Tag Archives: restaurant

Happiness is a slippery fish

Pray for a difficult life

By

Years ago I read a study that said one of the most stated regrets of people on their deathbeds was that they hadn’t built a better relationship with their parents.

The oft repeated quote ‘no one on their deathbed wishes they spent more days at work’ has also been slyly directed my way more than once, enough that I might even start to listen.  The other regret, however, weighs heavily on me.

I’ve watched with some concern as my parents get older.  As a kid, time passes so slowly that you take everything for granted.  Your parents have all the answers, I was sure my dad could beat up anyone else’s dad, and it just seemed like they’d both be around forever.  Watching them age, even as gracefully as they have, has been a stark reminder that those regrets are rooted in a harsh reality.

I’ve had a front row seat as they both crafted entrepreneurial ventures from the ground up.  They took big risks, worked hard, and eventually those ventures grew strong enough to pull us out of crippling debt.  Some years later, they co-signed a loan to help me start my first restaurant.

The circle of debt continues…

My folks are the people I aspired to be.  Self-made entrepreneurs who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and still found a way to achieve their dreams, they were proof that you didn’t need charity, or luck, or a silver spoon.  Coming from an Alberta farm, my dad’s solution to every problem was hard work, and my mother, fresh off the boat from Denmark, was always crafting, innovating, and thinking of new ways to approach old problems.  Together they were a formidable pair, and watching them flip the bird to the corporate establishment and do it themselves felt like the greatest ‘fuck you’ to a world that I was just starting to realize wasn’t built to be fair.

A few years after they co-signed my first business loan, I had three busy restaurants, a social calendar filled with wine dinners, fashion galas, poker nights, wrap parties, and all the other bullshit I thought was cool at the time.  I barely saw my folks in those days, I couldn’t manage to find the time to cross town and have dinner once a week, and was losing touch despite living a 30 minute drive away.  It couldn’t have been any easier to stay in touch, and yet, I didn’t.  I started to realize why those regrets would be on the lips of every person as they took stock of their existence.  It was just so damn easy to take it for granted.

Forever isn’t forever, and time is a thief that distracts you, so that it can more easily steal your most precious moments.

I could see myself following in the footsteps of millions who came to regret their apathy, and I resolved to do something about it.  Something drastic.

I moved into my parent’s basement.

It started off as awkwardly as you can imagine.  The house was in a quiet suburb, populated by lousy chain restaurants, with nothing but raccoons and a long commute to keep you entertained.  Restaurant life was hectic, social, and wildly unpredictable.

It seemed like I was walking away on a life that had enough booze and badly behaving people to stay interesting for quite some time.

After working for years to build the lifestyle I wanted, I had traded it in for the hope that I could avoid that single regret, the lingering wistfulness of memories that were never created, the opportunities forever lost.  In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Today is my father’s birthday.  He is turning 74.

I’m broke, completely invested in a new business adventure, and I can’t afford to buy him a gift.  I find myself quite humbled, and I’ve justified to myself that perhaps the better gift has been this time together.

It’s a lie, of course.  That gift was a gift I gave myself, and keep re-gifting without guilt, year after year.

My father was my first mentor, my first business advisor, and the best sounding board I’ve ever had.  He built Canada’s first microbreweries (Granville Island Brewery, Upper Canada  Brewery) with a group of friends, starting one of the greatest movements the modern world has ever seen, craft beer.  It was an impossible dream, an unlikely success, and was beset by obstacles, challenges, and an unproven market (there was beer, and light beer, brewed to taste ‘cold’…seriously, wtf does ‘cold’ taste like).   That he did it at a time when our family was struggling with the fallout from the housing crash of ’82 is a constant reminder to me that our family is at its best when our backs are against the wall.  I can still remember at 9 years old stuffing beer bottles into six pack containers to help out opening week, and getting my first hangover off batch #1 of GI lager (parenting was a little different back then).

My father’s father, Farley Sherwood, was rather persuasive about him getting a college education, so he came out west to earn a degree in forestry from UBC.  He went back and landed a job on the radio, leveraged that fame to marry the local hotty, went on to sales (Imperial Oil), and eventually became the Marketing Manager for McDonald’s in Western Canada.

