Silver Spoons: Marlin Kaplan

Since 1993, chef Marlin Kaplan has opened five Cleveland restaurants and closed three. Ten years after launching the elegant One Walnut downtown, the native New Yorker is celebrating the first anniversary of Luxe, a quirky and relaxed Detroit Shoreway spo
Back in the late ’80s, I was a senior vice president at an advertising agency in New York. I was 35-ish, and I needed a different career. So I talked my way into some kitchens.

It was a total fluke. I walked into a kitchen, and I filled out an application for a job I had no business doing, but the chef gave me a chance. I didn’t know one end of a frying pan from another.

One of the first things I learned is if you want to learn how to peel potatoes, you don’t ask the chef how to do it. You ask the dishwasher. He’ll show you the best way.

Being in the business world, you could work on a project for months and, in the end, it may never get done. You share ideas, and the client may decide it’s not something they want.

In a kitchen, you come in, you cook the meals, you clean up, and you go home. It’s a very satisfying thing that in an eight-hour stretch you’ve done something.

I love making pizza. It reminds me of New York.

There’s no real trick. You just need to keep enough flour in the dough. And it needs to be fresh dough. And you need to work on the dough to make it the right consistency. That’s what’s really going to make a difference.

I opened my first restaurant, Marlin, in 1993. Opening a restaurant was not a part of the plan. I wanted to cook, but I hadn’t really thought about running my own place.

The first Saturday night at Marlin I was in the kitchen by myself, and the serve staff, who didn’t know me that well, was standing around looking at me. It was five minutes to 7. And the place was empty. And I’m like, “What did I do?” And by 7:10, the entire dining room was filled. From that day on, it was busy every night.

In those 15 minutes I was petrified. Then it was such a rush.

Luxe is the antithesis of One Walnut. And that was my intention. For all the glamour and sleekness of that restaurant, this restaurant would be quirky, whimsical and approachable.

There are a lot of parallels between Luxe and my first restaurant. From its inception, I thought a lot about that little restaurant. I’ve tried to capture that essence. And I think I have.

When I first came to Cleveland, I wasn’t aware of what people really wanted. I served swordfish, and it sold OK. The general manager said, “We should have walleye.” And in 1991, walleye wasn’t in New York. So I learned what walleye was, and I put it on the menu. And we couldn’t keep enough of it.

My wife, who is my business partner, has really shown me a way to relate to people, relate to our staff and our customers that I probably would not have thought of 20 years ago. She’s presented me with some humbleness that we all need to have.

Somebody described the food here as “Midwestern panache with sensibility.” It’s food that you can understand. It’s not overly garnished. Not exotic. It’s food that you want to have on a daily basis.

I made Luxe green-friendly. The drop cloth in the window was what we used when we were painting. The chairs are from the old New York Spaghetti House. The kitchen doors are from Tower City. The runners are from sackcloths farmers use.

Eggs.They say if you really want to know if someone can cook, give them an egg and see what they do with it.

As a chef, you have to be flexible. You can apply that to the rest of your life. There’s other ways of approaching a problem. You have to have an open mind. If you’re cooking something or you want to learn about cooking something, you have to put your ego aside and say, “I don’t know anything about this, and I’m just going to listen and learn, and I’ll learn faster if I do that.”

Some locations are built for restaurants and some aren’t.

I have always operated in the ones that aren’t, but I make them go. Marlin was built on a little tiny side street off East Sixth. No one would ever have said this was a great location, and it was the most popular restaurant downtown. One Walnut is in an off location — no one knows where Walnut Avenue and Ninth Street is — but I made it go. And no one would think that 65th and Detroit is a great location, but it works.

I don’t know what the secret is.

For my last meal, I would eat pizza. Plain with tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese.
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