the road and hit Ruiz, who was on the shoulder waiting to catch a bus.

The force of the crash flipped Ruiz into the air and knocked over a power pole. The 29-year-old was pronounced dead at the scene.

Those who know Eismann, 51, are struggling to find answers. They don’t understand why the devoted father of two school-age daughters and James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef in the South, would flee the scene of an accident.

‘It doesn’t fit’

“It’s a very sad and unfortunate situation,” said Ken Lyon, a caterer and chef who has known Eismann for more than two decades, since they both were pioneers on Lincoln Road. “I only know him as an earnest guy who had a little bit of bad luck, not the kind of guy who would have problems like this. It doesn’t fit together.”

Nearly two weeks after the accident, Eismann has not been arrested or given a traffic ticket. A Miami-Dade police spokesman said the investigation is ongoing.

Eismann declined through his attorney, Bob Amsel, to comment for this story. But Amsel said that his client waived the right to counsel and immediately after the accident gave a full taped statement to Miami-Dade police while receiving treatment at the hospital for back and wrist injuries.

“He continues to cooperate with authorities,” Amsel said.

But that’s not enough for Ruiz’s widow Celia Guezara. Her husband died a week before their fourth wedding anniversary, which she spent holding a vigil at the site of the accident. The couple had just celebrated their daughter Kaylee’s first birthday last month.

“I want justice served,” Guezara said. “It’s not fair for the person who killed my husband and destroyed my life to be out there freely.”

Whatever happens, there’s no denying that two families will never be the same after the events of Oct. 10.

For Eismann, nothing in the early stages of his career would have suggested such an occurrence.

Raised in a family-run hotel restaurant, Eismann has had a passion for cooking since childhood. When he graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in 1984, his classmates voted him “most likely to succeed.” He spent eight years perfecting his craft in the kitchens of some of New York’s top restaurants, including Batons, Fandango and China Grill.

Move to the Beach

In 1992, Eismann moved to Miami Beach to take advantage of the burgeoning redevelopment. When Pacific Time opened on Lincoln Road in 1993, the stretch was still a ghost town. But Eismann, along with partners Yves Picot and Alexander Duff, turned the Pacific-rim inspired restaurant into a destination that attracted everyone from foodies to celebrities such as Madonna, Calvin Klein and Cindy Crawford. Pacific Time was hailed as one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appétit, Food & Wine, Esquire and others. Eismann himself was honored in 1994 with the Robert Mondavi Award for Culinary Excellence.

“Pacific Time was a defining Miami restaurant,” said Larry Carrino, a restaurant publicist whose firm, Brustman Carrino, has worked with Eismann over the years. “Jonathan was the talent that helped put South Florida on the national culinary map.”

Part of what made Pacific Time work was that the partners balanced out each other. Eismann, not known as warm and personable, spent his time in the kitchen crafting his signature dishes such as steamed halibut with fresh coriander and lemongrass or miso-rubbed chicken salad. The more outgoing Picot focused on interacting with customers.

“Jonathan was a perfectionist and he knew what he wanted,” Picot said. “Sometimes he rubbed people the wrong way. He was very good at working the kitchen. He was definitely better in the back of the house than in the front. It worked well for the first few years.”

Branching out

After expanding to Coral Gables with a sister restaurant, Pacific Heights, Eismann and his partners had different opinions on the direction they wanted to take the business. They split in 1997, with Eismann buying out the partners. It cost him nearly $1 million, he told The Miami Herald in 2008, adding: “That trailed me for a long time.”

But Eismann kept Pacific Time going for another decade before increasing restaurant competition throughout South Florida and rising real estate prices on Lincoln Road got the better of him. When Pacific Time closed its doors in June 2007, it was Lincoln Road’s longest running high-end eatery after a streak of 14 years. In a town where people are always looking for the hottest new place, Pacific Time had lost its panache.

“We always had modest increases in our sales, but when the revenues don’t keep pace with expenses, then the numbers don’t work,” Eismann told The Miami Herald in 2007.

Tired of Lincoln Road customers more interested in pizza, ice cream and liquor, Eismann took his pioneering spirit to the Miami Design District, the new up-and-coming foodie destination. He used profits from real estate investments to fund the reopening of a less pricey version of Pacific Time in 2008, just down Northeast 40th Street from the new hot spot, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink.

It was the beginning of a massive expansion that saw Eismann open four restaurants — Pizza Volante, Q American Barbecue and Fin were the others — in the span of two years. The idea was to use a variety of different cuisines to help grow the area’s image as a dining destination. But the growth came at an unheard-of pace for a small, independent operator.

