Recovery on the Rocks

Stephen LemonsMay 3, 2021
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Dressed in a plain black T-shirt and jeans, his steel gray hair flowing past his shoulders, Peter Kasperski has a Jimmy Page thing going on as he sits on the patio of his new restaurant in Phoenix’s Roosevelt Row Arts District, Character, and takes in the warm March sun.

This would be the Jimmy Page of more than a decade back, of course. Kasperski just turned 63, while the English rocker is a youthful 77. But just like Page did in the 2008 rockumentary It Might Get Loud, Kasperski exudes an effortless, ageless cool. He smiles easily and raps his hands on the white table before him from time to time as he discusses how he lost everything as part of a years-long bankruptcy proceeding that began in 2012 and didn’t conclude until 2020, according to federal court records.

In RoRo, Kasperski’s legend precedes him. He says someone recently referred to him as “the Commander of Old Town,” and he laughs, joking about needing epaulettes to go with the title.

Long one of the Valley’s top restaurateurs, with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, Kasperski built a gastronomic juggernaut along a corner of Old Town Scottsdale that included the wildly popular Cowboy Ciao, James Beard Award-winning chef Nobuo Fukuda’s Sea Saw and Kazimierz World Wine Bar, which featured a labyrinthine cellar with more than 3,000 labels and 25,000 bottles, give or take.

Ciao’s Stetson Chopped Salad, credited to the restaurant’s then-chef Bernie Kantak, became a colorful, much-copied hit that’s seemingly been photographed more often than the Grand Canyon, and Kasperski’s cocktails were featured in the pages of Saveur and even TIME magazine. Food & Wine hailed his unorthodox wine pairings as “free association with a corkscrew,” praising Ciao as a “quirky neo-Western restaurant” that helped put Scottsdale on America’s culinary map.

Meanwhile, Kasperski wielded an almost preternatural knack for spotting and cultivating culinary talent. A full accounting of the renowned restaurateurs who emerged from his kitchens would require more space than we have here, but includes Kantak, who left Cowboy Ciao in 2009 to win acclaim at Citizen Public House and The Gladly; Pig & Pickle chef Keenan Bosworth; chef Gio Osso of Virtù Honest Craft; Country Velador, the pastry chef who started Super Chunk Sweets & Treats; Sea Saw’s Fukuda; pizza maestro and James Beard Award winner Chris Bianco; Chrysa Robertson of Rancho Pinot; and James Beard Award winner Charleen Badman, chef-owner of FnB.

Another was Richie Moe III, Kasperski’s partner at Character and the ruddy, likeable cocktail maven behind its adjacent speakeasy, Alias. Ex-Chicagoans Kasperski and Moe know each other through Moe’s late father, Richard Moe Jr., a restaurant exec with Marie Callender’s and Ed Debevic’s, who employed Kasperski in the early ’90s. “Richie helped me open up Cowboy Ciao and Kazimierz, and was the bar manager of Kazimierz,” Kasperski says. “Now we’re getting the chance to work together again. I can feel his dad watching us sometimes.”

Moe, who calls Kasperski “Uncle Pete,” left Kasperski’s employ in the 2000s to help open Citizen Public House and The Gladly with fellow Ciao alums Kantak and front-of-the-house manager Andrew Fritz. But Moe had a very public falling out with his partners in 2014, one neither party wants to discuss, and struggled with substance abuse – one of the dark pitfalls of a career in the bar and restaurant industry. He’s also had health issues, including a broken back from being run over by a car in 2019.

Right around the same time, Kasperski’s dining empire was collapsing. In 2018, bankruptcy forced him to close both Cowboy Ciao and KazBar. He was homeless for a while, with a buddy taking in him and his aged cat, Steve, for eight months. Rumors also swirled about his alcoholism, which he denies, while conceding that he did quit drinking out of an abundance of caution while opening Alias.

Photo by Steve Craft
Photo by Steve Craft

Fittingly, Kasperski and Moe are staking their claim for professional rebirth in Phoenix, a place where rising from the ashes is part of the city’s lore. It has the makings of a classic comeback story, and one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Valley restaurant industry who isn’t pulling for them.

After all, they aren’t the first food-and-drink lifers to fumble the delicate juggling act of money, moderation and nocturnal indulgence that is running a bar and restaurant – it’s a story as old as the cocktail itself.

As Kasperski philosophically notes: “I won more because of alcohol than I lost. Without alcohol, I wouldn’t have accomplished anything.”

