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Since Howard came aboard, the La Caille kitchen also got a $250,000 face lift. Howard added new broilers, convection ovens, a 16-burner stove, a bakery oven and gelato machine, so that all the food could be made from scratch.
Next, he set about training kitchen staff in basic French cooking techniques, assigning the cooking staff in pairs to ensure better customer service.
Try La Caille’s Commonwealth deal
Try chef Brandon Howard’s new three-course Commonwealth menu, which includes a starter, choice of entree and dessert. Items to try include the poached egg with corn cake, Kurobuta pork short ribs or the natural farm burger.
Where » La Caille, 9565 Wasatch Blvd., Sandy
When » Tuesdays, 4 p.m. to close; and Wednesday-Saturday 4 to 6 p.m.
Cost » $36 per person (tax and tip not included)
Details » 801-942-1751 or www.lacaille.com
When he arrived, most of the food being served was frozen or canned. Today, "about 98 percent of the food is made from scratch," Howard said.
Things that haven’t changed: the low-cut dresses worn by waitresses; and the peacocks, swans and ducks that wander the property.
A second chance » La Caille isn’t the first iconic property that Gates has restored. Several years ago, he purchased the Mauian, a 50-year-old boutique hotel nestled in the crescent-shaped Napili Bay, considered one of Maui’s most beautiful beaches. Gates said it took several years to restore the historical two-acre property.
"It takes a lot of patience," he said. "But when it’s all complete, it’s always rewarding." And just like the Mauian, Gates said he believed La Callie "deserved a second chance."
While much work already has been done at La Caille, Gates says the transformation won’t be complete for another three to four years.
That’s a relatively short time compared to how long it took La Caille to unravel.
David Johnson and Steven Runolfson opened La Caille in 1975, adding a third partner, Mark Haug, in the 1980s. The restaurant, with its French decor and cuisine, developed a reputation as the crown jewel in Utah’s fine dining arena.
But in the middle of the last decade, things began to unravel when Haug sued his two partners, alleging breach of contract. The court battle continued for years, ending in March 2010, when a 3rd District Court jury found that Runolfson and Johnson did breach their partnership agreement. They awarded Haug $4.7 million in damages. The award forced La Caille into Chapter 11 bankruptcy and the owners were forced to put the property up for sale.
Steven Runolfson and his wife, Lisa, were devastated at losing the restaurant. In December 2010, the Runolfsons were found dead from gunshot wounds at Provo hotel in what police say was the result of a murder-suicide pact.
After Gates purchased the property, one of the Runolfson’s daughters, Mary, continued to work at La Caille as special events coordinator. However, she left after about six months. Howard, the new chef, said she left on good terms. Mary Runalfson did not return telephone calls to the Tribune.
From rock bottom to inviting » During the transition, many local diners assumed the restaurant was closed. Weddings, a major money maker for the restaurant, dropped off, as did bookings for Christmas parties, business events and special occasion birthday or anniversary dinners.
Rob Grant, the vineyard keeper, has worked on and off at La Caille over the last four years, during a time when he said employee morale had hit rock bottom.
"It was frustrating to work somewhere that has to much potential, but to see it let go, it was disheartening," he said, noting that in the last year, things have turned around. "It’s really energizing to see it get back to where it was and beyond."
Customers are noticing the changes as well.
"Before it felt like you were intruding on private property," explained Ilene Stowe, who recently hosted an international business event at La Caille. "Now it has a warm and inviting feeling."
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