Too Many Cooks …

How John Mims went from name chef to culinary outcast.

Celebrated (and embattled) local chef John Mims (Photo by Steve Legato)There’s something a little odd about clicking on a restaurant’s homepage and seeing a photo of its chef lounging with a glass of wine. On the one hand, it says, “Welcome to my restaurant—come on in.” On the other, it makes you wonder what’s getting the bigger play: the art or the artist.

If you ask Penn Valley’s Howard Taylor, partner in Philadelphia’s Les Bons Temps and Carmine’s in Bryn Mawr, he’ll tell you it was the latter. “Was” because, as of last August, Taylor booted his chef, John Mims, from both restaurants, claiming mismanagement of funds, falsification of financial records and more. For the record, no formal allegations were presented in court, and Mims hasn’t been accused of any criminal activity, according to Mims’ lawyer, Albert Oehrle.

But Mims has been accused of breaching a no-compete agreement that prohibits him from working, consulting for or owning a restaurant or “competing business” within 10 miles of Carmine’s, should the partnership with Taylor be terminated. Oehrle argues that enforcing this requires “just cause”—which, despite the list of grievances, he doesn’t believe Taylor has.

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From Taylor’s perspective, however, it’s clear-cut: partnership over, no-compete invoked. Done deal.

His name synonymous with Carmine’s, Mims has earned a reputation as the don of homestyle Cajun-Creole cuisine, operating out of modest digs in Havertown before moving to Narberth. And he’s not taking things lying down. “I’m really confused over the whole thing,” he says. “If the allegations were true, why didn’t he prove it?”

Taylor’s response: I just want this whole thing to go away.

In essence, it’s a classic “he said, he said” battle, with both sides pointing fingers. And from the minute the mudslinging began, foodies have jumped on the drama. “John Mims Out!” read an August post on Foobooz.com, confirming rumors that Taylor was unhappy with Mims’ handling of the kitchen—and the checkbook—at both restaurants. An attorney turned restaurateur, Taylor tried to play it down. But when asked about the rumors that Mims had burned through a lot of money, he didn’t deny them.

Then, in September, Mims resurfaced at Freehouse in Wayne, less than five miles from Carmine’s. At first, Taylor let it go as he focused on the stability of his restaurants—especially Les Bons Temps, which had been struggling.

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“I didn’t have a problem with John working at Freehouse,” says Taylor. “I’m a lawyer running two restaurants, trying to recover my losses—my life. I really wasn’t prepared to be a full-time restaurateur. I wanted to do this for fun. This is not fun.”

Then the name on the Freehouse marquee changed—to Mims. Taylor sent over a note about the “restrictive covenant,” pointing out to the owners that hiring Mims was a violation. “Their [non-] response was a slap in the face,” says Taylor.

For his part, Mims laments the poor communication between he and Taylor. “If we had talked about things—the books, the rumors, breaking up the partnership—I wouldn’t be here today,” he says. “At one point, I asked him if he wanted me out, but he told me, ‘No, I’d have to sell without you.’”
 

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Mims says he sensed early on that the partners had overextended themselves. Bryn Mawr hadn’t taken off the way they’d anticipated, and with the added expenses of Les Bons Temps and a slew of maintenance costs, things were tenuous. There were power struggles over the firing and rehiring of a staffer at Carmine’s—Mims wanted someone out, Taylor wanted him back.

And Mims hadn’t read the fine print on the initial contract. It made him a 50 percent net-profit shareholder, but he was a salaried employee, not a true partner. “I definitely felt like my head was on the chopping block,” says Mims. “Howard wasn’t communicating with me. I was keeping ledgers, but all the [bank] statements were going to his office—it didn’t make sense. It took seven months for a meeting to take place.”

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When the two finally did meet, Mims says Taylor told him “to seek council.”

“I don’t think popular opinion supports what he thinks he is,” says Taylor of Mims. “He’s not as good as he thinks he is.”

From Taylor’s perspective, things started to sour when they headed to Center City. “Checks started bouncing, and John wasn’t spending enough time in the kitchen,” says Taylor. “He was still planning menus, but he wasn’t doing much cooking. I knew it was a problem when people that I respect in the business started taking me aside and telling me that I had to get John back in the kitchen or it would be a problem.”

Les Bons Temps executive chef Brett Naylor witnessed the restaurant’s struggle and the rapid degeneration of the partners’ relationship. “We opened in April [2008], and by the end of May, I noticed a drastic decline,” he recalls. “John was always open with me, and it was around that time that he started complaining about Howard. How I took it was that Howard wasn’t thrilled with business.”

Mims admits that he increased his visibility outside the kitchen. “Les Bons Temps hit a slump, and I wanted a better view of the service—and to see how the kitchen held up when I was out of the way,” he says. “I’ve always done laps. My customers are used to seeing me out there.”

Taylor saw Mims’ confrontational temperament as another liability. “There were actually fistfights between he and customers in Bryn Mawr,” he says. “Now that he’s out, people have come forward saying they’d stopped coming because of something they didn’t like about him.”

Mims admits to ejecting customers. “I’ve told five people to leave in the past five years,” he says. “But a fistfight? One of my rules is don’t beat up the customer.”

Personality traits aside, there’s still the issue of money. Taylor says he put up at least $650,000 for Carmine’s and all of the money for Les Bons Temps. And right now, no one knows how it will all end. But it’s clear what Taylor wants.

“I think I set forth a good proposal: Disappear, take the sign down, keep the covenant, and don’t ever bother me again,” Taylor says. “He can walk away from the financial end, but he’s not going to get anything out of this. I wasn’t trying to ruin this guy’s life; he was trying to ruin mine.”

Meanwhile, Mims has resurfaced with a pair of new restaurants in Phoenixville: New Orleans Pizza Kitchen and the Creole-style BYO Daddy Mims.

“I’m a 47-year-old man,” says Mims. “This is all I’ve ever done.”
 

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