As a 21-year-old Midwestern transplant to the Valley in 1979, Kasperski hit the ground pouring. His first job here was as a bartender for Steven Restaurant, a popular Scottsdale eatery of yesteryear, owned by former Major League Baseball player and sportscaster Steve Stone.

Kasperski had been in the restaurant biz since he started washing dishes at 12. Within a week of starting at Steven, he was in charge of the bar and the wine program. He went on to a bigger role in the parent company, opening up restaurants in Lake Tahoe and in the Virgin Islands. In Mesa, he opened the legendary sports bar, Harry & Steve’s Chicago Grill, which catered to Cubs fans in town for spring training.

The “Harry” in that title was the larger-than-life, Budweiser-guzzling Chicago Cubs announcer Harry Caray, who called Cubs games with Stone for many years. “I was always ‘coach’ [to him],” Kasperski recalls. “He never remembered my name, but a girl would walk in and he’d know her name, her birthdate, her astrological sign before she even sat down. It was great.”

A relentless autodidact, Kasperski began educating himself on wine as fast as he could while working at Steven, buying a bottle or two a week, taking out all the books on wine from the library and “cramming.”

It was a fortuitous time to be a wine geek. The “Judgment of Paris,” a blind tasting competition wherein French judges awarded higher marks to some California than French wines, had upended the wine world in 1976. Kasperski arrived on the scene just as the California wine movement was exploding.

Kasperski says he convinced the folks at Steven that the French wines they’d been buying were spoiled by the time bottles were delivered to the establishment in unrefrigerated trucks. As a result, the restaurant switched to almost all California wines – one of the first restaurants to make such a move in Arizona. Kasperski and a pal traveled to Napa Valley and knocked on the doors of award-winning producers like Dan Duckhorn and Mike Grgich.

“I found out these winemakers are farmers and they’re people, and it’s not that tough to talk to them and get their stuff,” he says. They came away from the trek with connections, knowledge and suppliers. Kasperski was making moves, transforming himself into a wine maven whose vine I.Q. would be much sought out in the food and restaurant industry.

After Steven Restaurant, Kasperski then did some consulting, and ended up going to work for Moe Jr., a lifelong restaurateur who managed the national, Chi-town-based, ’50s-style Ed Debevic’s restaurant chain for the Windy City-based Lettuce Entertain You corporation. The elder Moe promoted Kasperski to regional manager, which Kasperski says largely relegated him to Beverly Hills.

Moe at Citizen Public House in 2013; Photo by Sam Nalven
Moe at Citizen Public House in 2013; Photo by Sam Nalven

Of course, Kasperski returned the favor in 1997, when he opened his first restaurant all on his own, Cowboy Ciao, and hired a skinny kid from Chicago, Moe III, to help run the bar.

The restaurant was an instant smash, for a variety of likely reasons, starting with its canny, irresistible fusing of Western and cosmopolitan aesthetics. Originally to be named “Spaghetti Western” (Kasperski says the moniker was already taken), the restaurant was quintessentially Scottsdale: chic but laid-back, with an open kitchen ensconced in a curved bar, and a dining area around it all. Old black-and-white photos of Clint Eastwood, the Cisco Kid and cowgirls posing for cheesecake shots accented the tongue-in-cheek Western theme. There were plain wooden chairs and white table cloths, and a ceiling painted like a night sky of lapis lazuli.

The food was hearty, satisfying, contemporary American cuisine. Chicken fried trout marinated in buttermilk and sambal. An “exotic mushroom pan fry” in ancho cream over polenta. Wild boar meatballs. A giant “tomahawk” Niman Ranch pork chop atop collard greens. Grilled swordfish with purple Peruvian potatoes. To name a few. “We liked Italian, Southwestern, Mexican cuisines, in a broad spectrum and wanted to pay homage to those,” Kasperki says.

It didn’t hurt the restaurant’s fortunes when The Arizona Republic reported that George Clooney had stopped by for what the Oscar winner called “a truly excellent meal” while filming Three Kings in the desert.

Kantak joined a few months after opening, taking the cuisine into a more “global” direction, according to Kasperski. He says a sous chef made Ciao’s original chopped salad with chicken, and then Kantak added smoked salmon for the “classic” version. Rows of couscous, arugula, sweet corn, chopped tomatoes, and a “trail mix” of pepitas and black currants pleased the eye and the palate.

