Tag Archives: allegro cafe

Crouching tiger, hidden drunken monkey

I first met Michael sitting on the bar at Fiction.  I was working my usual shift behind the bar, chatting with locals and regulars, blissfully unaware of the insanity that lay lurking in my not so distant future.

I loved working that bar.  It spanned the entire long, narrow dining room, as if over-compensating for the small-ness of the space, and imposed its presence with it’s thick, ancient wooden beams.  It was built to support the weight of 20 people dancing, should the need arise (and it often did), but polished up nicely as a long communal table where kits locals and industry regulars would pull up a stool, dive into a microbrew or single malt, and take down a cheese plate and some yam fries, any night of the week.

The people you would meet working that wood were creative, engaged, opinionated, and above all, thirsty.  You build up a tolerance for personalities when you tend bar, and an affinity for them if you do it long enough.  The crazy ones have better stories, and once you filter out the ones that pay their bills from the ones that don’t, all you need to do is sit back and let the fiction roll in.  After awhile, a bartender tends to think they’ve got a pretty good read on most people, and I was no exception.  In my 25 years in the business I had read very few people wrong, but none more than Michael.

Michael was quiet, soft-spoken, and solitary.  He smiled openly, genuinely, and with a quality that drew you into him.  He ordered a bottle of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, for himself.  We chatted at length about restaurants, people, the hard road to success, and all the challenges of chasing a dream.  Michael was loose, relaxed, charming, and engaging.  The topic of opening a restaurant together came up almost immediately, and knowing he had two successful rooms under his belt in the downtown core, I couldn’t help but be entranced by the idea.

As we explored the possibilities, I would eventually find myself at his flagship, Allegro Cafe, where I witnessed the legend that was Michael Mitton.

Memories have a tendency to lean towards the hyperbole, and I’m sure mine are  influenced by the indecent amount of alcohol that flowed freely through that room, but my wonderment at watching him work the floor made me feel like I was witnessing a restaurateur Willy Wonka, a social savant, a genius of geniality.  He never served a dish, and was always drinking, but he knew the name of every. single. guest.

I studied him, both curious and dumbfounded.  Michael defied every rule of restaurant management, he had no systems, no controls, the dining room wasn’t even sectioned off.  Servers were managing tables from all areas of the dining room, running the length of the room, making their own drinks, and finding ways to deal with their chaos as best they could.  The place was an asylum, and it was awesome.

I was watching all the rules get broken, and seeing it work.  Not just surviving, it was thriving, packed full at 10pm on a Monday night.  The room was filled with spenders, and Michael played them to perfection.  This was the old school method, a lost art, and the approach that all the chains had beaten out of me years before, and I had a chance to learn it.

I became an eager student, and thus a willing drunk, as I spent more and more time at Allegro, picking up the intricacies of his process.  I adopted many of them, and rejected a few.  I wasn’t about to disregard a decade of study on business fundamentals, marketing philosophy or operational and management systems, but damn, a full restaurant all the time sure fixes a lot of budget issues.

The entire restaurant was entirely guest focussed.  If the guest smoked, there was a stash behind the bar so they never go wanting another pack.  If the guest had a girlfriend, they would never tell his wife.  They knew their names, their kids names, what they did for a living, and what they drank.  They worked as a team, passing a series of whispers and notes whenever a detail was forgotten. There was no database, no list, simply the hive mind that could be counted on to collectively remember the tiny details.  All too often Michael would see a guest after a year had passed, and ask if the kids were still studying law, or if they got that promotion, all to the amazed faces of the guests who immediately felt important, and part of the family.  The hive mind was uncanny, all trained by Michael to remember every last detail of an interaction, and pass it along to the hive.

Michael’s training methods were as classic as it gets.  No training, no teaching, no information.  Trial by fire, if you last the week, you’ve probably made it.   He would snap at a passing employee ‘listen to me’ before issuing any order, and it required immediate follow through.  Typically, the ones that survived were big personalities, impact people with thick skins, A types that knew the cash in their jeans at the end of the night came with a bucket of crazy, and it was simply the cost of doing business.  Pablo Picante, Doug Hanson, and the many others I met were some of the most charming sons of bitches you’ll ever meet, and had livers of impossible capacity, with a wit to match.  I learned quickly not to play poker or drinking games with any of that crew.

Michael had another secret weapon, his chef.  Passionate, driven, humble, and beautiful.  Barbara Reese was the kind of woman you expect to find in a classic film.  A mix of Julia Child and Katherine Hepburn, she stoically navigated the kitchen through the nightly tempests, and often I was surprised to see her emerge from the kitchen to bring us fresh-baked scones , as we polished off  Heinekens at 3am.

With her last name being Reese, and a signature dessert that included chocolate and peanut butter, I couldn’t resist asking if the two were linked, and indeed they were.  Barbara explained that her previously wealthy and luxurious life did very little to fulfill her, and the culinary craft beckoned.  Her husband refused to allow his wife to work, and she promptly divorced him, choosing the craft over a life of leisure.

