Zack Bruell slips on a pair of wire-rimmed glasses to study the lineup of food headed for Parallax's dining room. He adds a spurt of lemon juice to a mixed green salad and re-centers a tower of fried green tomatoes before a short, dark-haired man in a polo shirt interrupts him.
"Zack?" the diner says, tapping him on the shoulder. "I'm hoping you can help me. I just bought a rack of lamb. I was wondering how long should I cook it for?"
"How big is the lamb?" Bruell asks, not skipping a beat.
Bruell pauses. "I wouldn't cook it," he decides. "I'd braise it."
"Yes. Braise it. Keep it on for 2 1/2 to three hours."
The man thanks him, and Bruell, confident in his advice, turns back to the orders, which are starting to pile up. Dishes overlap on the counter, the burners are cluttered with used frying pans, while the food tickets buzz in. An assistant pivots between a chicken roasting on the grill and plate of sashimi salad sitting on the line.
"Do you have the desserts?" Bruell barks out. "I need the desserts." Chef du cuisine Jeff Gable puts fresh raspberries and blackberries on a chocolate mousse and raspberry layer cake, passes it to Bruell, then looks briefly heavenward.
In the middle of this firestorm, Bruell smiles. His face, spotted with freckles, lights up with happiness as smile lines push deep into his cheeks, softening the hard lines of his narrow, pointy face.
"We call this civilized ruckus," he says. "What we are doing is marching toward the edge of the cliff. When you get there, you just sort of curl your toes over the edge and hope you don't fall." Bruell's brown eyes sparkle. "I like to go out as far on that cliff as I can."
Friend and fellow chef owner Paul Minnillo texted Bruell two words when he heard the news: "YOU'RE INSANE."
It's not insanity but unfulfillment that drives Bruell to these extremes. He has struggled for years to find the perfect balance of work, life and personal contentment. He has guilt about not being there for his three children and wife, feels unappreciated by Cleveland's current culinary establishment and worries about his legacy. Throughout his life, Bruell has chased happiness the way little children chase bubbles, but he's never been able to hold onto it.
"There is something instilled in me, either fortunately or unfortunately, that I'm never satisfied with what I've got," he says. "There's this internal clock inside me that tells me I'm supposed to be doing better, doing more."
Bruell and his father, Ernest, a fiery son of a second-generation Hungarian Jewish immigrant, had long had a competitive, contentious relationship. Bruell spent his early years trying to make his dad proud. But Ernest saw only one guaranteed road to success: an Ivy League degree followed by a high-profile professional career.
"My dad was a strong individual," Bruell says. "If I was rejecting what he was handing me, I knew no matter what I did I had better do it great."
In 1977, Bruell graduated from The Restaurant School in Philadelphia. Three years later, he went to Santa Monica to work at Michael's, then one of the most innovative restaurants in the country. While there he worked alongside such current culinary notables as Jonathan Waxman of Manhattan's Barbuto and cookbook master Nancy Silverton. He learned about California cuisine, a style of cooking that emphasizes exotic pairings of food and fresh, interesting ingredients.
At Michael's, Bruell made connections with high-end vendors in New York and California that would ship black truffles and fresh grouper to him overnight. "This was a new idea back then," Bruell says. "Most of the ingredients restaurants used were shipped by truck, and menus were limited to what was in season."
But after a few years of sunshine, he came home. "I went back to Cleveland to settle a score with my father," he says.
Bruell was recruited to work at Garland, a high-end, white-tablecloth restaurant inside Mayfield Heights' Landerhaven. He was fired after eight months. "They thought other people could do my job for less money," says the chef. "They were wrong."
So Bruell decided to open the upscale, modern French restaurant Z Contemporary Cuisine in his hometown of Shaker Heights. The menu, he declared, would be known for its classic artistry. Each dish would be handcrafted, designed with the Whitney Museum in mind. The place would not carry lower class items — like white zinfandel or store-bought ice cream. The olive oil would be imported directly from Italy, the caviar from Los Angeles.
The restaurant was a success. But Bruell's father never got to see it. He died of lung cancer a year before Z opened at Tower East.
"My father was lying on the bed in the hospital, and he said to me, 'Zack, you have to let me go.' I couldn't," he says. "I believed if you worked hard enough and fought long enough, you could beat anything. I thought my dad needed to fight more."
The chef dealt with his father's death by spending 90 hours a week at Z, hand-carving duck, working the floor, directing the staff and creating an environment that revolved entirely around himself.