Scottsdale’s master of spin, famed PR consultant Jason Rose, officed across the street and was a regular at Ciao, and devotee of the dish. “I was addicted to their Stetson Chopped Salad,” he says. “Between lunch and dinner over the years, I bet you I ate there a hundred times.”

Business was booming, and in 2001, Kasperski opened what must be considered his masterpiece, Kazimierz World Wine Bar. Marketed as a speakeasy, with a hidden entrance through a back alley, it opened onto an impressive recreation of what looked like a renaissance wine cellar, with faux stone walls and barrels. Arizona Republic food critic Howard Seftel gushed over it in his review, calling it “breathtaking,” and raving about the “staggering” wine list.

“For breadth, accessibility and value, it has no Valley equal,” he wrote.

In 2002, Kasperski partnered with Fukuda on Sea Saw, which paired Fukuda’s Japanese fusion, izakaya-style tapas with wines culled from nearby Kazimierz. Seftel called it “edible magic” in his column, and Fukuda and his 10-course tasting menu would go on to win the James Beard Award in 2007 for Best Chef: Southwest.

Fukuda, who in 2010 opened Nobuo at Teeter House in Phoenix’s Heritage Square, fondly recollects his “Cowboy Ciao time.” “[It] was like our school,” Fukuda says. “We learned a lot and experienced a lot, and everybody moved on and – boom – had success.”

Moe can relate. Playing padawan to Kasperski’s Jedi knight, he was honing the knowledge and confidence that would soon make him one of the Valley’s top barmen. “It’s very good to be at that age and to learn so much about spirits, wine and especially obscurities that not a lot of other people know about,” Moe says.

He left Ciao in 2006 to start a Scottsdale jazz bar called Blue Note Cellars, also helping the folks at Square One Concepts open Arcadia Tavern and Peoria’s El Toro Bravo as an in-demand bar consultant.

But the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession it spawned was looming – along with other painful missteps that would pave the duo’s road to Character.

The way Kasperski views it, Southbridge was his Waterloo.

According to the restaurateur, and to local press clippings from the mid-to-late aughts, the vino wunderkind was driven into the red by a plan to open several restaurants along the Arizona Canal waterfront as part of the first Southbridge project – an ambitious plan to modernize Old Town Scottsdale west of Scottsdale Road and create a San Antonio-style tourism magnet.

“Southbridge crushed us,” Kasperski says. He clashed with Southbridge’s developer Fred Unger and, save for the short-lived California-Italian-themed Digestif, his envisioned restaurants did not
materialize.

Unger died in 2018 after a protracted battle with cancer. His son, Carter, now heads his father’s company, Spring Creek Development, and has backed a controversial continuation of his dad’s legacy, called Southbridge II.

Carter Unger says he was unaware of a falling out between his dad and Kasperski, but he conceded it was possible as he was not part of the company at the time.

The younger Unger says the 2008 collapse killed his father’s grand vision for Southbridge No. 1 and may have contributed to his demise years later. The Unger family had to sell Southbridge in 2014 as a result of the financial upheaval.

Kasperski first filed Chapter 11 in 2012 to stave off a growing list of creditors and the IRS. It bought him some time. His restaurants began whittling down the debt they owed, more than $2 million at the time. “But I was never able to recover,” Kasperski explains. “Close. I mean, we got to [keep the restaurants open]… It was just never going to be enough volume to make up for what we lost across the street [at Southbridge].”

He sold off KazBar’s wine collection “for way too little.” Then, in 2017, he filed Chapter 11 for the second time. In 2018, Cowboy Ciao and KazBar followed.

There is still a Cowboy Ciao at Sky Harbor – managed by airport catering company HMS Host – but Kasperski says the federal government seized ownership from him, selling it for “pennies on the dollar.”

The government also seized a small inheritance he had received from his uncle, he says, leaving him destitute and homeless. “I wish they had taken the cat,” he cracks of a 15-year-old mongrel named Steve, after a comedy bit from the HBO show Flight of the Conchords.

A good friend took in both Kasperski and Steve for about eight months. Kasperski was “out of fumes” and figured his restaurant career was kaput.

Was alcohol a factor in his downfall?

Kasperski says it’s a fair question – after all, he trained a gazillion bartenders in his career and basically “drank for a living.” Plus, there’s an obvious occupational hazard written into the lifestyle: You don’t get to be a celebrated oenophile by being a teetotaler.

Hard partying in the restaurant industry is practically a cliché, most famously detailed by late chef, writer and TV personality Anthony Bourdain in his 2000 tell-all memoir Kitchen Confidential. In it, he laid bare his profession’s love affair with alcohol and narcotics.

