Are These Guys Nuts?

July 1, 2009

If all goes according to plan, the Corner Suite Bistro De Luxe will open in its questionable location just off the Robson drag around the time you read this. Between them, principals Andre McGillivray and Steve Da Cruz have raised barely enough capital to last three months in an economy that has been particularly cruel to restaurants. They're locked into a two-year contract with a 26-year-old chef who boasts a household name but little executive experience. How's that for ballsy? (Or crazy.)

McGillivray, 37, is one of this city's most pedigreed and best-known front-of-house personages. He charms with cool confidence, and few are better connected in the local trade. After serving and tending bar at Robson's top-drawer CinCin for nearly a decade, he managed star-studded perennials Chambar, Lumière, and Le Crocodile. In 2007 he opened Boneta in Gastown (along with sommelier Neil Ingram, also ex-Lumière, and bartender Mark Brand, also ex-Chambar) to critical acclaim, winning golds for Best Design and Best New Informal at this magazine's 19th restaurant awards. In January of this year, after splitting with his partners, he remortgaged his East Van loft and signed for a bank loan with his mother-in-law to secure his $106,000 share of the Corner Suite's $350,000 startup cost.

It was at Boneta that McGillivray met Da Cruz, a 31-year-old veteran of many Manhattan bars, among them the York Imperial, Ruby Foo's Times Square, and City 75. Tall, built like a quarterback, and possessed of a lazy Eastern Seaboard twang that sounds like a young Christopher Walken's, he's considered one of the best bartenders in the city. Like McGillivray, he's a respected figure in the industry. (Many will prefer to sit at his bar than at any of the Corner Suite's 38 tables.) This is his first turn at ownership. For him, everything is riding on its success. His family, in the wake of recent health scares-his mom is a breast-cancer survivor and his dad recently underwent brain surgery-have advanced him a chunk of his inheritance: "They wanted to be alive to see what I'd do with it."

But it's the chef who's generating the most buzz. On TV, as star of the popular Food Network show The Main, Anthony Sedlak is a youthful doughboy in designer hoodies and T-shirts, talking loudly and cooking at the same time. One local chef scoffed when she learned of his hiring, calling him "afternoon food porn for desperate housewives."

Maybe, but he started in the restaurant business at 13. By 15, he was a tong-twirling, towel-snapping line jockey at the Observatory (Grouse Mountain's fine-dining room), clocking shifts after school and on weekends while finishing the culinary-arts program at his North Vancouver high school. In 2004, age 20, he moved to London and an entry-level position at La Trompette. Within a year, he'd climbed the ladder to sous-chef. That sort of rise takes uncommon ability and presence. "The London cooking scene was pretty tough with the long hours, high expectations, and fierce learning curve," he remembers. "It's push, push every night."

After returning home in 2006 to toil again at the Observatory, Sedlak sent an audition tape to the Food Network and was one of six selected to compete in its Superstar Chef Challenge. He won. His reward? So far, four seasons of The Main, complete with sleek companion cookbook and fans from coast to coast.

He and McGillivray met by accident in a Yaletown café last December. They became fast friends. It took McGillivray several weeks to learn that Sedlak was anything but a young-blood cook. Only after he suggested that they work together down the road did he learn of Sedlak's résumé. The chef deadpanned: "That sounds really great, but I have some scheduling limitations. You see, I have this cookbook that just came out, plus I have a show on the Food Network."

Sedlak's as excited to be embarking on his first executive chef gig as he is to be back in a professional kitchen after two years in TV Land. "Cooking is not like riding a bike," he says. "You really have to stay on it." Joining him in the Corner Suite's kitchen as executive sous-chef is Jason Leizert, who trained at Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn and London's Michelin-starred Lindsay House before returning home to leave his mark at two respected Victoria restaurants, the Rosemeade and the slick, locally minded Niche, where he's been executive chef for the past two years.

Days after officially signing on, Sedlak is in his whites in the McGillivrays' home kitchen after a day spent shopping on Granville Island. Neither of his employers has seen him cook off-camera. The chef has been playing with menu ideas since he and McGillivray first discussed the food concept–comforting French bistro–and he's eager to start plating. Joining us are Sebastien Le Goff, sommelier and general manager at Cibo and Uva Wine Bar in the Moda Hotel, and Kurtis Kolt, sommelier and general manager at Gastown's Salt Tasting Room; together they drafted the Corner Suite's wine list.

Deeply tanned, unshaven, and lean, Sedlak looks nothing like the pudgy-cheeked icon he plays on TV. "I didn't want to be a fat chef," he confides. When he describes his food philosophy–"Keep it simple, use only two or three main ingredients per dish"–his staccato voice booms as his long arms and expressive hands set to work.