That was the job he quit when I was six, and to this day it remains a vivid memory.  He checked out, mid way through a great career, in his prime.  I remember him telling me and my brother that he was unhappy, his job wasn’t fulfilling, and he hated the politics.  Confused, I struggled with the notion that your job was something you could enjoy, not just a paycheck.  I was also more than a little concerned that we had just broken up with McDonalds.  Even in the pre-nugget era that place had a grip on my heart, and I was pretty stoked to have happy meal connections.  I was literally on a first name basis with the Hamburgler.

At six years old, I was served a reality check that indoctrinated me into the entrepreneurial ranks, and I had no idea.

We flirted with bankruptcy.

Actually, it was more of a long, drawn out affair.  My folks had bought their dream house, and, counselled by their realtor into keeping the old one as long as possible to ride the rising market, they got caught in the crash.   They owed twice as much as the houses were worth, and were getting crushed by 24% interest rates on two mortgages.

Just like that, happiness became a luxury we couldn’t afford.

We moved into the basement, and rented out the rest of the houses to help cover the mortgages, and Dad called a family meeting to craft a plan.

My brother and I got paper routes, lots of them.  We stuffed flyers, mowed lawns, and did other odd jobs.  My mother pulled a page out of the 3 Amigo’s script, and when asked what she could do to help, she said ‘I can sew’.  Her little craft business grew into a sportswear business that grew into a national fashion company with an impressively innovative distribution model.  It was the precursor to companies like Indochino, long before the digital age, and as my dad tells it, it was the rope that pulled us out of hell.

He was good at what he did, and he picked up gigs as a marketing consultant.  Then, maybe because crazy plans were something he’d grown far more comfortable with, he and his friends came up with the idea to build a brewery, using the fresh Vancouver water, with all the heart and soul of being for locals, by locals.  There were three large brewers at the time, and they paid the little upstart no mind.  Within a year, however, they saw market share escaping, and combined forces to crush the microbrewery movement hard.  It was too late, the market had gotten a taste, and soon small craft breweries were opening faster than Molson’s, Labbatt’s and O’Keefes could squash them.  Unionizing plants, controlling bottle regulations, even excise and production limitations were successfully lobbied for, but microbreweries found a way to make it work, something that’s easier when you have customers clamoring for your product.

Happiness was a fish he had once tossed back into the water for being too small, and now he had hooked the big one.

My dad’s tolerance for risk had put him in deeper waters, and we almost drowned, but I’m convinced it was going through the struggles which gave him the hunger to appreciate every opportunity he had, and land that big fish when it counted.  With my mom’s business thriving as well, they had pulled off the rare double, and there wasn’t a doubt left in my mind who my heroes were.  The seed had been planted, my mind had been made, I saw the difficult path as the most attractive, with the biggest payoffs, and I was determined to be an entrepreneur just like them.

After 50, he started to look tired, and sometimes I wondered if he had grown a little weary of the world.  He was supposed to be pushing retirement, and seemed to be genuinely considering it, even though there seemed to be lots more left in the tank.  His signature glint in his eye didn’t appear so much, and I was wondering if it would ever return when the colleges came calling. That started a change.

I’d like to believe that being around young, idealistic students who still hold the notion that the world is theirs to change, was the reason he sparked up, and maybe it was just that he could stand in front of a room full of cute college girls and they’d believe every word he said (…and, I just realized I want to be a teacher), but he had a renewed energy, and the glint that had lived in his eyes for so many years was back, and brighter than ever.

He taught marketing and sales all the way up to 65, when they forced him into retirement.  It was an outdated union rule that would end up being changed a couple of years too late, and I think he would have continued teaching to this day if they’d let him.  The amount of his former students who still come up to me to tell me how much they learned from him, how important he was for them, and how much they loved his stories, is staggering.

I had one of them doing his best to vigorously convince me of how cool my dad is, and all I could do was nod, smile, and think, you don’t even know the half of it.

