In 2004, it seemed that Jimmy Sneed, hired to open a major resort restaurant in Las Vegas, had finally outrun his stretch of raw deals and was on his way to the kind of rock-star celebrity enjoyed by big-time TV chefs. But instead the Redneck chef is back in town again, chasing new projects. Just what was it that brought him backto River City?
The hot dog was his undoing.
Jimmy Sneed, the Richmond celebrity chef, famed for his uber-popular 1993-2001 Shockoe Slip restaurant The Frog and the Redneck, signed a much-ballyhooed contract in 2004 with billionaire casino impresario Steve Wynn. Sneed was to open a signature restaurant, Jimmy Sneed’s at The Country Club, at the $2.7 billion, 215-acre Wynn Las Vegas resort. But just a few weeks before the mega-resort’s April 2005 grand opening, it was announced that Sneed and Wynn had parted ways.“The rumor was he refused … to put a hot dog on his menu,” says Elizabeth Blau, former executive vice president of restaurant development for Wynn Resorts. “That wasn’t exactly false, but that had nothing to do with the parting of the ways … though we did have some very amusing, heated words about the hot dog.”
Actually, the hot dog was just the last in a series of disputes that arose when the headstrong, passionate Sneed bristled at corporate control and bureaucracy.
“I think Jimmy loves his independence,” says Blau, who’s now a restaurant consultant in Las Vegas. She adds, “We just mutually decided it was best for him to get back to the independent restaurant world. … It was disappointing for me.”
Sneed starts to tell the story saying, “When I resigned …” and then clarifies: “I resigned [from Wynn]. Almost nobody gets fired in Vegas. You resign.”
Problems started when Sneed insisted on interviewing and hiring his own waiters instead of having a staff assigned to him by hotel management. “I explained to them I need to have waiters who believe in my food and Jimmy Sneed. I want them to want to work for me, not to be assigned to me. So I went ahead anyway and interviewed all my waiters, and I hired the best wait staff in the hotel.”Sneed thought the suits at Wynn admired his initiative. But then came the hot dog incident.Weeks before opening, Blau came by to check out Sneed’s menu, which included his favorite seafood dishes. Blau said to him, “There’s no hot dog on your menu. You’re overlooking the golf course. There might be some golfers that want hot dogs.” But Sneed says he wanted “nothing but the best food on my menu.” He told Blau he’d be glad to make somebody a hot dog if they requested it; he just didn’t want it on the menu. “I never said I wouldn’t serve a hot dog,” Sneed says with a sigh. But “apparently some people in management made a big deal out of this. … If they had come back to me and they said, ‘You need to put a hot dog on the menu,’ I’m sure I would have. But it never got that far.”
The Country Club restaurant at Wynn Las Vegas is now run by a relatively unknown young chef, Blau says, and it serves golfers standard fare like steaks … and hot dogs.
Blau had heard about Sneed from the late Jean-Louis Palladin, the legendary French chef who had been Sneed’s mentor. She approached Sneed at the Charleston, S.C., restaurant he ran briefly after The Frog and the Redneck closed. “I was just charmed by him from the moment I met him,” says Blau, who says she had “the best crab cake I had ever tasted” when she sampled Sneed’s food.
Wynn Resorts hired Sneed and several other well-known chefs, Sneed says. “Vegas was getting a bad rap because all the famous chefs were lending their names [to Vegas restaurants], but the chefs were never there.”
Sneed and his wife of 28 years, Stacey, drove to Vegas on Sneed’s 2001 BMW touring motorcycle. They had dinner at Steve Wynn’s house, and Sneed was personally interviewed by the sight-impaired billionaire, who made the news in fall 2006 for accidentally putting his elbow through a $139 million Picasso painting while showing it to friends.
“Steve Wynn himself named the restaurant [Jimmy Sneed’s at the Country Club], and I was really honored because nobody else had their first and last name on their restaurant,” Sneed recalls. “My promise to Steve Wynn was I was going to give him the best restaurant I could give him.”Instead, Sneed found himself and his wife biking back to the East Coast.