After scoring incisions into thick strips of pork belly and rubbing fleur de sel and salsa verde into them, he slices the pork into cubes, pans them to perfection, and perches them in triplicate on plump, expertly seared diver scallops. The gelatinous layers of translucent pork fat suspended between seasoned strata of tender meat dissolve on my palate. An icewine vinaigrette studded with capers and raisins cuts through the saltiness. Next comes a rib-eye with frites. Before serving the steak, Sedlak cuts off the outer fat cap and trims the remaining fat and gristle away from the centre cut, leaving a thick, beautifully marbled six-ounce piece of intensely flavoured meat. His frites are cut thickly, salted generously, and arranged next to a ramekin of smoothly pungent béarnaise sauce. His draft menu reads seductively, and he's only just started.

He's obviously more than just a pretty face, but will talent and celebrity matter in this economy? Inside the Corner Suite's site at 850 Thurlow are the skeletal remains of what used to be Piccolo Mondo ('84-'04) and Saveur ('04-'09). It's hard to see the wisdom in the risk they're taking. Little is left of the space, save the unnerving detritus of another restaurant's failure: dusty coffee cups, glassware, and ashtrays; old chef's knives with twisted tangs and broken handles; and racks of spent silverware. "It's all ours," McGillivray says with mock pride. The business was first listed for sale in October 2008 for $178,000. They got it for a mere $90,000.

After a few days, the discoveries began. Behind one wall they found an elaborate mosaic patterned in aqua, grey, blue, and green tiles. A peek above the cheap ceiling panels, concealing a labyrinthine tangle of useless piping and fittings, revealed an extra few feet of height they exposed and trimmed. The six-seat bar, slated for the sledgehammer, will be painted and fitted with a two-way mirror to become a neat service station.

The trick, as in any business, is to be as calculating as possible. A $138,000 bank loan coupled with $212,000 split between McGillivray and Da Cruz isn't going to go far: besides the $90,000 to purchase Saveur (a sum that includes everything from the stoves and furnishings to the existing lease and liquor licence), there's $25,766 for rent while under construction; $12,500 down on new kitchen equipment; $21,000 down on gorgeous blue Six Inch chairs from Belgium; $12,000 on tables; $7,250 down on a point-of-sale system; $18,000 for staff training; $16,000 for bar stock; $17,000 for food; $1,300 down for insurance; $3,800 for signage; $30,000 for painting, plumbing, electrical, sanding, plastering, and drywalling; and $15,886 for legal fees and computers and office supplies.

And then there's the three-and-a-half-foot-tall Victoria Arduino "Venus Century" espresso machine, the bar's centrepiece. It's the sixth of only 100 ever made (the first is owned by the Pope), and the only one in British Columbia. It's setting them back $21,000 ($5,250 down). All told, this leaves them with a mere $74,248 in the bank, roughly 22 percent of their investment. (They also have two unused $100,000 lines of emergency credit.) "It should really be 40 percent." McGillivray shrugs, as if to say, But what are ya gonna do?

New restaurants are a rough game, but these guys have their eyes wide open. McGillivray and Da Cruz are well aware that their room is arriving at the end of a boom that saw an unprecedented 200 noteworthy rooms open in Vancouver in the past five years (enough that Food & Wine magazine declared it one of the 10 best restaurant cities in the world). Had they launched in the midst of it, they wouldn't have had the impact they will now, when few rooms are opening. That's the good news.

McGillivray is optimistic about the timing. "The recession isn't going to last forever," he says. "When things return to normal we'll be right where we want to be." The location is a risk, even though it's close to major hotels. Good value is also key. "Vancouver diners are savvy, educated, and know what they want more than ever before," McGillivray says. "People know when they're paying too much-I love that. Honest, good food at a fair price is what it's all about, and the establishments that follow through will always shine."

Once open, they'll have to manage expenditures tightly. Each month, $12,883 will go to rent, strata fees, and taxes. (Hydro, heat, air conditioning, garbage and recycling pickup, maintenance, and one parking stall are included.) Four phone lines, Internet, alarm, interest, and insurance plus licences and permits add $6,018, and they hope $5,100 will cover miscellaneous costs (laundry, janitorial and office supplies, vehicle expenses, and so on). The big dings will be $77,000 in salaries and labour, $42,000 for liquor, and $39,000 for food. All told, they're looking to spend no more than $182,000 per month, or $6,066.70 a day. They project an average revenue of $8,500 a day (they'll close only for Christmas and New Year's)–a gross of $3,085,500 by the end of year one. They forecast a steady climb to $4,049,991 by their fifth year, at which point they expect to break even.

That point–2014–is a long way off. Check averages have plummeted, suppliers are growing antsy, and whispers of a great cull fill the service stations and walk-in coolers of our best restaurants. Many rooms have closed in the last six months (among them Aurora Bistro, Chow, Ocean 6 Seventeen, Tequila Kitchen, Le Marrakech), and the industry is awash in rumours about who might be next.

McGillivray is undaunted: "Fortune favours the bold."

 

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