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Jersey Boy

For much of the 2000s

When Chris Cannon sits down to eat in his restaurant’s cocktail lounge, he can’t help but be constantly distracted; there’s a lot going on, and he has to watch over all of it. At the bar, three women burst into laughter as they sip craft cocktails with names like Holy Terroir and Big Trouble, Little China. Above them, Thunderball plays on the flat-screen TVs. While servers hustle from table to table, Sean Connery’s Bond deftly dispatches an assailant. “It’s a little Mad Men,” Cannon says approvingly of the ambience.

Cannon opened Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen—named after a nearby site where George Washington’s Continental Army camped—in Morristown, N.J., about six months ago. Some 32 miles from New York City, Morristown is the seat of the 10th wealthiest county in the country, but you’d never know it from the caliber of the local restaurants. There’s an abundance of pub-fare eateries with names like the Committed Pig and the Famished Frog and BYOB ethnic spots like La Campagna. But nothing approaches the level of the restaurants Cannon created in the 2000s, when he was the operating partner of midtown Manhattan power-dining spots Marea, Alto and Convivio. For about five years, Cannon may have been the hottest restaurateur in Manhattan. But in early 2011, he was ousted from Marea, the critical favorite on Central Park South. Soon after, Cannon abruptly closed his two remaining restaurants.

Leaving a trail of unanswered questions about what had gone wrong, Cannon retreated to Mountain Lakes, N.J., where his Jersey-born wife, Becky, had convinced him to buy a home. And then—from the perspective of Manhattan foodies, at least—he vanished. Now, after more than three years of work and some $5 million of investor cash, Cannon is making his comeback in a place that nobody, including himself, would have predicted.

When Cannon was 7 years old, he knew he wanted to be a restaurateur. He grew up in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, in the neighborhood now known as Yorkville, the second of four sons. His mother, Liliane, a Greek immigrant, taught him to cook and nurtured his love of food. But it was a high-priced New York dining fixture, Gloucester House, that really sparked Cannon’s fascination with the business. It was the only place his father, John J. Cannon II, a self-employed fiduciary, would take the family out to eat—a rare occasion. “At that time you didn’t take kids out to fancy restaurants,” Cannon says. Though it was considered one of the best seafood spots in the city, Gloucester’s austere New England decor—blue walls, raw hardwood floors, wooden tables—belied its tony clientele, formal service and a seating hierarchy engineered by its fastidious maître d’. “I fell in love with the idea of the restaurateur as this cultured impresario,” Cannon recalls. “I loved the theater of the restaurant business—I wanted to do that.”

Starting college at Tufts, Cannon hoped to acquire the “cultured” part of the description by studying economics and international affairs. But before the end of his freshman year in 1979, his path changed abruptly. While Cannon was home for a vacation, his father suffered a crippling nervous breakdown; Cannon later learned that his father was bipolar.The episode left his father, then 47, dependent on lithium and essentially incapacitated. “He never recovered,” Cannon says.

John Cannon’s illness left the family with many unsettled debts, and Chris had to pay his own way through school. “I was told, well, you’re on your own,” says Cannon. “I was a freshman, 18. It was not easy.” He worked part-time at Gloucester House as a closing manager. A year after he graduated from college—he had transferred to Brown in the meantime—he was working as the restaurant’s chef.

Cannon’s restaurant track since then reads like a history of modern Manhattan dining. Longtime New Yorkers still recall the spots where he cut his teeth as a manager: Palio, Remi, Judson Grill—all were midtown restaurants that attracted an expense-account crowd at lunch while still serving creative, original food. And despite the highly competitive culture of the restaurant world, Cannon made far more friends than enemies as he worked his way upward. “Chris is very well liked,” says Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant in Manhattan and Sonoma, Calif. “He was a familiar face in the New York dining scene for years and had a great reputation.”

After his turn at 52nd Street’s Judson Grill, where he had a minority stake, Cannon opened his own spot, the Italian restaurant L’Impero, with chef Scott Conant in 2002. After L’Impero received rave reviews, in 2005 the pair opened Alto on East 53rd Street. But in 2007, Cannon and Conant became embroiled in a much-publicized dispute that led them to sue each other. (Conant insulted Cannon in a magazine profile; Cannon stopped sending him deferred compensation checks.) The matter was eventually dismissed in court. “The chef felt that, because I was getting no [media attention], he could do whatever he wanted,” Cannon would later tell the New York Observer. Conant demurred, telling the Observer, “At the end of the day, I have real affection for Chris.”

In the meantime, Cannon found a new chef with whom to partner: Michael White, a young cook who had shown promise at a SoHo restaurant. Together, they retooled L’Impero and Alto. After refining Alto’s menu, they received three stars from the New York Times ; at L’Impero, they changed the menu, redecorated the space, renamed it Convivio and scored another three-star review. “We were on a roll,” Cannon says.

