In the far west dining room of Houston eatery Jonathan’s The Rub, its namesake chef is greeting a corner table of four men in suits who seem to have taken the restaurant’s bring-your-own-booze option as a command.
They look like captains of industry, settling in for a long night of delicious food and top-notch service, and they seem to be regulars. Jonathan Levine has taken a moment from his harried spot on the kitchen line to make sure they’re being treated well. It’s a Wednesday night, and the place is packed — and loud. Quiet conversation is not an option, but it’s part of the restaurant’s charm. The fare is high-end, but the ambience isn’t stuffy.
Gregarious, with a large build, the 62-year-old Levine looks like he’d fit in at a table with the four men, knocking back a glass of red and chomping on a rib eye, but Levine’s home is on that line in the front of the small, crowded restaurant off I-10 in Hedwig Village. Over seven years, he’s worked like a maniac, transforming an unassuming spot that shares a strip-mall space with a convenience store into one of Houston’s most beloved restaurants.
In fact, this part of the restaurant, comprising a couple of two-tops and several large tables for bigger parties, used to be Levine’s office. His nephew Ryan Cunningham, a former employee, said it was called “The West Wing,” a familial jab at Levine’s sense of self-importance — a natural-born Brooklynite’s birthright. Ryan says he and Levine’s son, Sam, once jokingly hung a banner above the office door, cribbing Dante: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Levine got a kick out of it.
Houston foodies and restaurant critics started drooling when Levine announced in August 2014 he’d be opening a new Rub just up the road from his current location, in a funky new building that the developers, MetroNational, called The Treehouse.
“Instead of being a hidden gem, like people call us now, we’ll be out front and in the mainstream,” Levine told the Houston Chronicle. But just a few weeks later, the restaurant’s Facebook page informed the public, “We have made a decision within our family to stay in our current location and continue doing what we do best.”
Behind the scenes, it was a different story. Levine didn’t want to lift the curtain and reveal the entire back of the house. Customers didn’t need to see the dirty dishes.
What matters is what’s on the plate, which is probably why Levine didn’t want to talk about the lawsuit that his sister and brother-in-law filed against him — and his two kids, both Rub employees — in 2012, accusing him of squeezing them out of their share of the restaurant. A trial is scheduled for January 2016.
In the lawsuit, Margo and Patrick Cunningham say they provided the bulk of the money, marketing and contacts to get the restaurant off the ground, and are owed as much as $1 million; Levine painted them as drunks who never followed through on their promises to market the business.
While perhaps not as storied as other restaurant-family squabbles — like a shareholder standoff at the French Quarter landmark Brennan’s in 2013 that involved the police — the rub over The Rub shows what can happen when blood ties, money, and ego get in the way of a great thing.
Of course, none of this surfaced in Levine’s July “Chef Chat” interview for the Houston Press, in which Levine recounted how he ran a series of successful restaurants in Cape Cod in the 1990s, and how he built The Rub into what it is today.
The Cunninghams weren’t in Levine’s version of events. But a few questionable claims were. The Cunninghams’ 27-year-old son Ryan — the Rub’s former business director — read Levine’s “Chef Chat” and grew irate. He believed that his parents were integral to the restaurant’s success, and now his uncle was rewriting history. Sure, Levine’s name was on the marquee, but now it looked as if a jury would have to decide who really owned the place and what that means for the future of one of the city’s hottest restaurants.
First, the name.
“The Rub” comes from noted barbecue enthusiast Hamlet’s soliloquy about mortality and meat flavoring: “To sleep — perchance to dream. Aye, there’s the rub.” Levine is fond of telling interviewers that his mother, after a beverage or two, was known to stand on a chair at a party and deliver the whole speech from memory. When it came time to name the restaurant, Levine’s son Sam suggested “The Rub,” and it stuck.
Levine was born into a tight-knit community in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, at the far western end of Coney Island.
“It’s right by the ocean,” he told the Press in July. “I actually grew up with sand between my toes. It’s an idyllic, beautiful place. We never locked our front door, and the keys were left in the car. People don’t imagine Brooklyn being like that, but the neighborhood was 99 percent Jewish. Lots and lots of relatives lived there. My uncles, my aunts, my grandparents all lived within walking distance. New York in the 1950s and ’60s was all peace and love. We hadn’t gotten to the Woodstock stuff yet, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was very warm.”
He attended college at Northeastern in Boston, where he realized he had both a knack for and a love of cooking.