Michael had created a machine that perpetuated itself purely on personality, and an unmeasurable force of will.  It was a sight to behold, and I considered myself fortunate to be able to open a restaurant with him as a partner.  Clearly, any venture with his charms involved would be a success, and any adjustments to process, systems, and organization that were needed was simply a matter of convincing him of the values of management.  After all, I had learned all of those values from Jeff and Stan Fuller, the founders of the Earl’s and Cactus Club chains, numbering in the hundreds of stores, with hundreds of millions in revenues behind them, it would be ludicrous to toss all that experience in favour of chaos, right?

No artist wants to be told how to hold their brush, and Michael was no exception.  It wouldn’t take long to discover the other side of Michael, the one that required the thick skin, the pocket full of dollars, and freely flowing alcohol to tolerate.  I eventually adopted all three, but they weren’t enough to stem the tide of insanity that was set upon me as we set about building the next great Vancouver restaurant.

Mike Mitton

Michael Mitton, genius, restaurateur, social savant


A Different Kind of Crazy

Chef Andrey and I had numerous chances to wax poetic on so many random topics, and I embraced every one eager to peel back layers of the onion on his bombastically crazy, wickedly talented, and deeply philosophical mind.  It was often an interplay of questions on questions, a bit of a jousting, as both of us worked hard to prove to the other that a deeper culinary purpose was worthwhile pursuing, and that somehow there could be found a strand of it in the nuthouse we had created.

I’m pretty sure that the entire time we worked together Andrey and I never really got each other, but it wasn’t from a lack of trying.  We called each other on our shit, and probably listened to each other most over any of the other noises.  Andrey was eager to have a hit, show the city he had some street in his cooking, and teach the cocktails and silicon crowd a thing or two about food.  I was pushing hard to earn some real critical cred, prove the chops were there, and represent a new way at looking at fine dining.  Despite our differences, we both understood deep down that we needed the other.

We fought (passionately agreed to disagree) more than either of us would have liked, over the stupidest shit.  Placement of the water station was a three day debate.  The aforementioned coffee battle became our Korea, as neither of us budged, and thus neither of us won, or lost, and to this day, the mere mention of if might renew full scale hostilities.  The result was that we carried illy, one of the top coffee brands out of Italy, and horribly expensive to boot.  In the end, the guests were the real winners in that debate.

Andrey had a signature shrug, as emphatic as a shrug could ever aspire to be.  It meant many things, depending on the concern at hand, and you could often find yourself disarmed by it.  At first, it seems humbling, as if to say ‘hey it’s a fucked up world we live in’, but once you get to know Andrey you start to realize it’s more often ‘I could tell you to go fuck yourself but you wouldn’t listen now, would you’.  Those that know Andrey know this shrug well, it’s his signature spinorama, and it’s gold.  Being on the receiving end of ‘the shrug’ enough times, it eventually evolved to a mutual, unspoken agreement that we’re all just rats in a maze, being rewarded with cheese for getting through the shit.  In Andrey’s view, it made sense to just ensure it was really tasty, artisinal cheese.

I learned a tremendous amount from Andrey, and made a point of listening when he spoke.  When we first spoke on food, he explained his philosophy simply, and as the words stuck with me to this day, I can recall it verbatim.

“Duck and lentils are a perfect pairing.  They’ve been a perfect pairing for hundreds of years, so why would you try and change that?  Go and find the best duck on the planet, and pair it with the best lentil’s on the planet, and you’ll have a fantastic dish.”  – Andrey Durbach

Simplicity.  Excellence.  Integrity.

I could distill him down to those three words.  Although, while his lack of compromise was philosophically endearing, it sometimes stopped business in its tracks.  He said no more than yes, swore more than Ramsay, and had befuddled servers running, crying, out of the kitchen.  He made our lives hell at times, and had ridiculous demands, and pushed his staff as hard as I’ve ever seen.  He was on a crusade, waving a flag of  culinary righteousness, hoisting infidels on his petard, and spit roasting them to perfection.

His unique brand of crazy was rooted in a pursuit of perfection that isn’t tangible, and exists only in the mind.  This is the kind of crazy that makes people exceptional, to ignore the masses, go against the grain, and reach for something beautiful and dangerous.

Every true artist is tormented by their art.  They aren’t crazy because they’re eating the paint, or high on mescaline (both very good excuses for being crazy), but because they have a vision in their mind that wont subside until they’ve seen it realized before them, by their hand.

I know this crazy well enough to recognize it in someone else.  Andrey was my kind of crazy.

Speaking of crazy, did I mention my partners?  Yeah, let me tell you about crazy…but before i do, you should check out one of Andrey’s outstanding restaurants.

www.pied-a-terre-bistro.ca

www.labuca.ca

www.cafeteriavancouver.ca

photo credit Scout magazine

Andrey Durbach, courtesy Scout Magazine


Laws of energy, and entrepreneurs

Momentum is an awesome power.