Kasperski at Cowboy Ciao in 2007; Photo by Laura Segall
Kasperski at Cowboy Ciao in 2007; Photo by Laura Segall

Stats back Bourdain’s portrayal. A 2015 study from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration rated the “accommodations and food service industry” No. 1 in illicit drug use among employees and No. 3 in “heavy alcohol use,” behind workers in the mining and construction industries.

Along the same lines, a 2008 report from George Washington University found that “15 percent of employees in the hospitality industry suffer from alcohol-related problems” and a 2009 New York Times piece on the subject noted that execs in the hospitality industry “have long acknowledged that alcohol and drug abuse are dangerous byproducts of a stressful business with easy access to both.”

Asked about a 2009 DUI conviction, Kasperski copped to it and to a brief stint in former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s infamous Tent City. “It was alright,” he shrugs. “Better than being in jail.”

He also spied some colleagues there. “When I was in Tent City, the vast majority of the people that were in Tent City were restaurant people,” he says.

Kasperski says he’s been easing up on the alcohol intake as he advances in years. He was on the wagon for 93 days leading up to the opening of Alias, but he won’t be abstaining forever. “I had a lot of things go my way and a lot of things that didn’t, and I’m sure alcohol played some part in it. But it wasn’t the critical factor,” he says.

Moe’s journey was a bit more fraught. The youthful-looking 43-year-old started his bartending career in a Chicago nightclub at the ripe age of 17, where the owner told him, “No matter what, just make it red and make it sweet. Send it out, but make sure you get the money.”

Originally, Moe wanted to be a “pyrotechnics engineer” in the film biz. His aunt is a movie set designer, and he considered going to school for pyrotechnics before embracing his inner restaurant rat. “I didn’t want to go back to school for seven years or six years for chemistry,” he says. “So bartending was the path of least resistance.”

At Citizen Public House, he started to earn recognition as one of the most innovative mixologists in the country, embracing what’s known as “molecular mixology,” a spin-off on the concept of molecular gastronomy, pioneered by French chemist Hervé This.

Like its gastronomic cousin, molecular mixology uses science to create unusual effects in contemporary cocktails. It harnesses chemistry to create liquid spheres, and uses gels, foams and other ingredients to manufacture one-of-a-kind creations.

But all those hours of research and development came with a self-evident downside. Like many a bartender, Moe has struggled with temptation, and he hasn’t always won. He admits to two DUI convictions, one in 2014 and another in 2017, for which he had to do the “ankle bracelet crap for six months.”

In April 2014, not long after the DUI he caught in February of that year, Phoenix New Times reported that Moe had “parted ways” with Kantak at Citizen Public House in March over “an incident that could not be overlooked.” Moe says he can’t talk about it as part of a settlement. Kantak and business partner Fritz have not responded to requests for comment. Moe said he had “sweat equity” in Citizen and its sister location, The Gladly.

“I’m happy to see that they’re still doing well.” Moe says. “I had [a] big part to play in getting that place up and running and then put my stamp on that place. So it’s definitely a pride issue for me. If the restaurant’s doing well, it speaks well to a track record.”

Despite his scrapes with Johnny Law, Moe claims he’s “never had a dependency issue or anything like that.” As far as rehab programs go, he’s had to do some “liquor classes for DUIs,” but “court-mandated,” not by choice. “I’ve definitely had some fun and put myself in a couple of sticky situations, but you know, you live, you learn, you get over it and you don’t do it again,” he says.

Even so, Moe’s mortality appeared to be teetering. Following a stint as beverage manager at Binkley’s Restaurant (where he would meet Character’s future chef, Justin “Red” Hauska) and a second tour at Square One Concepts, Moe had two brushes with death. In the summer of 2019, he was run over by a speeding car while strolling through Old Town, ending up under the vehicle with a broken back. He was in a body cast for several months and still feels numbness in what he calls his “bionic” hand, the one he uses most often as a bartender.

Moe also tells how he once took a bullet fragment in Old Town as “two groups of guys” were fighting and one person fired a warning shot in the ground. The projectile ricocheted and hit Moe in the stomach, leaving him with a flesh wound. “I reached in and pulled out the fragment,” he says. “I probably didn’t need to go to the hospital for it. But it scared the shit out of me.”

More painful was the triple hernia he developed from wearing a backbrace after the accident. Whenever he coughed or sneezed, his body couldn’t expand as needed.