My dad’s retirement party was bittersweet.  He didn’t want to celebrate it, as much as everyone wanted to celebrate him.  He was getting pushed out, just when he was having the most fun.  I remember thinking how odd it was, how broken the system, that its greatest contributors are removed when they’re at their most effective.

A man provides.  He contributes.

We measure our worth by our ability to be the mind or muscle that moves mountains, even if it’s only a single stone at a time.  We measure our lives by what we did, our contributions, and our impact. Take that away, and you take a fundamental part of our identity.  We need purpose, and when we have it, we will build, we will act, we will overcome.  When we don’t, we start losing our curiosity, our ambition, and our willingness to tackle anything but a ham sandwich and an afternoon nap.

When my dad retired, his signature spark, the glint in his eye, started to fade again.  Without the regular influx of young idealism, boundless energy, and world changing ambition into his daily routine, I think he struggled to find a reason to give a shit.  The chores around the house became the problems he needed to solve, and everyone knows that trimming the hedges doesn’t solve sweet fuck all.

I think often about carrying on the family name, of doing it justice.

My brother and I both have daughters, and that means the surname attached to our future generations won’t be his. I’m ok with it now.  His surname has power to me because of who he is, who his father was, and all the fathers before him who worked their asses off to move the sticks a few yards further.  They had different surnames, with different meanings to the sons and daughters who bore them on.  The name represents those men, their sacrifices, their risks, their failures, and their successes, and while the name will change, their legacy will not, because of what they invested in their children, who invested it into my father, who has since invested it in me.

I’ve realized now, that as I was building my companies, my family, and my career, I thought I was creating a legacy.  I wasn’t.  I’ve inherited his.   It has made me even more determined to measure up.  I inherited a legacy from a long line of people who struggled and sacrificed to move the sticks a little further, and I’ll be damned if I’m the generation that fucks it all up.

The birth of my daughter was unexpected, and life changing.  I’ve never been more scared of anything than when she first stopped breathing, seven weeks premature, and I was completely helpless to do anything about it.  My parents were there for every minute, and without them I’d have been a complete wreck.  (I was still a wreck, just with the support to ensure I could fake it appropriately)

From that moment on, my father’s choices in life made perfect sense.  It wasn’t ambition, or pride, or even greed, which fueled his decision to chase happiness.  He had learned the stakes of the game, that once you have seen how frail and impossible happiness is, how delicate and improbable its survival, you realize you need to fight for it.  You need to put the bullshit on the line, the houses, the cars, the jobs and the fancy titles, and you need to put all that shit on red and spin the fucking wheel because the cost of having it far outweighs the cost of reaching for it.

I know my parents would like me to learn from their mistakes, I just can’t.

I ignored their mistakes, I forgot the times they yelled at me for fucking up (there were more than a few of those).   I wrote over any memory of my father not being the man I wanted to grow up to be like.  I saw every challenge he endured only through the successful outcome he wrestled from it.

It sounds naïve, but it isn’t.  I studied everything he did that made him my hero, and tossed the rest.  What do I need to know about mistakes he made?  I know enough about pain and struggles, I’m a fucking connoisseur of the curveballs life can throw, and the only shot I’ve had of overcoming those is from studying someone with a demonstrated expertise in overcoming them.

I’m lucky, I know.  Perspective is everything for me now.

I’m lucky that my parents would put up with my shit, give me a shot at avoiding this one regret, and teach me how to bait the hook and reel happiness in.  Evangeline, our daughter, has inherited her Grandfather’s signature spark, and in turn, rekindled his, and they’ve formed a two person, cookie-snatching conspiracy.

I don’t know that this was the happiness that my father had in mind when he quit his job to start us on this adventure.  I do know that on my deathbed, I will have one fewer regrets to list off before I pass on the torch to Evangeline.

Today is my dad’s birthday, and when I grow up, I want to be just like him.

Go post a dirty joke on his wall, he could use some new material.  https://www.facebook.com/larry.sherwood.50

You see the glint, don't you...

You see the glint, don’t you…

Advertisements

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.


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


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.


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…