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Cleetus Friedman Talks Fountainhead and Check, Please

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In under two months since closing City Provisions, Cleetus Friedman has experienced both ends of the emotional spectrum. On that day he was at the bottom, painfully evident in the sound of his voice. Now the roller coaster has brought him back up, recently accepting the position as executive chef at Fountainhead and emerging as one of the 17 finalists to become the next Check, Please host. Friedman spoke about how his new job came about, his Check, Please chances, and what to expect from him at Fountainhead.

This position sounds like it's perfect for you, that you'll get to a lot of the stuff you were doing before.
It pretty much is. There's a tremendous amount of opportunity and I'm so psyched. I love the beverage program, I love the rooftop, the semi-private dining room. I'm so excited to take my food and really compliment the beverage menu. They brought me in because of who I am and what I do. I'm able to create an all-new menu that reflects not only my taste and my approach to food but it lets me highlight the drinks they have here. I get to do all my wine-making and have that be a focus here. They have such a core following already, I'm in the same neighborhood.

You were looking to open your own place and you were scouting, how did you decide to go into someone else's restaurant?
I wanted to keep doing everything that I love doing and I found the right opportunity to do it all. It's a perfect fit. I come here frequently and I was in the market and they were looking to raise the level of the food. The conversation started somehow and ended with me saying "this is where I want to be."

Were there any locations that you seriously considered for your own place?
I didn't want to do that again. Not yet.

What kind of new stuff are you going to introduce there?
On Friday I introduced my food right away. We're going to take a lot of my mainstays and throw them up. I have a rooftop with 85 seats opening up as soon as this weather breaks, so I have a whole lot to do and very little time to do it so I need to come into a kitchen that's been doing one thing and restructure it to do a totally different thing and the clock is ticking. Now everybody knows I'm here and I want to get my food out as soon as possible, but not to the expense of service. I'm not going to hurry anything until it's perfect, but when it comes it's going to knock everybody off their feet.

Are you going to be doing the same things you did at City Provisions – the farm dinners, beer collaborations, etc?
The collaborations won't just continue, this is the perfect stage to play on. I already have all the brewers and the beer people calling me because they're so excited. At City Provisions I was very hyper-local and now at Fountainhead there's a lot more opportunity for me to work with breweries that I couldn't work with in the past. I'm looking forward to doing something with Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, I'm hoping to do something with Stone Brewing Company, I'm a huge fan of Oskar Blues. I get to spread my palette to my people a lot more.

When City Provisions closed you were so down and now you're so up. In retrospect, was City Provisions closing a blessing?
Probably. The day I closed City Provisions my kids were so sad. I said "when you're at the bottom, there's only one way to go and that's up. I know I'm going to get there, it's just a matter of time and finding what's right." I never lost the love and passion, I just didn't have a place to do it. I went five weeks without working after closing a restaurant, it's like someone dying. Now I get to focus on the next chapter.

And now you made the finalist cut for Check, Please.
I can't say it hasn't been a good week for me. The whole Check, Please thing – I'm meant to do that. I don't throw my hat in the ring expecting to wait on the sideline and let someone else get it. I'm getting it. Every opportunity I get to be in front of the producers I make sure I shine. I know I want it, I know I can get it. After spending five weeks of being at the very bottom, it's so uplifting and so overwhelming. It's not what I want to do, it's what people want to see. I can engage people, and I'm sexy as hell.

When should people expect to see new stuff from you at Fountainhead?
I'm underpromising and overdelivering on (the new menu). The time is when we're ready. I would like to get that done in the next three-to-four weeks. As far as collaborations go, my first collaboration is with Begyle Brewing and we are scheduled to release our beer during Craft Beer Week. I'm working on a lot of Craft Beer Week events here at Fountainhead so stay tuned for that.
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