Shakeups early in a restaurant’s run are not exactly new, when kitchens iron out the kinks in service — maybe swapping out dishes and simplifying processes. But a chef departing three weeks into opening, as happened with executive chef Barnett Harper at Hue, the glitzy Back Bay bar, restaurant and entertainment space? Not usually on the menu.
Neither side agrees with how the split went down, either. According to Harper, he was fired for unclear reasons. Yet for Maurice Rodriguez — one of Hue’s four co-owners along with George Aboujaoude, Robert Eugene, and Nick Saber — it was a mutual split over differing leadership visions.
An industry vet, Harper worked for 13 years — including 11 running the kitchen — at former Downtown Crossing icon Marliave, which closed during the pandemic. He was serving as executive sous chef at upscale Latin-rooted restaurant Para Maria within Seaport’s Envoy hotel, when Hue’s co-owners tapped him in September 2022 to lead the forthcoming venue’s kitchen and develop Hue’s entire concept and food menu. A task that, Harper admits, “was a big undertaking.” After all, the bi-level space features three separate dining experiences, including a supper club restaurant, a speakeasy, and a bar.
Problems stemmed from different expectations on what Hue actually would be like, according to Harper. When the space was gearing up to open, Harper’s name was displayed prominently on press materials and the ownership team played up the fact that they signed on an accomplished chef to run Hue’s kitchen. This was an ambitious restaurant — not a nightclub — co-owner George Aboujaoude told Eater at the time.
“It was sold as a chef-driven, menu-driven restaurant that also featured a supper club that would be geared towards a post-thirties party crowd,” Harper says. “To my mind, that seemed more of a jazz club set-up. And I think that the reality of the situation was that it’s more geared to being a club. Which is fine, but that’s not how [Hue] was pitched to me.”
At the time of opening, Harper was dissatisfied with the setup of the kitchen. A flattop grill that he wanted wasn’t installed at opening, and he also felt there weren’t enough burners for an ambitious menu that includes half chickens, steak frites, and a 32-ounce tomahawk steak. “Especially if you’re looking at a chef-driven menu, you need burners because, if you’re looking at a plate with let’s say chicken, a starch, and a sauce, that’s three different pans,” he says. “That’s three different burners you’re using for one dish.” (Rodriguez says that the kitchen was designed to Harper’s specifications, but those specifications kept changing. The flattop grill wasn’t installed at opening because it was ordered late after Harper changed his mind about what he wanted to use, he says, and the kitchen was set up with as many burners as space would allow.)
Harper had been considering menu tweaks ahead of his departure — for example, swapping out the salmon because his usual preparation of not cooking the fish all the way through was not something that diners responded well to. Similarly, Marliave once had a formal three-course menu for its upstairs dining room and casual offerings downstairs, which didn’t work until the kitchen condensed both into one cohesive menu after a few months. “You’re not able to make that decision in the first three weeks that you’re open,” he notes.
According to Rodriguez, Hue was busy in its opening days and he couldn’t find common ground with Harper in how to run the kitchen. “It got to a point where we just weren’t aligned with how we trained staff, what we were looking for towards menu development and specials and like costs,” he says. “It was just basic restaurant things that we weren’t aligned with.”
Harper says there was no sit-down with ownership where everyone laid out their concerns, but was instead left out of the conversation. “The reasoning that I was given when I was sat down was that, obviously, I’m not happy here and this isn’t working out,” he says. “I was sort of taken aback by that.” He didn’t object in the moment, he says, because he felt like the owners had already made their decision.
In Rodriguez’s recounting of the meeting, both sides agreed to walk away. “When I sat down with him, I said this isn’t working out for both of us, and he said ‘mmhmm’ and we shook hands and parted ways,” he says.
Of Hue’s perspective, Rodriguez adds, “Hue is a very big restaurant. It’s a lot of people. It’s a big staff and I think that was just a lot for a chef for his first executive chef position. I 100 percent believe if chef Barnett was in a smaller kitchen with a little more control, he’s gonna do great.”
Harper somewhat agrees. “[The restaurant] was a little bigger than I’m generally comfortable with,” he says.
Chef Aaron Lhamon is now taking the helm at Hue, drawing from his 21 years of experience in the industry, including as executive sous chef at Ledger in Salem, executive chef at the now-shuttered the Ghost Walks, and the executive chef and owner of the Pareja tapas popup at the Wink & Nod culinary incubator.
As for what’s next for Harper, he’s returning to his previous position at Envoy and “licking his wounds,” he says with a laugh. He’s hoping to regroup and plot his next steps, thinking about catering as a creative outlet. And for his next restaurant, he’s on the lookout for “something smaller and more focused, or where the players have a clear idea of what they’re looking for,” he says. “But I think this whole situation just struck me as very odd.”