More reversals

Although Pacific Time was initially well received by critics and named one of the Best New Restaurants of 2008 by Esquire magazine, the acclaim didn’t last and none of the other three restaurants really took off. The downfall began in summer 2010 with the closing of the new Pacific Time.

In retrospect, industry watchers say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong for Eismann, once considered such a bright star in Miami’s restaurant industry.

“With his restaurant closing on the beach, he just was not able to have that same lightning in the bottle in the Design District as he did on Lincoln Road,” said Lee Schrager, founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and a vice president at Southern Wine & Spirits.

Rumored plans of a joint venture between Eismann and his former boss, China Grill owner Jeffrey Chodorow, never came to fruition. Within a matter of six to eight months after the Pacific Time closing, Eismann’s vision of a Design District restaurant empire was dead. All three restaurants closed with the end coming in February 2011 when Eismann gave the Pizza Volante space back to his landlord, DACRA.

“He tried to do too much too quickly,” said Craig Robins, the owner of DACRA, who credited Eismann with acting “honorably” in getting out of the lease. “The burden of trying to make several businesses succeed at the same time and the combination of a downward spiraling economy were devastating.”

Eismann certainly wasn’t the only one in the restaurant industry who suffered amid the recession. Recent years have seen many once-prominent names — including Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken and Mark Militello — shutter their flagship restaurants.

Remaking himself

Before the recent accident it seemed as things might be looking up for Eismann. In 2011, he paid back about $12,500 in debts owed to Sysco Food Services of South Florida, the supplier that won two court judgments against Eismann’s companies in 2010.

Just last month, he narrowly avoided foreclosure on his Venetian Islands home, when neighbors Jeffrey and Teri Krasnoff purchased the house for $3.2 million. That allowed Eismann to satisfy the $1.47 million judgment obtained against him in July by his lender, Bank United, and still have cash left. Eismann and his family remain in the six-bedroom, six-bath waterfront mansion.

Eismann was focusing on a new career as a real estate agent, which he started in March 2011, shortly after the restaurant closures.

The former chef’s industry knowledge was an invaluable asset to Aniece Meinhold and her partners, who opened The Federal Food Drink & Provisions in January and Acme Bakery & Coffee last month. Eismann served as both their broker and an unofficial advisor.

“He was a great resource,” Meinhold said.

“He wasn’t out to just make the deal. He saw in us what he saw in himself when he was 30 years old and starting out in the industry. He helped us make a lot of good decisions and had our back on a lot of things. Jonathan is like family now.”

Those who know Eismann say the recent events are out of character for the family man who volunteered regularly at his children’s schools and had no previous criminal record.

Eismann does have a history of recurrent traffic problems — 11 citations in Miami-Dade County over the past decade. They’re fairly routine violations such as careless driving, failure to stop at a light and following too closely. And in most cases he was either found not guilty or the charges were disposed of with minimal fines.

A witness to the Oct. 10 accidents, Janet Nuñez, describes Eismann’s driving this way:

“He [ran] the red light at Flagler going really fast, like 70 or 80 miles per hour. He cut me off and slammed into the guy in front of me.”

After Eismann hit the first car, Nuñez told The Herald, she watched him take off.

“Then he started to lose control,” she said.

“He swerved from the left lane to the middle lane, back to the left lane and then all the way back to the right lane, where he hit the pedestrian. I watched the entire thing happen right in front of me.”

Frustrated widow

The details of the accident have Nuñez, the victim’s widow, and others questioning why Eismann has not been arrested or even ticketed.

Miami-Dade police traffic homicide detective George Wilhelm wrote in an e-mail that no blood or urine was taken from Eismann by police because “there was no probable cause to believe that the driver was under the influence at the time of the crash.”

Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney, said last week that prosecutors were waiting to receive all of the evidence from police before deciding whether to file charges against Eismann.

“If there was probable cause to believe a crime was committed, the police could make an arrest,” Griffith said. “If they didn’t feel that they had probable cause, then they turn it over to us.”

Criminal defense attorneys not involved in the case say the lack of charges nearly two weeks after the accident is not unusual.

“This is under no circumstances unreasonable,” said Adam Swickle, a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense attorney. “Given the severity and complexity of what we’re talking about, the state attorney just doesn’t wake up in the morning and file charges against somebody. They like to do their due diligence. The mere fact that someone hit someone who dies doesn’t automatically mean it’s a crime.”

Ironically, the man Eismann hit would have loved to have the former chef as a mentor.

Ruiz was planning to attend culinary school next year at Miami Dade College, his widow said.

“He was always talking about his ideas for making his own restaurant,” said Celia Guezara. “It was his dream.”