Today they’re back in Richmond, where their three 20-something children and 2-year-old granddaughter live. He and his wife live in a house off Cherokee Road near the Pony Pasture.Now 54, Sneed’s hair is a little shorter than it was in his halcyon The Frog and the Redneck days, and his hair and beard are sprinkled with gray. His pale blue eyes are framed by a few more lines that crease when he smiles, which he does often.
Sneed’s involved in a restaurant partnership with a friend, and he’s been consulting for other restaurants, like Berry Hill Plantation Resort in South Boston. But friends and onlookers can’t help but wonder if he’ll open another signature restaurant like The Frog in Richmond again.
Sneed himself says he’s considering it.
The Master of PR
Almost every Hollywood celebrity who came to town to film a movie or miniseries in the 1990s made a stop to dine at the bistro owned and run by Sneed, The Frog and the Redneck. (Sneed refuses to drop celeb names, saying, “C’mon … that’s crass, dude.”) AAA awarded the restaurant four diamonds, and major national food reviewers lauded Sneed. He was a constant presence in Richmond media.
Sneed also became known in Richmond for his unique “uniform” — a beard and shaggy mulleted hair with a white chef’s smock and cowboy boots. He was such a recognizable figure and such a master of PR that he became his restaurant’s own mascot: Outside his restaurant stood a large wooden cartoon cutout painting of Sneed, a gift from Sneed’s friend, Happy the Artist.Buddy Bruce “Buz” Grossberg, owner of Buz and Ned’s Real Barbecue, jokes that Sneed is so well-known for his boots that “if you put a camera in his bedroom, he might be sleeping in his cowboy boots.”
“I wear cowboy boots 24-7,” says Sneed proudly, seemingly confirming Grossberg’s goof, and showing off his reddish pair of crocodile-tail boots. He wears only Lucchese boots — the same top-of-the-line brand cowboy boots sported by Richmond Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and former U.S. Sen. George Allen.
Ardently anti-Bush administration, Sneed doesn’t like being put in the same category as Allen, but it’s happened before, he says with a laugh, recalling a charity auction where he shared a stage with Allen and country singer Jimmy Dean, who lives in Varina. “One of my friends heard somebody in the audience say, ‘Look at that: Richmond’s three biggest a--holes all wear cowboy boots.’ ” Sneed howls laughing. “It’s one of the funniest things I’ve heard in my life!”
Sneed also parlayed his success at Frog into a national spokesman gig for Vita-Mix blenders and a long friendship with the late celebrity TV chef Julia Child, with whom he appeared as a featured chef in her series, In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs. (It’s still available on DVD.)
Sneed was surprised in 1993 when he received a call “out of the blue” from Julia Child’s producers. She had apparently read a review of Sneed’s cooking and invited him to appear in the Master Chefs series, which was shot in the famous kitchen of her Cambridge, Mass., home. He cooked soft-shell crabs — which led to a minor disaster when the live crabs he brought to demonstrate how to tell a ripe crab (or “peeler”) died overnight in the aquarium and made Child’s kitchen reek.
But Child’s the same lady who would drop a chicken on the floor on television and put it in the oven anyway. “She demystified the process. She made food real,” Sneed says. “She would say, ‘Oh for crying out loud, it’s just food!’ ” She reminded Sneed that he had soft-shell crabs already ready to be prepared for cooking, and they soldiered on. The show was a success.
A month later, Child called to invite the Sneeds to her birthday party. Child came and then visited The Frog and the Redneck in spring 1994 to much fanfare and media hoopla. She later invited Jimmy Sneed to appear with her at houseware shows. Over the years, he’d send her tapioca pudding; she’d call and chat with Sneed’s wife and children. In 2004, when Child died at age 91, “she died at 3:30 in the morning and at 6:30, they called me,” Sneed recalls. “I was on a list of people she wanted called when she passed. I actually cried right there.”
Child knew, like many gourmets, that Sneed had apprenticed under French chef Jean-Louis Palladin at his restaurant at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., from 1981 to 1987. The “frog” in The Frog and the Redneck was a nod to Palladin and Sneed’s roots in French cooking.