Even though the country was skidding into a recession, the partners pushed ahead with plans to open Marea, a $6 million fine-dining seafood restaurant facing Central Park. White brought in another business partner, former Merrill Lynch executive Ahmass Fakahany, as his sole investor. “There was no money in the market, nobody was investing, and this guy comes and offers to put up all the money,” Cannon recalls. “I went against one of my first rules of business, which is not to have only one investor.”

A controversial figure, Fakahany had served as co-president of Merrill Lynch before stepping down in 2008; the book All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera, would later portray him as having helped to create the conditions for that firm’s collapse and subsequent takeover by Bank of America. At Fakahany’s urging, he, Cannon and White formed the Altamarea Group, merging the three restaurants into one company that Fakahany intended to turn into a $100-million-a-year business. That number didn’t sound impossible: Marea opened to enormous critical praise and made more than $15 million in revenue its first year. Plans for two more restaurants were in the works, and Cannon even proposed opening a restaurant in Morristown, N.J., inside a mansion he had seen. His partners nixed the idea.

Maybe that was a sign, because the era of good feelings didn’t last long: Just over a year later, in yet another headline-grabbing spat, White and Fakahany dissolved their partnership with Cannon. “Chris got squeezed out,” consultant Clark Wolf recalls. “The chef he brought on and the other partner were conspiring against him.” Cannon suggests that Fakahany wanted to split revenues two ways rather than three, and he, not chef Michael White, was dispensable. “With one investor you’re at risk. If a guy puts up all the money and he wants you out, he’s going to get you out. Especially when the guy was president of Merrill Lynch and had about $120 million in his bank account,” Cannon says. (Through a spokesperson, Fakahany and White declined to comment for this story.) Cannon walked away with his original two restaurants, Alto and Convivio, but Marea—for which White and Cannon won a James Beard Award for best new restaurant in 2010—was the crown jewel of the three.

At the time, Cannon was also battling a class-action lawsuit brought by several Alto waiters alleging that restaurant managers had skimmed their tips. Cannon was not alone in facing such a suit; from 2007 to 2012, numerous celebrity chefs—Tom Colicchio, Geoffrey Zakarian, Mario Batali, Bobby Flay—and their restaurant groups suffered similar legal troubles. But the years of conflict were wearing Cannon down. Becky Cannon, Chris’ wife of 15 years, remembers the emotional strain her husband was under. “There was a boiling point,” she says. “He had some situational depression. It wasn’t worth it.”

On the morning of March 4, 2011, still reeling from the debacle with his former partners and faced with bitter litigation, Cannon closed both restaurants without warning or explanation. He was just a few months shy of his 50th birthday.

“Pulling the plug was the hardest thing I ever did,” he says now. “It killed me.”

He withdrew to his wife’s family retreat in the Berkshires town of Alford, Mass., where his three children were attending day camp. In June, the lawsuit over tips was settled, with Cannon required to pay the plaintiffs some $300,000. He would spend the rest of that summer “decompressing,” biking 40 to 50 miles per day, cooking for his family and reading books about meditation. “I needed time to figure out just what the hell I wanted to do,” he says. “I thought, I’ve been at the top of my career, I’ve won James Beard Awards—is that all there is?”

At some point, Cannon remembered the shuttered mansion in Morristown, N.J. Built in 1917 by Theodore Vail, the first president of AT&T—he died before moving in—the Vail Mansion had served as Morristown’s town hall for some 75 years. For some of that time, the lower level was a jail. But after the government moved out, the Vail Mansion was empty. The more he thought about it, the more Cannon believed that he could transform the mansion into his next big project. Five months into his self-imposed sabbatical, Cannon went to work on a new farm-to-table “culinary center”—with 30 investors instead of one.

Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, which officially opened its doors last November, is ambitious. Its 15,000-square-foot space contains four separate restaurants—a bar, a dining room, an oyster and wine bar, and a beer hall-cum-event space. Cannon planned for events, particularly charity functions, to be a focus. In September of last year Jockey Hollow held its first fundraiser, which raised $50,000 for a local soup kitchen. “I want this to be a great restaurant, I want it to be respected throughout the whole country,” Cannon says, “but I also want it to be a place people respect because of its role in society.”

So far, Cannon says, the restaurant is in the black, and his challenge is to remain there for the long term; he has a 30-year lease at $20,000 a month. “I think we’re going to do $8.5 million in our first year,” he says.
Cannon claims that he doesn’t dwell on Manhattan glory. “I’ve already conquered New York,” he says. Besides, he adds, New York rents have gotten out of control. Manhattan has become like one big mall. Working in New Jersey, he gets to see his family more. And the type of person who’ll come to his restaurant in Morristown is very different than the Manhattan client.
“The clientele in Manhattan will latch onto something much faster because that’s the nature of the business,” Cannon explains. “Here, they’re a little more wary of new stuff. Getting them to come might take a little longer. But I believe that we’ll have a loyal customer here much longer than in New York.” And after what Cannon has been through, loyalty matters.

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