Tag Archives: Michael Mitton

Mad Men….

Matt Walsh was Michael’s partner in the Crime Lab, and the willing straight man to Michael’s crazy.  The first night I met Matt was when he and Michael held their staff Christmas party at Fiction.  That night, he personally polished off a bottle and a half of crown royal, and the rest of their staff were right behind him.  I had dealt with some drunks in my day, but these were more than your average heavy drinker, these were professionals.

Matt was tall, lean, and reminded me instantly of Will Ferrell as Frank the tank.  Despite that, he had a steely, calculating intelligence lurking beneath his boyishly unkempt hair.  He was the kind of guy that looks through you, searching your face, your body language, and your words for a twitch, a lie, or a weakness.  There was a reason, as I was discover later, but he had a presence, and whereas Michael was a volatile mix of emotion and chaos, Matt’s silence often said far more.

People are always relegated to two sides, the thinkers and the do-ers.  Matt was a do-er, by every definition.  Shoot first, ask questions later, and worry about hiding the body in the morning.  We all like do-ers, for the simple fact that shit gets done.  It may not be as you like it, but it’s done, and we can fix it later.  He and I differed on many things, but we were absolutely on the same page on the do-er side, and agreed that every do-er needs a do-over-er right beside them to help things get to where they need to be.

Mike and Matt were partners in crime, literally.  Their first venture together, aptly named ‘The Crime Lab’, spent its first 2 years of existence moonlighting as an all night booze can.  This quickly earned its way into the hearts, minds, and livers of every service industry pro, concierge, and moderately shady character in town.  Cash only, intimate, and everyone’s little secret, the Crime Lab quickly paid off its initial investment and ran a great dinner service to boot.  The perfect joint, you could take your in-laws for an elegant dinner, drop them off, and be back in time to do jager bombs with your server, some local film talent, and anyone else looking to blow off some steam at 4am.

I learned quickly that Michael and Matt had each other’s back.  They shared everything with each other, and seemed genuinely happy that they’d found in each other a willing partner in the dance through the moral ‘gray area’ of the restaurant world.  That being said, neither of them seemed unwilling to rat out the other’s shortfallings or weaknesses, especially if there was a way to profit from it.  In the first two weeks I learned far more about either of them than I ever wanted to know, the good, the bad, and the very ugly.

While they were close confidants, their relationship seemed to be one of a mutually beneficial manipulation.  Matt famously bragged about how he tricked Michael into building the Crime Lab for him and let him run it, Michael bragged about how smart he was to have a guy running his other restaurant for him and doing all the work.  Their partnership was a perfect paradigm of the win-win, and while they were both winning, times were good, and the liquor flowed.

At this point I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been tricked as well.  It was perfectly possible for them to have engineered the same deceit on me as they had on each other, and it was obvious I was going to be no exception to the rule.  With this in mind, our location seemed even more perfect.  Designated as a future park, the lot we sat on had a shelf life, giving our partnership an expiry date that looked to last no more than 3 years.  I was convinced that the worst case scenario would be to shut the joint down, walk away, and let the wrecking ball cover up any mistakes our partnership might endure.  It was thought to be a commitment free partnership, a restaurateurs ‘friends with benefits’ sort of affair that let us all keep our main projects but could dabble guilt free in our collective goal of creating something at the highest level of execution, debauchery, and craftsmanship.

The allure of creating something that was, by design, finite, was compelling.  We literally sought out to capture the magic of a ‘flash in the pan’, here today, gone tomorrow joint.  Everything about Lucy Mae Brown was a polar opposite of every smart business approach I’d had, but I couldn’t look away, I couldn’t stop, and no one could talk me out of it.  She had become too powerful, the momentum and ego and pure enthusiasm for awesome had become like rocket fuel, and soon I was obsessed about every tiny detail, completely engrossed in the idea of creating something that no one had seen, experienced, or tasted before.

I had been masterfully manipulated, puppet mastered into creating a monster for my masters.  Lucy Mae Brown had never been one person, but was a collection of broken restaurant souls, stitched together with the idea that together they could be a cohesive thing, a whole person, a single vision.  She was a freak, and inherently flawed, and so broken and damaged from the start that I had fallen for the idea that I could fix her, make her whole, and show the world what I saw.

The truth was that I wasn’t manipulated by my partners, despite maybe their best attempts, but was a willing sacrifice to my own ego, pride, and ambition.  I wanted to be the one to take the ugly duckling and turn it into a swan (and then make a nice foie gras).  I wasn’t a victim, in fact I had manipulated myself despite every logical indication screaming that I should run in the opposite direction, for ego, for pride, for vision, and for my love of Lucy.

I learned more about myself by trying to learn about my partners.  I learned that they weren’t as good at masking their weaknesses, faults, and failings, and I learned that mine stank of the same failings of pride and ego, regardless of how I justified it.

Creating something takes something from the creator, and in exchange fills them with a sense of ownership, fulfilment, pride, and validation.  Creation will attach itself to you, make the process a part of you, make you want to create more than anything else in the world.   Even as it drains the life from your body, it fills your mind with ideas and gratification.  As it alienates your family, your friends, and your colleagues, it introduces you to willing participants, enablers, and partners, all living with their own devil’s gambit as they chase the dragon themselves.

I’ve learned now, that no one else is responsible for the decisions I made, they were compromises willingly made, so that my monster could live.  I’m not proud of some of them, but as any parent will tell you, the gray area tends to get grayer when your progeny is at stake.

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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