There were only two “Michelin chefs” in America in the 1980s — chefs who had received the Michelin Guide’s hallowed three-star rating. One was Palladin; the other was German chef Gunther Seeger, who ran a restaurant in Atlanta. Sneed worked for both of them in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s.A pre-law student in Florida, Sneed went to France in summer 1973 to study. He ended up broke and hungry and begged for work at a Cordon Bleu cooking school. His French was good, so they hired him to translate cooking lessons for American students. The cooking bug bit; Sneed dropped out of college and pursued a dream of becoming a chef.
He landed a prestigious job almost immediately, working as sous chef at the Republican Club of Capitol Hill. But he wasn’t learning anything. “I had this epiphany: If this is going to condemn me to a life of mediocre cooking, I’m going to quit cooking. Or I’m going to find a master to teach me how to cook.”
After having his epiphany, Sneed went to the French Embassy and learned about Palladin. Sneed ardently pursued the master chef, and eventually Palladin hired Sneed, who became his sous chef, de facto publicist and whipping boy.
Palladin was infamous for hurling invectives in the kitchen. Sneed recalls, “I’d sit him down and say, ‘Jean-Louis, you’re just such an a--hole,’ and he’d say, ‘Yes, a lot of people tell me that.’ … For three or four weeks, he’d be great, and then one night something would set him off and he’d start screaming at me. That’s why I left the first time.”
Sneed tries to value his kitchen staff and cultivate talent, he says, but his own former head chef from The Frog and the Redneck, Dale Reitzer (who now runs his own acclaimed restaurant, Acacia, in Carytown) says Sneed was “a big-time yeller” in the kitchen. “He’s intense. The best way to say it is he’s passionate and tough, but he’s great and he sticks by you.”
Sneed can be “rough around the edges,” Reitzer says. “A lot of people [in Richmond] have a huge bad opinion about him.” But he adds, “If he believes in you or thinks you’re a good person, he’ll go out of his way to help you.”
To Reitzer, Sneed’s been like a big brother or a father. They’ve gone whitewater kayaking, deep-sea fishing and skydiving together. “He’s my mentor. I wouldn’t be where I am or achieved what I have without him. … He really cares about what he does and what he believes in, and you can’t hold that against him.”
Away From the Numbers
Sneed’s latest project is being a partner in Carena’s Jamaican Grille, a second location for the Jamaica House, which serves authentic Jamaican cuisine out of a small but busy space at 1215 W. Broad St. near Virginia Commonwealth University. It’s owned and operated by his good friend Carena Ives, and Sneed’s daughter Kalie works as a cashier there.
He and Ives are opening the restaurant in an old Friendly’s at Midlothian Turnpike and Chippenham Parkway near the long-defunct Cloverleaf Mall. Some friends have expressed skepticism about the location. It took a while to get investors onboard, but Sneed is passionate about it. He and Ives hope to have the space open in early spring.
While most of the menu will be dishes by Ives, Sneed says he’ll contribute with “burgers and pizzas and Caesar salads — comfort food for Americans.” He’s thinking of jerk chicken pizzas and curry chicken salad wraps.
“He has a genuine curiosity and a sort of open-mindedness about food and different cuisines that is refreshing,” Ives says of Sneed.
Sneed started frequenting Jamaica House soon after it opened in 1994, and Ives eventually realized that he was a celebrity chef and that he was inviting other foodies to her little takeout business. “He accepted us, and he immediately got what this whole business was about, our food and what we’re trying to do. In a small town in the South, we were putting out authentic Jamaican food,” says Ives, a native Jamaican. “It wasn’t food that catered to the palate of the people who were eating it. We wanted it to be authentic … and when he came in and saw goat curry soup on the menu, he was like, ‘Wow! This is cool!’ ”
Still, friends question the business sense of Sneed getting involved as a partner in a Jamaican restaurant in South Side. And it’s not the first time they’ve wondered about his financial decisions.Despite being the most famous restaurant in Richmond and being constantly busy, The Frog and the Redneck went under in 2001. Sneed says some of it was due to disputes with his landlord, H. Louis Salomonsky, but the restaurant also became overextended, as he expanded the space to prevent a bar from moving in next door and wasn’t doing enough business to cover the added expenses.Also, Sneed was not known for scrimping, whether it came to the fresh crabs that he brought from the Chesapeake Bay multiple times a week, or the Land Cruiser and luxury BMW motorcycle he drove.“His intensity about food is unbelievable,” Reitzer says. “His discipline about food and restaurant management is amazing. I wouldn’t call him the best money manager, but his strength is PR, you know. I’ve always said he should be an agent for other celebrity chefs.”