"If I walked off the line, the place would come crashing down," he says.
Bruell, by his own admission, was incorrigible. "Customers would ask for ketchup, and we'd say, 'We don't serve ketchup here,' " he says. "I was not compromising anything. There was no battle I wouldn't fight."
That sentiment bled over to his treatment of the staff. "I was sick in bed for three days, and Zack calls me and says, 'Where are you?' " recalls David Schneider, a former waiter who later became Z's general manager. "And I'd say, 'I'm sick.' And Zack would say, 'I don't care. Get your ass into work.' "
One day, after a terrible maelstrom of words, six waiters went on a lunch break and never came back. "Some days you wanted to wear a football helmet in the kitchen because you didn't know what plates or pans Zack would be throwing," Schneider says.
For a decade, which included a move to Eton Collection in 1992, Bruell kept pushing, obsessing over burned flambé and unappreciative diners. "It was a recipe for burnout," Bruell says. "[The way I was working], there was no light at the end of the tunnel."
And then there was the father-daughter Brownie dance Bruell had promised his daughter he'd attend. The event was on a Saturday night — the busiest night of the week. Bruell had arranged for a manager to take over his spot. But as he was getting ready to go, the phone rang. It was the restaurant. His substitute hadn't shown, and the kitchen was in chaos. Bruell had to come in.
"That was it," Bruell says. "I decided after that I was done."
He thought about opening a business. "I knew if I could run a restaurant, which has a 90 percent failure rate, then I could run any business." But no good opportunities presented themselves.
So in the meantime, he went golfing. The chef had been playing since he was 4, when his parents, both avid golfers, got him started. '#169;Golf, Bruell says, taught him to deal with failure. "In a game, you might only hit two or three balls that are perfect. The question when I'm playing is: How do I deal with that?"
One day, in September 1996, as Bruell was headed to the course, his phone rang. "I remember consciously thinking, Should I get it? and deciding yes."
On the line was Ken Stewart, the owner of a popular Akron steakhouse. "I'd like to talk to you, Zack," he said.
"I'm not interested," Bruell replied, knowing where this was headed. "I'm no longer in the restaurant scene."
Stewart's head chef had left, and he wanted Bruell. "Just through the next three months," Stewart said.
Bruell paused. "The clock in the back of my mind was ticking. I had to get back to work. I had a family to support," he says.
Three months turned into eight years. At first, Bruell struggled with his ego. He was used to being the star; the role of stage manager was ill-tasting to him. "But Ken paid me a lot of money, and I had three kids I wanted to watch grow up. I had to grow up myself and face the fact that life is not just about me," he says.
On his end, Stewart gave Bruell free rein in the kitchen. This was Bruell's saving grace, the thing that allowed him to endure eight years outside the spotlight. Bruell created a minimum of 30 new specials every day. "The waiters hated me," he says with a laugh.
A few years into his tenure at Ken Stewart's Grille, Bruell, hoping to better his golf game, went to see a sports shrink. The problem, the psychologist said, was Bruell's attitude. He was too much of a perfectionist, too critical of himself. He couldn't still his mind.
The psychologist taught Bruell breathing exercises. It helped him get over his ego. He began to recognize some of the traits that made Ken Stewart's so successful, such as the entree sizes. "The portions I felt were way oversized," he says. "But his customers kept returning. I learned something about the value-received perception. Customers felt they were getting a good value on their food."
The patrons, Bruell also realized, weren't perfectionists who study each morsel of fish and judge it; they were at the restaurant to "laugh and escape life and travel to another place for two or three hours."
"Ken Stewart taught me how I could take my food and make it mainstream," Bruell says. "[The restaurant] taught me how to have a life."
Try as he might, Bruell couldn't suppress the voice. "I still had this drive, this need to succeed," he says.
So in 2004, Bruell started looking for a new place of his own. He wanted an inexpensive spot in an urban neighborhood that could support a modern fish and sushi lounge. That September, he closed on a small space on Fairfield and West 11th Street in Tremont that once housed Kosta's restaurant. Parallax opened 57 days later as a 74-seat seafood restaurant and bar with a sleek, industrial feel. From the beginning, everything felt different.
"I had already proved myself in my last life," Bruell says. "I didn't have to prove I was good. I knew I was. I just came into the business wanting to have a good time."