“I knew how to put flavors together and what would make stuff good,” Levine said. “I cooked for my three roommates my sophomore year and got into stir-fries. I bought a wok. I’d go to the library and read Good Housekeeping and Julia Child. I’d buy the ingredients and cook for my roommates. It became a thing. I’d have my laundry done, my room clean, a couple of essays written and then I’d cook. I’d do a different sauce every night.”
After Northeastern, where he received a bachelor’s in history, Levine received a master’s in international management from the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. At some point — Levine did not respond to multiple requests to clarify his background — he claims to have made a lot of money as a commodities broker.
But, he says, he soon tired of what he felt were the industry’s pervasive questionable practices, so he decided to put his culinary skills to use in earnest.
He told the Press he owned or managed three successful restaurants in Cape Cod, but we were able to verify his connection to only two. (One sought bankruptcy protection in 1998. Levine failed to file necessary documents, and the case was dismissed in 1999.)
Levine left the bankruptcy filing out of the history he recounted to the Press in July, wherein he said he handed the keys to his wife (they were separated and going through a divorce) and “set up a management company to take care of it.” (Levine’s ex-wife declined comment.)
After a series of cooking gigs, including a stint offshore, he launched a personal chef business, delivering meals from a menu that was emailed to contacts of his sister, Margo, a successful Realtor. She had moved from New York City with her husband, Pat, a former advertising executive, to Houston about a year before Levine.
Ryan helped his uncle deliver the meals, and the word of Levine’s talents spread. He started Jonathan’s Catering to supplement the personal chef business.
“My family was known throughout the area,” Levine said in a February 2015 deposition. It’s the only time in the deposition that he credits the Cunninghams. “I originally got these accounts from my family. They were friends of my family’s more than they were friends of mine. They had great faith in me, and they used me for major events for them that were important and all.”
By 2007, Levine and the Cunninghams were talking about opening a restaurant. Margo and Pat offered to create a prospectus and marketing campaign. Levine could have done worse: The former chief creative officer of the N.W. Ayer & Partners advertising agency, Pat oversaw the launch of some of the most memorable campaigns ever, including “Be all you can be” for the U.S. Army; AT&T’s “Reach out and touch someone”; and Folgers’ “The best part of wakin’ up,” to name just a few.
Pat’s experience was detailed in the prospectus the two pitched to investors. So was Levine’s, only it does not appear to be accurate. For one thing, it states that Levine has an MBA, which is different from a master’s in international management. (The prospectus also references Levine’s experience as owner and manager of the Cape Cod restaurant for which Levine filed bankruptcy.)
“The demanding attention to detail will be a cornerstone of our restaurant’s philosophy,” the prospectus stated. A menu prototype included everything from crab cake and spring roll appetizers to butterflied pork chop and Gulf shrimp entrées.
Each side — Levine and the Cunninghams — says it was responsible for tapping the investors, a group of four who contributed $20,000 each. (Two lawyers also donated the same amount in legal fees. All of the investors either declined comment for this story or did not respond to multiple messages, except for one, who said she’s extremely pleased with her investment. None of the investors have joined the Cunninghams’ lawsuit.)
According to court records, the group formed a limited liability company that owned 75 percent of the restaurant, with the Cunninghams owning 49 percent of that stake.
Levine has at various times claimed that they were never 49 percent owners of the 75 percent stake, or that they were but they never followed through on promised work and therefore didn’t deserve a cut.
Caught in the middle was Ryan Cunningham, who’d gone from schlepping meals with his uncle to becoming The Rub’s business director. He says he looked up to his uncle, who promised big things in exchange for his years of hard work and loyalty, which is why Ryan says he stayed on for more than a year after his parents filed suit.
But then, Ryan says, he started seeing in real time what had been alleged in the lawsuit: Levine’s creative accounting practices; nonpayment of taxes; use of the restaurant as his personal piggy bank. Ryan claimed in his deposition that Levine withdrew thousands of dollars in cash from The Rub’s operating account every Friday but did not account for it all.
Still, Ryan says, seeing all that wasn’t the worst part.
He says his mother gave his uncle a living, gave him a gift, “and now she’s heartbroken...and that’s the most difficult part, is that I have to sit here and watch what he did to her.”
After the “Chef Chat” interview, Levine stopped returning calls. Levine’s son, Sam, initially told the Press that his father was interested in setting the record straight but was just busy. Sam believed that Ryan was just out to smear his father’s name.
“When my father proves to you that everything is true, you’re still going to write the fact that somebody tried to discredit him?” Sam asked.
Unfortunately, Levine never got around to proving everything was true. (For several days, Levine’s family stated he was on a catering job in Alaska, which apparently is a dystopia where email and phones cease to function.)
