Choose your metaphor: Downtown Container Park can be considered in different ways a crucible, a litmus test or a microcosm of all of the Zappos-centric new downtown efforts. So the drafting, and then abrupt dismissal of a relatively high-profile chef by one of the park’s eateries may just be a typical blip in a new business venture, or indicate more serious issues.
When word leaked out - almost by accident - that Nona Johnson was running one of Downtown Container Park’s food concepts, Pork & Beans, it lent a bit of legitimacy to the collection of quick eateries. Two days before the park’s Dec. 5 grand opening, she was let go.
Johnson (formerly Sively) was the unexpected winner of season eight of Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen that went on to helm Kerry Simon’s LA Market in downtown Los Angeles.
“Chef Simon called me and said he had two new projects coming up, and wanted to see if I was interested,” Johnson told CityLife. Johnson had parted ways with LA Market a few months prior to pursue other efforts. Simon, best known to Las Vegans as the chef/restaurateur of Simon at Palms Place and KGB burgers in Harrah’s, had been engaged by Future Restaurant Group’s Michael Cornthwaite as a consultant.
Though Pork & Beans was relatively small scale - tiny, actually - it held the promise of a new start for Johnson in a new city, working with a trusted collaborator in Simon.
“The whole idea was cool, even though it was a very simple idea,” she said. “Artisanal sausages and beans that pair with them, using local ingredients, a fun hip environment. It was all pork, and as a Southern girl, we do like our pork!”
Back in October, Johnson met with all the principals, and accepted the position, moving to Las Vegas on Nov. 1. She oversaw “Everything required of the chef (opening a restaurant): get the recipes together, get in touch with vendors and suppliers, hiring… everything.
“It was a cool deal, and I had a good time...And we had only 8-10 employees (so) we were able to form that family thing. That’s how I run a kitchen. It’s really important to me.”
Problems arose, however, in communication. Johnson said she had challenges getting direction on a number of issues from Cornthwaite in the days leading up to her termination two days before the park’s Dec. 5 grand opening (“I have pages of paper trail of me asking questions and not getting answers.”). There were also complains of equipment limitations and menu changes without her assent.
Johnson said that the park’s security team further informed her that as per rules of Downtown Container Park, neither she nor her family members were welcome in any part of the park.
“I just want people to see what’s actually happening, because it’s not what it appears to be,” Johnson said. “You want to promote this family environment, this community feel, but you’re running things with an iron fist. He’s got a lot of different things going on downtown, but people aren’t going to stick around if they’re mistreated.”
While Johnson was diplomatic about the reasons for her departure during the interview, she was not so restrained on her Facebook page.
On Dec. 5 she posted: “Well guys, one more bump in the road. Future Restaurant Group fired me for ‘not being the right fit’. When another employee asked what exactly that meant, the DofO said ‘we don’t need any dykes down here’. I continue to keep my head held high.”
For his part, Cornthwaite only offered the following statement on the record: “As much as Chef Kerry Simon and I hoped for a good fit, it wasn’t…and we parted ways. The food and service have improved since and will continue to improve over coming months. We wish Nona the best of luck in her future endeavors.”
Cornthwaite emphasizes that Johnson was employed by Pork and Beans LLC, not Future Restaurant Group. However, a check of the restaurant’s state business license shows only one manager listed for Pork & Beans: Future Restaurant Group, which is solely held by Cornthwaite.
Johnson still has in her sights another Downtown project with Simon that has yet to be formally announced. Simon had nothing but positive things to say about all persons involved, and hasn’t ruled out working with either side again. CL