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Guest Chef: Aaron Guest at benjy's, ruppe's...

Last week we reported that Benjy Levit, owner of benjy's [2424 Dunstan, (713)522-7602], was shopping for a chef for his new restaurant, scheduled to open in April or May in the Westheimer space vacated by Armando's.

Now it appears that Levit was headhunting for not just one, but possibly two chefs. At the beginning of this month benjy's executive chef of three years, James Nakayama, left for greener pastures.

"It was completely amicable, and the timing was right for all of us," said Levit's partner Martin Berson. "James ultimately wants to have his own restaurant, and it would be great for him to get experience at a second restaurant under his belt before he strikes out on his own."

Berson was reluctant to reveal the name of the restaurant where Nakayama will move. "James hasn't made that announcement yet, so it's really not for me to say," he explained.

Nakayama's replacement will be Aaron Guest, back in town and rumored to be looking for a kitchen to call his own. Guest was the chef who put Sabine on the map -- and who, with his sudden departure last summer, seemingly wiped it off that same map. He was most recently spotted as saucier at Tony Ruppe's Fine American Food and Wine [3939 Montrose, (713)852-0852]. Guest pinch-hit for three weeks over the Christmas holidays. "Wow, what a big help he was," says Ruppe. "We were really busy and so glad to have him."

Ruppe, by the way, has just been asked to participate in the Texas Hill Country Food and Wine Festival in April. "They gave me my choice of preparing an entrée or a dessert for a luncheon for 100 at Fall Creek, and right now I'm thinking dessert," Ruppe explained. And what might that be? we asked, visions of chocolate-raspberry beggar's purses dancing in our heads.

"Oh, I haven't thought that far ahead," Ruppe told us, laughing. "I'm too busy worrying who's going to be on the line tonight. You know, the labor market has just been so relentlessly tight, really tough lately," he added. "If Frank Triola plans to shop for employees at my restaurant, he'd better wear a really good disguise," Ruppe exclaimed, referring to the chef-owner of Azzarelli's Italian Restaurant, a self-confessed staff poacher.

Guest finished up at Ruppe's just after the new year and got cooking full-time at benjy's the week of January 10. Whether he'll move this spring to Levit and Berson's new Westheimer restaurant -- tentatively called Dish, we're now told -- or stay in the Village at the original benjy's remains to be seen. "We haven't made any final decisions," Berson said. "Aaron will help us finalize the kitchen equipment and all that, and then we'll see what he wants to do and how things work out."

"We're very excited about working with Aaron," said Berson, simultaneously juggling calls for Valentine's Day reservations. "We've followed his career since we started. It's just a perfect opportunity for all of us."

Speaking of Sabine, there's more proof that restaurant energy is neither lost nor found but simply transformed: The space Bill Johnson shuttered in November has already attracted a replacement tenant. Ciro's Cibi Italiani [1000 Campbell Road, (713)467-9336] will open its second location there at 1915 Westheimer by the end of January.

"We just got in there and got going," explained Sharif Bazargani, Ciro's manager. "We did a lot of remodeling work so that it will look lighter, more Italian." The idea, says Bazargani, is to re-create the same atmosphere and northern Italian menu as the original Ciro's.

"It's a lot of work, and I hope they'll be finished soon," he added fervently.

 
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