Mention Chef Gordon Ramsay and Kitchen Nightmares and most people wince—oh, the screaming, the shouting, the abuse. Not Jeff Thiel and Jim Thiel, who run the family-owned and family style , which will be featured on Kitchen Nightmares tonight, May 6.. The identical twin brothers might wince in memory, but they ultimately feel that KN was a not only a good experience, it was necessary.
“It was a last-ditch effort,” explain the Thiels, who tend to finish each other’s sentences without getting in each other’s way in the least. “We were losing money,” says Jeff. “We would have been closed by summer,” agrees Jim.
Despite the dire situation, the Thiels’ chef of 10 years was convinced that Kitchen Nightmares would make the restaurant look bad and resisted the on-air makeover, even after KN's Executive Producer assured him that the show would focus not on him but on “the boys.”
The brothers even had “Mom and Dad” Thiel, who’d hired the chef, come down and talk to him. Nothing worked. The chef quit.
Faced with the option of hiring a new chef right away or handling the cooking themselves for the week, the twins opted for the latter, which proved to be a less-than-optimal decision.
The first day, “I had a breakdown,” admits Jeff. They tried calling their old chef only to be told that he was in Las Vegas and “unreachable,” by all accounts. “I didn’t think anyone was unreachable in Las Vegas,” says Jeff.
Luckily, Marcus Vargas, who’d worked for various corporate restaurants and had experience in catering, came to their rescue as both chef and manager.
Vargas and the Thiels admit that the infamous Chef Ramsay was tough. “He was a weenie,” says Jim. Still, all three agree that Ramsay “had his reasons” for being brusque. According to the twins, “He only had three or four days to get us up to speed.”
A big change was simplifying the menu. “Because sales were declining, we kept adding dishes to bring in customers,” the twins explain in tandem. “We had 30 pasta dishes, and we cut it down to six. We had three red sauces, and we cut it down to one. We were making six salad dressings. Now we’re making two.” Jim, who focuses more on the financial side of the restaurant, says that because of the changes, they’re now saving money on time and storage.
Another change was a new focus on fresh ingredients. “I don’t think we had bad food,” says Jeff, but adds that post-Kitchen Nightmares there’s a focus on fresh ingredients. “We cut our lettuce every day,” says Jim. “We make the meat balls by scratch.” Adds Vargas: “We’re using expensive Taleggio cheese.”
Despite the extra cost of the “stinky cheese,” as the Taleggio topping is referred to on the mushroom pizza, sales are up. The Thiels might have been cutting dishes, but they’ve added hours. They’re now open Wednesday through Sunday, with lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Unless they’re short-handed in terms of staff, they’ll often stay open until dinner starts at 4 p.m.
Additionally, the Capri is now open for Sunday brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Chef Vargas has created Italian variations on traditional brunch dishes such as “Barney’s Breakfast Pizza,” which has a Dijon mustard base, mozzarella and Jack cheese, scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon and tomatoes ($9.95). If ordered family style (also $9.95), the traditional, tomato-and-olive-oil bruschetta comes with a second, “sweeter option”: ricotta cheese topped with fruit preserves and sliced berries (which can also be ordered as an individual portion for $6.95). Or try the Breakfast Pasta ($8.95): spaghetti, crumbled bacon, Parmesan cheese, butter, and sautéed onions and garlic topped with a sunny-side-up egg and minced fresh parsley.
Jeff, who is generally out front interacting with the public, says that even though most customers have embraced the Kitchen Nightmares makeover, some have been unhappy with the changes, including the revamped interior in which the six-to-eight booths—which are for sale, according to the twins—have been replaced with benches, chairs and tables for more flexible seating. But Jeff says that most people understand when he explains that the Capri had to change or close.
The Thiels are adamant, however, that the one thing that won’t change is the family-owned vibe and friendly customer service. The personable wait staff has been instructed to introduce themselves and chat with the customers. And Jeff and Jim (who want Patch readers to know that they’re “single and available!”) still visit tables individually, “just like Mom” did.
Vargas confirms that one of his priorities since coming on as manager is to get the twins “out of the kitchen” so they can interact with customers. “They’re the figureheads,” he says. “They’re a big part of the restaurant’s personality.”
KITCHEN NIGHTMARES, May 6 at 8/7 “Capri” airs Friday on Fox Television