Says Grossman: “He certainly raised Richmond’s awareness of food and restaurants, and he was great, and he put his time into fundraising and doing good things in the city, but I think he needs to forget about the Jamaica House. … He needs to go back to his roots and do what he does best.”In The Frog’s last year of business, Sneed tried to purchase a catering business and banquet hall, The Cornerstone, on Broad Street downtown. It was a “just a bad situation” from start to finish, Sneed says: “I ran it for a couple of months for the owner until he could satisfy his debts and transfer ownership to me, which he never did. … The guy he owed money to came in and basically wanted me to pay his debts, and so I just walked away from it.”
Asked if he lost money on the deal, Sneed says quickly, “Oh yeah.” Asked how much he lost, he says, with some pain still evident in his voice, “I don’t want to venture to say.”
About six months after The Frog closed in early 2001, Sneed signed a six-month-only lease for a space in the doomed (and now demolished) Sixth Street Marketplace. He tried his hand at a restaurant offering Southern down-home cooking. Sneed called it The Southern Grille and served “fried chicken, homemade biscuits, ham and collards, grits … I loved it. Loved it!”
When the six months were up, Sneed and his wife moved on to South Carolina, where his mother lives.
Since returning to Richmond from Las Vegas, Sneed’s thought about opening another restaurant, but he’d just as soon not own the business, ceding the financial responsibilities to someone else.
“There’s a certain egotistical satisfaction from owning your restaurant, but I don’t need that,” Sneed says. “What I do need is operational control. … I think I understand how to operate a good restaurant as good as anybody I know, but the numbers side of it, no. I don’t like reading budgets and crunching numbers and accounting. That’s my weakness.”
‘It’s The Experience’
Sneed is informal, the kind of guy who peppers his speech with “dude” and spices it up with friendly profanities. He’s also not a food snob. He appreciates a good hamburger.
It was at the Windows on Urbanna Creek restaurant in Urbanna, where he worked as head chef in the late 1980s and early ’90s, finally emerging from under Palladin’s shadow to create his own style. His emphasis was on fresh seafood just out of the bay — and not plate presentation.
“My style of food is ultra-simple,” Sneed says. “I don’t dribble, squirt, build, spray, dust … I don’t do any of that stuff. So when you got a crab cake, it was just a big white plate with a crab cake. No mango chutney puree [on the side].”
“He’s not that creative” about dish presentation, Reitzer says of Sneed. “He’s creative in a lot of other ways but … it’s just about the product … not camouflaging and plate presentations.”
“I don’t see myself as an artist,” Sneed says simply. “I see myself as a cook.” (However, he insists that his kitchen staff address him as “chef.”)
For Sneed, it remains all about the food.
“I’ve got this fantasy,” Sneed says. “I’m going to sit in August under a tomato plant in Caroline County and I’m going to wait for that tomato to fall off the vine into my hand, and I’m going to slice it and I’m going to use my salt…” — he taps the small clear, plastic salt container he keeps in his pocket — “… and just eating that tomato right at that moment, the moment it falls off the vine … for me, that tomato is worth a hundred bucks in any restaurant anywhere, because it’s the experience.”
He ponders it some more: “You know, a lobster on a plate, is it worth 35 bucks? Well, if it’s frozen, no. If it’s fresh, maybe. But if you pull a trap in from the waters of Maine and pop it into a pot of boiling water there on the beach, that lobster’s worth a hundred bucks, and that’s the sort of attitude I have for all of my products. If you’re going to be ultra-simple in your preparation, it better be exceptional product.”
And then he goes back to thinking about that tomato, falling off the vine.