Tag Archives: Optimism

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


To slay a dragon…

Ignorantly convinced that I could ‘change’ my partners, by slowly and subtley impressing upon them the values of fair dealings, honesty, and integrity, I pressed ahead.

Nobly, they stuck to their guns, resolute in a stubborn resolve to prove that the path of short term gain could perform better under the daily stress of the restaurant business.  I was outnumbered by one, and their track record with the coke-snorting broker crowd trumped any cachet my Kitsilano hipster following when it came to spending.

Soon, I found myself fighting a two front war armed only with the best intentions and a moral indignation, like bringing a spoon to a gunfight.  The only real weapon I had was the fact I was willing to outwork the two of them, thus, keeping myself useful, and relevant.

What i really needed was a champion.

We agreed on very few things, but one of the those very few things was our chef.  Andrey Durbach had just returned from Europe after closing his own critically acclaimed restaurant in town a couple years before.  Durbach’s cooking style was rustic to a fault, overflowing with flavour, and dripping in integrity.  He was the absolute worst possible fit with our team, psychologically, but was luckily blind to that when we brought him on board.

I had found my champion, and would soon send him in to battle.

I knew Andrey had the mental fortitude for epic battles when we engaged in a four hour debate on coffee.  It travelled to three different venues, never skipping a beat, picking up followers as it progressed.  It reminded me of ‘The Quiet Man’, or for those not so cinematically versed, the chicken fight in Family Guy.  Either way, neither of us were wrong, but I’m pretty sure neither of us were right either.

That, however, was beside the point, as it usually is in debates as asinine and semantic as this one.

Durbach had the passion, the punch, and the ability to outlast his opponents, just with sheer will, on any topic he felt deserved his righteous support.  With Durbach in place, we could even the odds, turn this into something bigger than all of us, and do so with integrity.  In my mind’s eye, I saw my little red balloon, somewhat worse for wear, bobbing it’s way slowly back home.

Soon, we would be united again…


Optimism begets more optimism…

One restaurant begat a second.  This one the saddest of buildings in a sad, forgotten little wasteland of a block.  Every building around it had been torn down, and this little thing was sitting all alone in the middle.  It had no architectural charm to speak of.  It was the kind of ‘old’ that doesn’t carry any weight with either the rustic old antiquers or even the ironic hipsters.  It had nothing, not even potential.  It was the kind of pathetic you have a tough time feeling sorry for.

It had a basement with rust coloured carpet, a fishtank that probably never had fish in it, and streams of fake plastic ivy throughout.  Some well meaning future decorating failure had used lime green paint and a sponge to add texture to the old stucco walls, as if somehow trying to convince the universe that two wrongs can make a right.

The top floor had been converted for use as a clandestine massage parlour, affectionately called a ‘rub and tug’ in the business.  They spared every expense, and were kind enough to leave the used mattresses and reading materials for us to dispose of.  Every day we sank deeper into the stank of this place, and still, you couldn’t kill the fire burning inside.  I was desperate to prove that the first hadn’t been a fluke, and that truly, anything was possible.   If no one could make this  little rat infested, stank sullied, fire trap of a box into someplace that people wanted to go to, then that was just the kind of impossible I wanted to try.

I managed to convince a couple guys with other restaurants in the region that a combined effort would help to overcome the obvious challenges, and we managed to strike a deal over several bottles of wine.  I had also come to learn that liquor makes any negotiation smooth, be it in business or whatever you wanted to negotiate.

That was probably when things started to get all Goodfellas on me.  Remember the awkward moments with Joe Pesci, who was clearly out of his mind?  I started to find myself on the receiving end of a few of those.  It was something you shrug off to stress the first couple of times, but after awhile, you start wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, how do you get out, and frankly, why are my partners so batshit crazy?

Have you ever been totally smitten by a girl, who 90% of the time is fun, affectionate, and totally down to earth, and then you get those random times where she’s literally vomitting blood and speaking in tongues?  You find yourself covering for her, as if the pleasant times you enjoyed the previous weekend could somehow erase the hate and insanity that would possess her and lead her on a violent crime spree.  Sadly, I was always attracted to those girls, and perhaps that’s why I ended up with business partners who were masters of the mindfuck, criminally minded, and powerered entirely by alcohol.

This is when the optimism balloon I’d been toting around, tied with a ribbon around my wrist, slipped away somehow and floated out to the sky.  I watched it wander in the wind, in no hurry to escape, but never, ever returning.  I felt sad for the loss, but convinced myself that it was time to grow up, face my demons, and fix the mess I had found myself in.

But the demons, they have candy…


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