Attila Gyulai and Thai Dang in Embeya’s early days
“I was taken advantage of,” says a quiet, almost despondent Thai Dang. Sitting in a Streeterville coffeeshop, looking off in the distance, the former Chef and Partner at Embeya recounted the mind-numbing last few days. Just a few weeks ago, he was leading a culinary tour back to his homeland of Vietnam, along with his new wife in tow, allowing her to see his beloved country for the first time, through his eyes, (and his stomach). Then on March 31st, just a few days after returning, his business partner of three years, Attila Gyulai, sat him down and gave him the news he still can’t quite believe: he was being fired.
The path from critical (and media) darling, award winner, accolade accruer and talented chef, to that of an unemployed cook isn’t that long, and from the outside, seems plenty heartbreaking. Especially when your house, as well as your brother’s home, are collateral on a Small Business Association loan you took out to build your own restaurant. “I’m not rich, and neither is my family,” said Dang, still stinging from last week’s encounter. “Embeya is my nickname, and my family put up quite a bit of money to help launch it.” Dang says the investors have been paid off, but he still has a myriad of legal barbed wire to get through, not to mention all of his equipment and personal items which are sitting in the restaurant named after him, but due to the locks being changed, he is unable to step foot inside. Reached this morning by phone, Mr. Gyulai would only say “it doesn’t serve any purpose except gossip at this point. I wish him the best and I’m gonna leave it at that.”
Like so many restaurant stories, this one stems from youthful exuberance and naïveté, with a touch of urgency. Both Dang and Gyulai worked at the Elysian Hotel in the Gold Coast, and in 2011, with the restaurant there about to close, both men forged a friendship and expressed a mutual desire to open their own place. Dang had worked for Laurent Gras, a Chicago short-timer who garnered three Michelin stars at L20 then promptly left town. But even at the age of 26, Dang felt he was ready to lead his own kitchen. Gyulai had his attorney draft the paperwork, and after raising more than $1 million dollars, the restaurant opened on West Randolph serving Dang’s own interpretation of progressive Asian. “It was two people getting together because the Elysian was dying, not some story about how he and his wife ‘discovered’ me,” he said.
“I never looked at the operating agreement,” a somber Dang admitted, somewhat sheepishly, knowing this could be one of his biggest regrets. According to Dang, Gyulai told him last week that he was the majority owner, with slightly more than 55% of the business. This allowed him to make changes as he wished, which included letting the chef go whenever he pleased. Dang said he wasn’t leaving. “Then I’ll call the cops,” came the response. Dang went upstairs and gathered his team. “I have to let you know my partner terminated my position,” he told them all. “They said ‘we’re gonna pack our knives.’ They wanted answers,” Dang said. As all of this was going down, Dang says Gyulai hurriedly offered the staff jobs. The move backfired: while they waited for the police to arrive, as a sign of solidarity, all 18 of his crew quit in protest, thus forcing Embeya to close, and Gyulai releasing a statement saying the chef had left, but the restaurant would reopen on April 15 with a kitchen helmed by “a nationally-acclaimed chef.” Reading that infuriated Dang, which is why he talked to The Tribune’s Phil Vettel to set the record straight, and is now beginning to share his side of the story.
The problems, according to Dang, began about a year ago. His wife, Danielle Pizzutillo, was let go as a Beverage Manager, because, he says, she began questioning Gyulai’s business acumen and judgement. Dang recounted stories of how, while he was away, Gyulai would make impromptu changes to the menu, or, seeing a particularly well-to-do customer, would suddenly be all over them, and have someone appear tableside to carve steaks with butter sauce. “We’re a progressive Asian restaurant! I knew this wasn’t gonna last much longer,” he said. About the same time, according to Dang, Gyulai’s wife – Komal Patel – became more involved in the business, as well as the Director of Sales and Marketing. On the restaurant’s website, her bio says she was “director of sales at Milborne Real Instate Inc., a top boutique real estate sales and marketing brokerage based in Toronto. It was there that Komal honed her ability to build relationships and see a project through from start to finish. In 2012, she seamlessly translated this passion to developing the Embeya concept.” But Dang says it was all a ruse to build the couple’s reputation as up-and-coming restaurateurs. “They wanted to be the next Rob [Katz] Kevin [Boehm, of the Boka Group], or Donnie [Madia, from One Off Hospitality]. He loved wearing that medal around his neck [for Best Service] after the Banchet Awards. By erasing me, he thought he would win. I feel it was just ego-driven.”
Dang’s biggest concern at this point, is that Gyulai and his wife will run the business into the ground, thus wreaking havoc on the SBA loan’s collateral – his brother’s as well as his own home. Gyulai confirms he has a chef in place who is working on a completely revamped menu, and is prepared to announce their name this Friday, with a reopening scheduled for April 15th. The restaurant’s Twitter account was last active in early January, but the information still lists Dang as Executive Chef.
As for the next chapter, Dang and his wife have already begun picking up the pieces and making their plans, even if the legal nightmare of Embeya is far from over. His next project – Haisous – is well underway, with a potential location on the North Side already mapped out. Hai means “two,” while sous has two meanings: “to rise” as well as “pennies.” He says he and his wife are going to put their two pennies together – counting only on each other, as well as their immediate family – to create the city’s first truly authentic Vietnamese restaurant. “I’m done with the refinement,” he says, sounding like Bill Kim, circa 2008. “I will fine-tune the technique, but I want a true Vietnamese restaurant done really well; the service and food, but also teaching people about our culture. My regular customers like those flavors, so I’m going to try to rebuild again.”
His recent trip back home, to cook with his family and to expose his wife to the ways of local chefs – never buying more than they could possibly cook in one day – inspired him. From the Vietnamese coffee to the homemade rice flour sheets he’ll use to make spring rolls and the homemade batter he’ll create for his crispy banh xeo, instead of using a powdered mix like most local restaurants, Dang becomes animated, almost giddy with enthusiasm when he talks about his next chapter. “We’re going to execute a little higher than on Argyle,” he says with a boyish grin. “I can sleep well knowing I’ve done everything I could and that I’ve done it with integrity.”