Bruell's attitude wasn't the only thing that had changed. Bruell took himself out of the chef line and, instead, served as the kitchen's final overseer. The difference was immediate. "Before, it was like I was playing the violin in the orchestra," Bruell says. "I couldn't put the violin down in the middle of the song and step out. Now I could mingle and talk to people. It changes your mindset completely."
As time went on, Bruell forced himself to let go of his rigidity. "For the first 10 years, it was all about the food," he says. "Now I wanted the restaurant to be about the experience as well."
From the first day Parallax opened, the restaurant was packed, and reservations were impossible to come by. "People were calling, saying they were friends of Zack, friends of mine. I said, 'That's great, but I can't even get my mom in,' " says Schneider, with a laugh. "She was not happy with me."
On the anniversary of the restaurant's opening, Wine Spectator magazine declared Parallax "the big hit of the year."
In 2006, he saw an article in the paper, mentioning that the chef of the Cleveland Clinic's new restaurant at the InterContinental had left. Bruell dialed up Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove, an old associate of his from the Z days.
"What are you doing here?" Bruell recalls asking him. "Are you trying to make money? Because if you're interested in making money, you know there's only one person in this whole city who can turn this place around."
"That's you," Bruell remembers Cosgrove saying.
"That's me," he agreed.
He opened his second restaurant, Table 45, in 2007 with a focus on world cuisine. The style of cooking combines well-known ethnic entrees, such as Chinese noodles and Indian naan, with French and American seasoning. Customers at Table 45 come from throughout the world, so "I wanted to create dishes that felt familiar to people, but cooked in a way people had never experienced before," Bruell says.
The chef named the restaurant after his favorite seat at Parallax — Table 45, a corner booth that looks directly onto the kitchen.
Table 45, known for its sparse design and complex, layered menu, quickly gained a following among Cleveland Clinic staff, families of patients and local devotees of Bruell's cosmopolitan style.
The same year he opened Table 45, he learned That Place on Bellflower, a University Circle historic carriage house where Bruell had once worked during college, was closing. The proprietors were looking for a new owner.
Bruell decided to contact them. The chef walked through the space, with its brick fireplace and floors and wide floor-to-ceiling windows.
"What do you want to do with this place?" the proprietors asked.
Bruell thought for a second, then said, "French brasserie."
"Right away, I knew the concept was perfect," he says.
It was also a fit for the city's cultural center, a neighborhood that's home to the Cleveland Orchestra, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Bruell signed the deal for L'Albatros in August 2008. From the second day, everything went wrong. The plumbing was faulty. The pipes in the bathroom were filled with grease. The roof had to be redone. The economy tanked. And Bruell totally misunderstood the orchestra schedule.
"I was banking on the crowds from the orchestra supporting the restaurant," Bruell says. "I thought the orchestra played every weekend. Turns out they didn't play every weekend. And they didn't play at Severance at all during the summer."
"I thought I was f---ed," Bruell says.
It turned out just the opposite.
The restaurant, with its rich, heavy dishes such as chicken confit with St. Paulin cheese and truffle butter and boeuf a la bourguignonne with burgundy reduction, does the most volume of any of Bruell's restaurants.
"In this business, I'm looking for a double, but L'Albatros was a home run," the chef says.
But still Bruell wasn't done.
The waiter brings out a plate of fried baby artichokes, its florets browned and delicate.
"I first had this dish in the Jewish ghetto in Rome," Bruell says. "They fry the artichoke, let it cool, flatten it and refry it, adding lemon juice."
When the chef decided in 2009 to open Chinato, he knew he needed a completely different concept. "I didn't want to cannibalize my business," he says. "If they were all the same, one would suffer. That's why each one is different."
Bruell noticed an absence of gourmet Italian food downtown. So he decided to open an Italian restaurant, just down the street from Lola, Michael Symon's famous American-fusion restaurant on East Fourth.
It should have been a great symbiotic relationship. But from the beginning, there was tension between the two chefs.
It started with the national publicity Symon received after the opening of Lola in 1997. The upscale, meat-centered boutique restaurant and the ever-smiling, tattoo-covered chef-owner behind the place caught the eye of Gourmet magazine, which named Lola one of America's best restaurants, and the burgeoning Food Network, which tapped Symon in 1998 to guest-star in Sara's Secrets with Sara Moulton, Ready, Set, Cook and Food Nation with Bobby Flay.
