Tag Archives: entrepreneur

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


Debauchery, thy name is Lucy…

Restaurants are typically families more than they’re businesses.

Dysfunctional, flawed, self-destructive families held together by a common desire to be better than themselves, by nature of their best intentions, passionate pursuit of ideals, and righteous opinions on what makes the perfect restaurant, but families nonetheless.

So many of us ended up in restaurants out of a search for passion, meaning, and craftsmanship in our lives.  The barrier to entry is better described as a steeply walled pit.  Avoid it as best you can, but should you inadvertently step within the event horizon, you’ll find yourself slowly and helplessly being pulled into its warm embrace.  Don’t resist.  Like a college romance, it’s best to enjoy it for what it is.  A momentary adventure that gives you the freedom to embrace new ideas, new cultures, and a nearly consequence free opportunity to express yourself in new and interesting ways.

This new restaurant partnership had highlighted so many of our differences, and highlighted the divisions so much that philosophical lines had begun to be drawn.  We were all quick to ignore the problems, as the optimism of our new venture was carrying us forward each new day, refusing to let us be distracted by our differences.  There continued, however, to be alignment on both sides, as we all collected our soldiers and staked our territories, just in case the shit should hit the fan.

On one side, my other two partners.  Both of whom had been successful in their own right, building unique restaurants of their own, that while never enjoying critical success, were filled nightly with the type of sobriety challenged glitterati that loved a good time more than a good year in bordeaux.  Each of their restaurants, while lacking the systems, consistency, and professionalism of a typically successful venture, made up for it in spades with personality.

On the other side, I had a loose collection of proud loyalists to the craft.  We were all united by the unflinching vision of creating something awesome.  It wasn’t enough to create something successful, it had to be free from the trappings and bullshit of all the typical hot places in town.  We wanted to stand for something, and were willing to compromise on so very little to achieve our vision.  We mixed old world and new world, taking the best, independent, and forward thinking out of all of it.  We didn’t want to fall into a niche, and thus made avoiding a niche, our niche.

United, we stood, divided.

All of us involved knowingly accepted the flawed fellowship of unlikely team mates, knowing full well the potential for disruption of the local market.  The only thing left to do was to take a deep breath and jump in.

We had an ugly duckling for a location, we had a trio of owners with wildly differing views, demographics, and fully validated successes behind them, we had a brilliantly talented chef with everything to prove to a city he’d left behind after it failed to get behind his own restaurant, and we had enough blind faith to blissfully ignore the inevitable train wreck we were about to create.

What we didn’t have, was a name.

Marketing experts will always tell you that great marketing is really just great storytelling.  Telling the story of your restaurant, however, can sometimes be challenging.  Is your story the food, the location, the people?  We struggled for weeks with this.  There were endless meetings, a long list of rejects, and the inevitable arguments as we cheered the current favourite around the table.

Many name candidates got tossed out quickly, (too ethnic, too trashy, too dirty), others survived much longer, until we would discover a horrible word that rhymed with it, or a definition of it in urban dictionary that even we hadn’t heard about.  We eventually started brainstorming around the words that we felt would be great descriptors of the place.  Sophisticated, hedonistic, elegant, and debauchery.  We realized at that point that it sounded more like we were describing a person, instead of a place.  Frustrated, we pushed on.

Building continued, as we wrestled with the naming process.  We let it fester in our heads as we tore out the guts of the building, rebuilding it inch by inch, covering the decades of dirt and shame with paint, plaster, and polish.  The old beast fought us every step of the way, giving up the secrets of its past, one by one, exposing more and more problems for us to overcome.  Electrical, plumbing, structure, everything about this poor wreck was a mess, and no quick makeover would cover them up.  We needed to start from scratch.

One of our many trips to city hall ended up yielding a hint to the building’s provenance, in a cryptic reference to one of the building’s past occupants.  Under the listing ‘boarding house’, the occupant/operator was listed as one Lucy Mae Brown.  Subsequent searches revealed that the boarding house was actually a brothel, and there were suggestions that Ms Brown was a French madame hailing from New Orleans, who had disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

The story told itself after that.  We realized that we had indeed been describing a person, and she had envisioned a house of sophistication, elegance, hedonism, and debauchery as well, fifty years prior.  Perhaps her approach was different from ours, but as the previous tenants had proven, the attempts to capture that magic had endured, and we were the latest to try to give her memory a lasting legacy.

The tragic and beautiful story of Lucy Mae Brown had just begun.


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…


The idea started simply…

The world needed a better way to organize it’s life.

I hadn’t really thought of it, you know, as a big problem.  i hadn’t really thought of it much at all.

Only thing i knew was that life had been simpler before, easier to understand….  smaller.  And most of us liked it that way.

All that was about to change…. isn’t that how most stories start?

This story starts with an ending.

I had spent 10 years fulfilling a dream.  i had successfully built and operated 3 kickass restaurants/bars and i was pretty damn pleased with myself during the run.

Actually that’s not true, I was miserable most of the time, but it sure looked like I was having a blast.

Anyways, on to the beginning.  The ending started ending when the cancer treatment started ending, and the beginning of our new life looked like it had a shot at working out.  We didn’t have a long term outlook.  We didn’t have a plan.  We had a ‘put your head down, grit your teeth, and get through today’ approach that had gotten us out of the cancer, out of debt, out of partnerships with addicts and assholes, and out of the everyday shitty feeling like there’s something looming on your horizon about to kick you back down the hole you just crawled out of.

That was working great for us, but it was a far cry from where we started a decade before.

In the first year, success came slowly, fidgetting it’s way nervously towards us as we fumbled awkwardly towards it.  When it finally hit, it wasn’t smooth or romantic, but a clumsy and awkward accident.  Like horny teenagers fearful of catching an std from french kissing, or getting pregnant with a dry hump, success and I did everything wrong, and still ended up holding hands and smiling uneasily at each other, imagining a perfect future in a soon to be perfect world.

Optimism strapped itself on my back like a rocket pack, and i took off in exploration of a world where anything is possible if you just have the right pluck and determination, and the eye for people that dare to dream, to pick up along the way.

Some that I picked up were just as awkward with success as i, and as much as i tried to ease them into it, everyone’s first time is always weird, and scary, and gloriously exciting.  Enthusiasm makes up for so much when you’re playing with impossible outcomes, and sometimes even then it’s only worth it if you’re chasing something impossible.  The romantic in all of us is a sucker for staring at night skies, imagining that somewhere there must be someone as scared, as hopeful, and as tragically doomed to failure as themselves.

That romanticism saved my soul, as we negotiated booze addled poker nights of the industry’s most debaucherous card sharks, or cocktail soirees with ballerinas, champagne purveyors and wild mushroom foragers.  The people who were drawn to us, were the same romantics as us, believing beyond rationality (and probably influenced by a healthy appreciation for our wares), that the impossible was indeed possible.  We all hitched our wagons to each other as if to say, we’ll outnumber the bastards, and fuck em if they can’t take a joke.

I miss that place, a lot.   I miss the people far more…