Like their clients, the Levines’ lawyers are not big fans of Ryan. They’ve accused him of stealing financial documents when he was still a Rub employee and feeding them to his parents after they filed suit. Instead of challenging the veracity of the documents, they accused Ryan and his parents of circumventing the discovery process and giving the plaintiffs an “unfair advantage.”
The Press ultimately received an email from one of those lawyers (she clearly wasn’t in Alaska), who warned, “Given the clear motivation of your ‘source’ to disparage and defame Mr. Levine to their benefit in this litigation, please be advised that Mr. Levine intends to pursue every legal remedy if your planned article contains one untruth…I would suggest you check the reliability of your ‘source,’ especially if it is a family member connected to the pending litigation,” Denise Kim’s email continued. “The motivation to disparage and harm Mr. Levine should be self-evident.”
As ugly as the lawsuit has been, in a way it’s a testament to how successful The Rub has become. No one would be fighting over ownership of a dump.
The restaurant got a real, unexpected boost in the days after Hurricane Ike, when it was one of the few businesses in the area that didn’t lose power. The prospect of delicious food and electricity was irresistible; the restaurant’s business boomed and The Rub generated serious buzz.
In an upset, the restaurant’s chargrilled patty infused with a secret rub won the Houston Press’s 2011 Burger Bracket Championship and would go on to sweep citywide polls.
Yelpers praised the place, and in a glowing but perhaps regrettably worded 2014 review, Zagat called the $18 Rub Burger “splurge-worthy.”
The original menu expanded over the years into something that’s downright daunting: There’s the “New Houston Cuisine” of pistachio salmon Dijon and scallops St. Jacques. There’s the “South Brooklyn Italian” of shrimp scampi and veal saltimbocca. In February, Levine put his own twist on a standard when The Rub introduced Aleppo red pepper-flecked chicken and waffles, served with real maple syrup.
Houstonia’s Katharine Shilcutt practically proposed marriage to the meal, writing, “There is no flavor or texture wanting in this dish — crunchy, salty, sweet, spicy, creamy, meaty, chewy, yeasty — but it manages to work together in a very well-orchestrated composition that may very well be the apotheosis of chicken and waffles in Houston.”
But Levine and The Rub were truly cemented in Houston foodie lore in 2010. That’s when the Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook, perhaps the city’s most powerful food critic, opened a review of The Rub with “I got kicked out of a restaurant last week.” In nearly four decades of food writing, she’d never gotten the boot.
“I sent back a $34 steak au poivre that didn’t look medium rare to me, the way I’d ordered it,” Cook wrote. “I lived to regret it.”
Levine ultimately came to the table and “snapped” at Cook. She wrote that she “discerned nothing neutral or conciliatory in his tone. Jonathan is a burly guy, and his restaurant is a narrow slot, so he loomed over our two-top, not even attempting to conceal his displeasure.”
Things went downhill from there, with Cook losing her temper and accusing Levine of “trying to shame me for sending this steak back!”
It ended with Levine advising Cook: “I’d like you to leave my restaurant.” (Cook ended her review saying that, while she was still in shock, Levine later apologized.)
Space City chefs who felt wronged by Cook’s poison pen got a vicarious rush: A proud chef was standing up for the sanctity of his meat; there’d be no quarter for this haughty critic.
“Within the chef community — they couldn’t believe I did that, and they loved it,” Levine told the Press in July.
But while The Rub grew more and more popular, tensions behind the scenes increased. The Cunninghams allege that they were never able to see Levine’s books, and after the first four years, they’d never seen a dime.
So in 2012, Margo and Pat filed suit — they came charging out of the gate, describing Levine as a homeless ne’er-do-well: “He has a troubled background, financially and personally, and moved to Houston for a fresh start,” they alleged. He’d simply shown up in Houston, “penniless and wanting to sleep on their couch.”
Levine soon “landed a job as a cook at a Logan Farms in League City,” but “after that didn’t work out,” he got a job cooking on offshore oil rigs. Margo put Levine up in a friend’s garage apartment, and then, “through Margo and Pat’s friendships and help, [Levine] obtained a small clientele for whom he prepared meals.”
The suit also alleges, “Because of Jonathan’s past, he had no credit, so Margo and Pat made Jonathan an additional signatory on their personal checking account to pay for items needed to open and operate the restaurant. Margo and Pat also had to co-sign for restaurant equipment, and contributed thousands of dollars to miscellaneous other start-up costs.”
The Cunninghams claimed they provided more than just money, though — they say they “helped plan and design the restaurant” and “supplied their own personal art collection, mirrors, and bought several more paintings for the restaurant’s interior,” among other things.