The attention wasn't the problem, so much as the message. The press acted as if Symon was a savior, who had swept in to save Cleveland from mediocre cuisine. In all the articles and TV appearances, there was no mention of Bruell's influence — or how he helped get Cleveland to its current position on the culinary map.
Friends say the lack of acknowledgment upsets Bruell. The chef, however, claims he has moved past it. "I was the pioneer, I know that. There was a lot I had to go through to make it easy for others," Bruell says. "But in life, the ones who are the pioneers are not always the ones who are the richest or most famous."
Symon didn't return calls for this story, but others agree that Bruell has been influential. "Zack started the food revolution in cuisine, in terms of getting people to appreciate good cuisine," says Paul Minnillo, the owner of Flour in Moreland Hills and former owner of the Baricelli Inn. "For many years, Cleveland had been living on some pretty mediocre cuisine. Zack's done a lot for the region, and he hasn't really gotten the recognition he deserves."
Bruell, unfortunately, was 20 years ahead of the time. "There was no Food Network era when Zack was making his first splash, which is too bad," Minnillo says. "But the Food Network is not looking for anyone in their 50s right now, even though Zack is probably one of the best [chefs] in the country."
The distance between Bruell and Symon also relates to their differing personalities, which mesh about as well as orange juice and Oreos. While Symon is known for his chatty, outgoing, proud Rust Belt personality, Bruell is often accused of arrogance, which he plays up with his embrace of classical French cooking, Yves St. Laurent belt buckles, and his unwillingness to play and hang out with other chefs.
Bruell doesn't deny these evaluations. "I am confident in my abilities. This can sometimes be misconstrued as arrogance," he says. "I've been in the business for 37, 38 years, which is a lot longer than others who have only been doing this for 10 or 15 years."
"I have a chip on my shoulder. It's true," he adds. "It's what keeps me going."
And the isolationist attitude, Bruell claims, is necessary for his survival. "I am running four restaurants," he says. "For me, running a restaurant is like hosting a party. When I'm done with the party, the last thing I want to do is go to another party. I want to go to bed."
To Bruell, the restaurant business is about survival, not friendships. "Am I competitive [with Symon]?" Bruell asks. "Yes. But then I'm also competitive with McDonald's."
Bruell says his biggest competition is himself. "In my head, I am always thinking that I can go out of business tomorrow," he says. "In this business, you are only as good as your last restaurant. You could be a fan for 25 years; we screw up one meal, and all of a sudden I'm no good anymore. I am on the hot seat every single night."
"We want the place to look well-worn but with a polish to it," he says. The menu, which now exists only in his head, consists of rich, succulent dishes such as a truffle cauliflower broth served with sea scallops, espresso-dusted calf liver with pickled carrots, and beef ceviche.
But Bruell is unsure whether he will meet his self-imposed opening deadline. Because the building is more than 50 years old, Bruell is working with the state historic preservation board as he moves forward with construction — a detail that is giving him many headaches.
"I have to be patient and respect the process," he says of making sure certain elements of the building are maintained. "But at the same time, I wanted everything done yesterday."
Bruell says he wasn't specifically looking for new opportunities. But in January, representatives of the PlayhouseSquare board met with him to brainstorm a list of restaurateurs who would work well in the space. They wanted a classy, refined restaurant and asked Bruell for suggestions. "I went home to think about it," Bruell says. "I came back to them and said, 'I guess I'm you're guy.' "
The timing fit. It had been about a year since Bruell opened Chinato, and the chef was starting to feel that familiar itch. The location was promising, too. "PlayhouseSquare had a shortage of good restaurants," he says, and the space, with its storied past and soaring ceilings, inspired him. "I feel like I'm resurrecting some sort of history."
There is a parallel between the restoration of the landmark space and Bruell's own re-emergence. "Most people don't get second chances," he says. "I didn't get what I needed the first time around. I'm blessed I got a second chance."
Given the opportunity, Bruell has no intention of squandering it. "I have the mind of a 28-year-old in the body of a 58-year-old," he says. "I'm not slowing down. The foot's on the accelerator down to the floor."
After Cowell and Hubbard opens, Bruell will likely turn his attention to another city. "I've opened all my restaurants in Cleveland, mostly during down markets. I'd like to see now how I'd operate in a market that's booming," he says.
And after that, well, who knows? Bruell sees no point in pondering retirement. The long hours of free time would torture him. "I'm forever going to look at my life and think I could have done better," he says.
"Truthfully," he says with a grin, "I see myself going down with my boots on."