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VOL. 127 | NO. 5 | Monday, January 9, 2012

Patrick Travels Long Road Before Opening Rizzos

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Michael Patrick came to Memphis in 1997. Things are finally starting to look up.

Michael Patrick is chef and owner of Rizzos Diner, 106 G.E. Patterson Ave. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration,” the chef said, sitting at the front sun-drenched table in his three-month-old Rizzos Diner. “At certain times, my time in Memphis has been disappointing. Sometimes it was going great, and then I had the carpet pulled out from under me. I got the rep of a person who had too many jobs.”

Rizzos occupies the deep, narrow space on G.E. Patterson where Harry’s Detour South Main – actually just east of South Main – operated since 2002 and, after struggling for the past three years, recently closed.

Patrick describes Rizzos as an “upscale diner,” open for lunch and dinner and Sunday brunch, that he and his partners, Cynthia and Mark Grawemeyer, hope will become a neighborhood spot.

Patrick is 39, and his career in restaurants began when he was 15, living in Painesville, Ohio, outside Cleveland.

“My cousin called and said this place called Brennan’s Fish House needed a dishwasher,” Patrick said, “so I quit my paper route and went to wash dishes. This wasn’t connected with the Brennan’s in New Orleans, as far as I know. It was right on Lake Erie, owned by a nice Hungarian couple. That’s where I caught the restaurant bug.”

Then Patrick got into what he called “some trouble at school,” and the couple didn’t want him to come back.

“So, I was going to vo-tech school,” he said, “and I wasn’t interested in wood shop or metal shop, but they had a culinary program. It was taught by Robin Dodge, her first program, and right away she gave us the ‘Joy of Cooking’ as our textbook. She really got me going in it.”

Patrick’s first job was in the kitchen at Quail Hollow, a resort in Cleveland.

“The chef was Tim Rios,” he said. “I was there three years and he was in my face every day. ‘What are you doing in my kitchen?’ ‘You should be in school.’ And I was like, ‘Awww, I dunno.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do really, but Tim came up with some money and I went to cooking school in Pittsburgh, and they just started me over from the beginning. I thought I was going to show them something but I didn’t know crap.”

Patrick was recruited by Paragon Foods Co., now part of Steakhouse Partners Inc., which owned Mountain Jack’s Steakhouse. The company sent Patrick to Troy, Mich., for training and then sent him out to open new shops.

“In nine months, I opened restaurants in Kalamazoo (Mich.), Woodstock, Ill., and Cincinnati. I thought I was doing well, and they called me in for a meeting and said that if I wanted to advance in the company, I needed to get married and have children and buy a house, you know, settle down and be a grown-up,” he said. “Now that I’m older, I understand what they wanted, but at the time I was really dejected.”

Patrick was recruited for the kitchen at Elvis Presley’s Memphis, which occupied the old Lansky’s store at Beale and Second, and arrived in the Bluff City by Greyhound bus. Things did not turn out as he had hoped.

“It was just crazy,” he said. “There were conflicts between the owners and the management group and the restaurant staff. I worked there for two months and started to think that it wasn’t for me. I went to The Peabody and had an interview with Jose (Gutierrez, former chef at Chez Philippe), and got a job, but I was stupid, I had been smoking marijuana and I couldn’t pass the drug test.”

The list of kitchens where Patrick worked following his departure from Elvis Presley’s Memphis is long and varied. Ciao Baby Cucina, briefly, then River Terrace on Mud Island, after Jimmy Ishii and Erling Jensen had taken over the managing, for a year and a half, and then for a year cooking at Erling Jensen: The Restaurant.

“That’s one of the best stays I had,” Patrick said. “I hadn’t had a chef I respected since Tim Rios, but I really respected Erling. He’s a teacher like no other, he’s like the ultimate general. That’s why he has a line out the door of people that want to work for him.”

After that stint, Patrick went to Ishii’s just-opened Sekisui Pacific Rim.

“Jimmy needed a stronger guy on the American side of the menu, working with Danny Ikelman,” Patrick said. “That gave to the opportunity to open another restaurant.”

By this time, Patrick had been in Memphis for five years. His mother had a stroke, and he went home for three weeks and came back and saw Mac Edwards, who hired him for the kitchen at McEwen’s, working with Jennifer Dickerson and then Johnny Kirk.

“I didn’t realize how jaded I had become,” Patrick said. “By this time I thought I would have a 401(k) and insurance. Johnny taught me to like food again.

I worked with him for a year, and he left to open Stella, and Mac said, OK, you’re the chef. That’s really where I got a feel for Memphis and started to like Memphis, and I thought I could settle down.”

But Patrick seems to possess a restless soul that cannot resist change.

“Well, yeah, Jimmy popped back in the picture. He was going to reopen Elvis Presley’s as EP Delta Kitchen. I didn’t want Mac to know I was talking to Jimmy, because Jimmy said that if I worked for him for two years, he would get me a restaurant. EP opened and was doing good, but after 3 to 4 months it started turning into a club. I was dead set on making it work. I didn’t want to go back to Mac and tell him he was right, because he had said ‘I don’t know if you want to get in bed with Jimmy,’ but the place was unpleasant, the menu was dumbed down and I was demoralized.”

In June 2011, Patrick’s mother died, and he went home to take a break, see his family and consider his options. He thought that he had to open his own restaurant in Memphis or leave town.

In July, back in Memphis, he had lunch at Harry’s Detour South Main a few times, went back for dinner and found it closed.

He tried to put together a deal, even with Ishii backing him, “but I didn’t want to see the Sekisui name on my paycheck. I was really frustrated, and my landlords” – the Grawemeyers – “were, like, why don’t we just partner up.”

By the last week of 2011, Rizzos had been open almost three months.

“It’s been spotty,” Patrick said, “but for the first time in a long time I feel energized. I feel healthier in body and spirit. You, know, it’s the American dream of owning your own business and working for yourself. We plan to open a few more places and make this a destination. Within three years, I should be able to buy my partners out and really have my own place. That’s all I want to do, own a restaurant and feed people.”

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