Margo, Pat and their three kids hand-delivered menus to area businesses, and talked to the owners to help drum up interest, according to the suit, which also states that Margo emailed her more than 600 contacts to further spread the word. They say they once had to pay $10,000 from their own account to cover payroll, for which they’ve never been repaid.
In exchange for this largesse, the suit claims, Levine went to town on the restaurant’s bank accounts. Thousands of dollars have gone unaccounted for, and a lot of money that had been accounted for hadn’t gone to the investors or even the welfare of the business, according to the suit. Levine has dipped into the till to buy vehicles for his kids; to fund a European vacation; to pay his daughter’s divorce lawyer and her nanny; and to pay for his son’s wedding rehearsal dinner and honeymoon. They even allege that the restaurant paid for “a trip to Chicago for both himself and one of the waitresses, whom he also paid $400 via check shortly thereafter.”
They also accuse Levine of attempting to secretly and fraudulently transfer The Rub’s assets into a series of LLCs Levine’s attorney created after the Cunninghams filed the suit. They hinted that the restaurant that was to open in The Treehouse was probably an attempt to leave his investors in the dust.
Levine’s deposition suggests he was perturbed by these accusations — perhaps because some were true. He admitted to not reporting roughly $10,000-$15,000 in catering sales a year, and to not filing federal tax returns until after he was sued.
But when all was said and done, he — not his sister and his brother-in-law — was the reason for the restaurant’s existence and its success.
For one thing, he alleged, Pat and Margo never prepared a decent prospectus and marketing plan. This was largely because, in Levine’s words, “they had difficulty maintaining a sober lifestyle.”
Here’s what Levine says about Margo: “My sister was, you know, kind of on the outcast of the mainstream people in Memorial because she was known to be like the village drunk.” He also accused her of stealing “hundreds of pounds of food over time” in order “to feed her family.”
As for Pat: Levine claims that on one occasion in the fall of 2008, his brother-in-law had to be thrown out of the restaurant “because he was drunk and disorderly, and he almost got in a fistfight with my main [cook]. And — I mean, he threw punches at him, spilled wine all over the service wall. And we had to help him out of the restaurant.”
It was because of behavior like that, Levine said, that the Cunninghams’ interest in The Rub “became of diminished importance in my mind…I just felt that all the compensation that they received over time, and the help that they gave, we were at a break-even point.” (It’s somewhat strange that Levine used alleged substance abuse as an excuse to squeeze the Cunninghams out. He stated in his deposition that, around the time of his divorce, he went on a six-month drug binge, and eventually went through rehab in 2000. He also states, without giving the date, that he was arrested for public intoxication near the restaurant, but was detained for only a few hours and charges were never filed. Ryan says that Margo went to the Hedwig Village Police Station to bail him out and “smooth it over” with the police.)
When the Cunninghams’ attorney, Brad Beers, tried to get Levine to pin down the time by which he no longer felt an obligation to the couple, Levine offered a somewhat muddled response, perhaps showing the stress and exhaustion associated with a deposition.
“I still feel obliged to take care of my sister,” he said. “That will never stop. The relationship in this business is somewhat different. I will always take care of my sister, but it’s got to be done some kind of palatable and beautiful way.”
The Rub’s aborted second location may have been a setback, but the family fighting doesn’t seem to have otherwise affected the restaurant. Sales have steadily increased; the menu has only grown more impressive.
While the Cunninghams aren’t short on accusations against Levine, they do believe he’s good at what he does, or that he loves doing it.
“I’ll be the first to tell you that I saw how hard he worked for that restaurant,” Ryan says. “And he did — he worked his ass off; he put in a lot of hours…He lives that restaurant; he breathes that restaurant.”
A dedicated chef works out well for customers (or at least the ones who don’t send their steaks back). It’s what that chef allegedly does outside the kitchen, in the business office, that riles the Cunninghams.
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“I give him all the credit in the world keeping it what it is and doing new things,” Ryan says. “But you can’t do the other things that he’s doing with the money.”
But here’s the rub, according to Levine: None of that money would be there in the first place if it weren’t for his skill in the kitchen, the way he pan-sears a salmon or how he struck flavor gold by incorporating smoked Hungarian paprika into his signature spice blend.
The Cunninghams’ marketing plan may have been a failure in Levine’s eyes, but it didn’t matter. When asked in his deposition what he did to market the restaurant, Levine didn’t have to think twice.
“I cooked every meal,” he said. “…That’s the best marketing tool in the world. I created the menu. I cooked it and we got a following. That’s what I did.”