Fear of changes at Conservatory restaurant is recipe for staff exodus

July 15, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer Staff writer Rob Kasper contributed to this article.

The Peabody Court Hotel, the elegant Mount Vernon inn that is home to the celebrated Conservatory restaurant, has lost its chef in what might be called "the Great Squab Squabble."

Michael Gettier, under whom the Conservatory became one of only two restaurants in Baltimore to earn a four-diamond rating from the American Automobile Association, was one of a half-dozen top managers who either quit or were fired in a bitter upheaval at the luxury hotel and restaurant last week.

Mr. Gettier said the hotel's new management company told him the restaurant would switch from classic French cuisine to "midlevel" American cooking within two or three weeks.

"I was told French cuisine is dead," said Mr. Gettier, 35.

The Baltimore-born, French-trained chef said the new food and beverage directors told him in a July 8 meeting that he could order "no more exotic ingredients" -- no guinea hen, no quail, no venison, no truffles and no squab.

Mr. Gettier quit the next day.

When he left, he joined an exodus that included the hotel's generalmanager, catering director, purchasing director and maitre d' -- each escorted out of the building under the eye of security guards.

Former employees say the interim management team brought in by the hotel's owner, NationsBank in Charlotte, N.C., plans to change virtually everything about the Conservatory except its dramatic view of the Washington Monument and Mount Vernon Place.

The Gerard Group of Bethesda, which took over management of the hotel last week, vehemently disputes their account and insists it will uphold the standards that brought the Conservatory several of the most prestigious awards in the restaurant industry.

"We believe we have the full capability to maintain the reputation of the Conservatory," said Robert Roop, president of Gerard. He added that the former employees had given a "totally biased presentation" of what happened.

Mr. Roop said the menu at the Conservatory was not "slated for any immediate, slashing, dramatic changes." He said Mr. Gettier resigned because the new management wants to conduct an "evaluative process" to review the profitability of each menu item.

He denied that Mr. Gettier was told that French cuisine was dead and said he did not recall any prohibition on exotic ingredients.

Much of the animosity created by the management change was the result of how it was handled, former employees said. In effect, they said,Gerard acted like a regulatory agency seizing a failed savings and loan.

Lea Ann Kish, who declined an offer to remain a general manager of the hotel, said she was immediately escorted out of the building by a security guard. "It was somewhat humiliating," she said.

Sophie Stephens, the former purchasing director, said that after she was fired, she was given less than an hour to pack her belongings under the observation of a guard and was not permitted to say goodbye to her co-workers. Stewart Dearie, the maitre d'hotel, was also fired and escorted off the premises.

Mr. Roop said such procedures were not unusual in management changeovers in the hotel business.

"There was a strong desire on the part of the owner to make sure that property that was property of the owner remain on the property," said Mr. Roop. He said the measures protected employees as well.

The previous management company, Annapolis-based Grand Heritage Hotels, was replaced by order of Dallas-based Amresco, the asset management subsidiary of NationsBank, which took over the property last year.

Patricia Dillingham, a spokeswoman for Amresco, said the Peabody Court is "a very special property" that won't be mishandled. "We'd be silly to run it down," she said. CapStar Hotels Inc. of Washington said last week that it has an agreement in principle to buy the hotel and expects to close the deal about Sept. 1.

The Conservatory was cited this week as one of the 313 best restaurants in North America by the Distinguished Restaurants of North America, a Chicago-based organization that dispatches anonymous inspectors to evaluate the service and food at fine restaurants.

Thomas J. Kelly, the Cornell University hotel administrator who supervised the awards, said the departure of Mr. Gettier meant inspectors would be re-evaluating the Conservatory "very quickly."

Mr. Gettier said he was not bitter or angry over the changes at the restaurant and that he is looking forward to his first vacation since October 1990.

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