Newtonian Laws weren’t written to explain entrepreneurial inspiration and perspiration, but they may have been influenced by the same understanding.  The idea that a body, once set in motion, will continue that motion until otherwise impeded is also a fundamental law of entrepreneurialism.

Often when you meet an entrepreneur, you’ll immediately notice one thing about them.  They don’t shut up.

The momentum of one idea turning into another, and another, is the gas in our tank.  It propels a thinker to think of more, and rewards them with further ideas, which have potential, potential to disrupt, to change, to improve, and to excite.  Dreamers are dreamers because they’re high on the heroin of the potential of their beautiful ideas.  There is no room for logic, no room for mathematics, schematics or pragmatics.  Chase the dragon, chase the dream.

At the beginning of Lucy Mae Brown, we had drank the kool-aid.  Hell, we spiked it with whiskey and redbull for good measure.  Admittance to our coven required it, and if you too were a dream junkie, we had a home for you.

The thing we all know about dreamers is that momentum tends to trump organization, planning, and basic business fundamentals.  Boring and mundane, those tasks are relegated to the ‘less visionary’ and deemed unnecessary to savants like ourselves, who can iterate elegant (and affordable) solutions out of even the most obstinate of problems (that’s sarcasm, FYI, we’re optimistic idiots, tricked by our own dopamine addled brains into thinking ‘we’ve got this’).

So, drunk on dreams, propelled helplessly by the momentum of what we had started, we cannonballed into the deep end of the pool, and started smashing the place up.

My partner Matt, the owner of the Crime Lab, was one for whom the laws of momentum were specifically written.  He was a man of action, regardless of direction or motivation, and took to the demolition like a hooker in a cocaine snowball fight.  Eyes wide, a wicked grin on his face, he would hurl framing hammers at shamelessly tacky arched mirrors from across the room.  He held anywhere from 3-6 hammers at a time, laughing, cackling, as he whipped each hammer at the offending mirrors.  It was a Tarantino symphony of destruction.  The crashing of debris, the dust clouds building, italian stucco snowing from the roof, and a lone man, surrounded by mirrors, fending them all off armed only with his insanity, and Estwing framing hammers.

Weeks and months went by, as they do, and the dream was getting constantly beset by distractions.  Michael, the other partner, was busy running Allegro Cafe, Matt was running the Crime Lab, and the guy that I had brought in to fill the void at Fiction was turning into a drunken disaster.  While Matt and I were busy destroying and building the LMB, our other projects were suffering, and Michael had lost patience long ago for the lack of instant gratification this long term rebuild was delivering.  Our personalities were starting to wear thin on each other, and the added stress of our other projects exerted further unneeded pressure.

We were fully in entrepreneurial momentum withdrawl.

The symptoms of withdrawl include blank stares at empty stud walls, heavy drinking, and a manic search for inspiration.  Each addict has their own way of dealing, and we were a horrible support group for each other, so we went our separate ways.  Matt and Mike were drinking buddies already, and that kept them sated, but I needed the good stuff.  I needed big beautiful ideas.  Magazines, art, films, New York, San Fran, Paris, grafitti artists, dancers, musicians.  I needed to freebase the inspiration directly.

Another law of entrepreneurialism, the law of conservation of energy, states that energy may neither be created nor destroyed.  In the face of so much destruction and chaos, one could find it hard to believe, however, one should never argue with science (unless of course, you still think the world is 6 thousand years old.  In that case, have at it).

Our momentum had done something special, it had transferred itself to the team around us.  The dreamers we had assembled together had picked up the torch, and were fervently spreading the word, enlisting recruits, and telling the story of Lucy.  It may not have been a beautiful dream anymore, a sad, tacky old building in the awkward stages of renovation, a partnership fragmenting, and all focus lost, but in their minds it was still beautiful, and they were still fighting for it, even when we had lost faith.

People conduct electricity and energy with a frightening efficiency, and if you don’t believe me go stick your finger in a light socket.  Our staff had become the more willing host for the optimism and momentum, and nature followed the path of least resistance to those who would more efficiently carry the energy.  While we had burdened ourselves with our staff’s and each others expectations, we had created a toxic environment for the momentum, and it had found a better host.

Ben Franklin, the guy with the kite and the key who tried to prove that lightning wasn’t simply God punishing you for touching yourself (science still can’t fully dispute this theory, part of the reason I never go out in a thunderstorm), surmised that “from electric fire thus obtained spirits may be kindled”.

How right he was.

Our momentum then, once set in motion, stayed in motion.  Even when we felt our energy had dissipated, it had only transferred to a more willing host, following the path of least resistance, and that energy, once collected, kindled the spirits of all of us, and created momentum anew.

Science is so cool…

The Science of Entrepreneurialism


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