“And it’s really tough to look good in a hernia belt,” he cracks.

At the end of a long-term romantic relationship, Moe considered relocating to Nashville, where he says he had a sweet gig lined up with the Brown-Forman Corporation, makers of Jack Daniels. However, the onset of the pandemic kept him in town.

Talk about synergy. Around that time, Kasperski ran into one of his old employees, Jason Harvey, who used to tend bar at Cowboy Ciao, working alongside Moe. While at Ciao, Harvey became friends with veteran Phoenix developer Jonathon Vento.

Fast forward a couple of decades. In 2017, Vento launched True North Studio and quickly turned the firm into a major player in the RoRo arts district with unique properties like the Cambria Hotel, the Ten-O-One Building and Pemberton PHX, a sprawling hipster Disneyland where FilmBar landed during the pandemic, showing classic flicks outdoors, like An American Werewolf in London and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Now an investor and developer in his own right, Harvey was looking to help Vento find a new fit for a reclaimed historical property at 218 E. Portland Street, former home of the French-inspired eatery Josephine and its companion cocktail bar, Coup de Grâce, which had the misfortune of opening – and closing – during the pandemic. Harvey took the opportunity to lure Kasperski, and eventually, Moe, to the spot.

“They’re such heavyweights,” Harvey says. “They do so much for the neighborhood coming in. And I just love having their food and wine and cocktails close by.”

Kasperski enlisted Moe in the project and asked him if he had any ideas for the chef. Moe said he had the right guy a phone call away: chef Hauska, formerly of Binkley’s and Kai at Wild Horse Pass.

The name for the new place? During one business meeting in 2020, Kasperski says an investor’s wife referred to him and Moe as “a couple of characters.” It stuck.

“The more I looked at the word character, the more I liked the way we could play with it,” Kasperski says. “Every time we change the menu, we’re changing the character arc.”

Kasperski’s reemergence was instant news, garnering mostly enthusiastic write-ups in local outlets, with PHOENIX critic Nikki Buchanan praising Hauska’s “globally influenced menu,” Moe’s “exceptional cocktails,” and Kasperski’s “geeky, nimble wine list.”

Inside the establishment, brick walls are adorned with remembrances of things past: copper plates from the Moe family, a black and white photo of early Ciao investor and dancer Teddy Kennedy from the days when he performed alongside Vaslav Nijinsky in Paris, and behind the bar, a gleaming wall of pennies, all dated 2020, an homage to a penny mosaic at Kazimierz, which reopened in 2019 under new ownership.

Character’s menu has a couple of Ciao-ish standards, a chopped salad and a phenomenal bread pudding. But the rest is Hauska-crafted “distinctive dining,” as Kasperski calls it: burrata and meatballs in rustic tomato sauce, duck ragout atop a cauliflower-Emmental mash, charred octopus with Spanish chorizo and so on.

Meanwhile, Character’s cocktails speak to the restaurant’s dinner house vibe, like the Yellowstone Man, a Manhattan with Yellowstone bourbon and Carpano Antica vermouth, or Moe’s Buffalo Soldier, featuring Zubrowka bison grass vodka and Tia Maria liqueur.

Kasperski lives across the street with his geriatric cat in The Continental apartments and enjoys his Mondays off when Character is closed. The neighborhood is buzzing with activity, and he says Character’s business has been picking up as the pandemic seems to subside.

He predicts Hauska will score a James Beard Award one of these days. And if Kasperski’s aforementioned coaching tree is any judge, Hauska should. After all, Kasperski gave James Beard Award-winner Chris Bianco his first restaurant job in Arizona – as a barback at Harry & Steve’s.

Bianco’s memories of Ciao are golden. “He’s a big part of Valley history,” the unpretentious Bianco says, taking a break from making a pizza at his Town & Country location to sing Kasperski’s praises. “Hospitality in its best form is a high art, like, to disarm a guest, and shutting up and listening to what the guest needs. Pete was always very good at understanding that.”

A guest recently told Kasperski that he and Moe really had “stones” to open up mid-pandemic like they did. But so far, it’s paid off. And Kasperski seems at peace with himself.

After the scores of restaurants he’s opened or been a part of over the years, has it been harder this time around?

He pauses, answering slowly before trailing off.

“I’m definitely more appreciative of the opportunity,” he says. “I’m gaining my own confidence level back to where it should be in terms of what I need it to be for me to do this. ’Cause you take a hit when you go through what I went through. You take a hit, and you just don’t know…”

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