Hoppin’ Good Eats

It’s three restaurants
and counting for this second-generation professional chef

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Michel MaheMichel Mahe grew up in the restaurant business, the son of a French chef in New York City. He came to Vermont 10 years ago to open Starry Night Café in North Ferrisburgh and now owns three Vermont fine-dining establishments: The Bearded Frog in Shelburne; Black Sheep Bistro in Vergennes; and the Bobcat Café in Bristol, which he co-owns.

Michel Mahe’s move to Vermont came as a result of realizing that he’d been “promoted” out of what he loved to do. As director of food and beverage for the Interpacific Group out of San Francisco for four years in the mid to late 1990s, Mahe had left the kitchen and entered the corporate side of food service.

He was a trouble-shooter. “Interpacific’s properties were scattered all around the world — Australia, Thailand, Vietnam, San Francisco, Hawaii. “I had a secretary, traveled a lot. I would go wherever I was needed. My job was to problem-solve at different locations, from designing menus to analyzing profit and loss to expansion issues, trying to figure out how to make the businesses grow and be more profitable.

“I had moved too far away from getting my hands dirty, which is what I enjoy doing,” he says. He means cooking. It’s what he’s done since childhood, having grown up in New York City as the son of a French chef. “We had a restaurant in New York — Le Cheval Blanc — for many years,” says Mahe. “I always worked for my parents in the kitchen.”

After graduation from Cornell University’s school of hotel administration, he was hired into the management program at Marriott Hotels. Even then, though, he realized he wanted to cook.

Through the early 1990s, he developed his skills by working at restaurants in New York — “Gotham Bar & Grill, Rain, Michael’s on 50th, another three-star,” he says, until the chance to travel lured him to San Francisco and the Interpacific Group.

Four years later, he knew he’d had enough. He was on his way to Simon Pearce to be the executive chef in Woodstock, he says, when life threw him a curve. “I met my future business partner at a friend’s house. She offered me a partnership at Starry Night, and I accepted.” Starry Night Café opened in Ferrisburgh in 1999.

Unfortunately, the partnership did not last, and Mahe needed to move on. He didn’t move far. By 2002, he had opened Black Sheep Bistro, an elegant restaurant serving country French cuisine, in Vergennes.

Dickie Austin and Andrea BrienMahe has 79 employees among his three restaurants. Dickie Austin, manager of The Bearded Frog, has been with Mahe for five years. Andrea Brien is the front-of-the-house manager.

“I have a lot of respect for Michel,” says Robert Fuller, the owner of Leunig’s Bistro in Burlington and former owner of Pauline’s in South Burlington, Gillian’s in Shelburne, the Bobcat Cafe in Bristol, and Cubber’s in Bristol. “He’s overcome a lot of obstacles, and what he created in Vergennes with the Black Sheep Bistro is nothing short of a miracle. He opened it with a couple of credit cards and a loan from his parents, then fixed up the place, worked like a dog, and created an institution there.”

Mahe also opened a bar in Vergennes called Antidote, which he eventually sold to the bartender. “I needed a bar that had an atmosphere comparable to Black Sheep,” he says. “It’s still a good idea, because my customers can come to Antidote and then come to Black Sheep. It’s more of a lounge with leather chairs — a gorgeous place to sit down, have a nice gin and tonic, then walk down to Black Sheep. If you provide a better experience for the night as a totality, they are likely to come back.”

Come back, they did, and four years later, in 2006, Mahe opened a second restaurant, The Bearded Frog, in the former Shelburne Inn building. He named it The Bearded Frog, he says, in his typical quick-witted but quiet fashion, “because I’m French and I have a beard.”

Andrea CousineauThe general public doesn’t realize how much work goes into preparing that one three-hour span at night in a restaurant, says Mahe. He depends on 79 employees in his three properties. Andrea Cousineau is the chef de cuisine at the Bearded Frog.

Fuller was delighted when, in 2008, Mahe expressed an interest in buying the Bobcat Café from him. “My vision of Bobcat was as a pub — the center of social life in the community,” Fuller says. He mentions a concept from a book by Ray Oldenburg titled Celebrating the Third Place.

“I thought about the importance of a third place distinctive from home and work where you go to plug into the community. Relationships at home are fairly static; predictable. For some people, that third place is the fire department; for others, it’s the softball league. I think I first got the idea from Paul Ralston at Vermont Coffee. He lived in England a couple of years and said he loved the pubs. Pretty much everybody in the village would stop in to check in and talk about whatever’s on their mind: politics, sports, whatever. When you get home, you feel like you’re connected to the community.”

Preserving this sense of community is just what Mahe had in mind when he brought the Bobcat’s chefs, Sanderson Wheeler and Erin Chamof, on as partners. Once the debt is served, they will own half of the business.

“In Vermont, the hardest part is finding people to work in different locations like Vergennes,” he says. “and the Bobcat had the same problem before I took it over. That’s why I made the chefs my partners, so they would stay.”

Obviously, running three restaurants in a hands-on manner can’t be done alone. Mahe has 79 employees in his three properties. It’s important to retain good staff people, he says. At the Bearded Frog, he depends on his general manager, five-year veteran Dickie Austin, and chef de cuisine Andrea Cousineau, who’s been with him 10 years.

Mahe starts every day, seven days a week, at the Black Sheep. Then it’s off to the Bearded Frog to meet with Austin, check the reservations, and meet with Cousineau about the menu. “We start planning very early what we’re going to do three months down the road — right now, we’re talking about the spring.” At the Bobcat, he has the same routine.

“I typically start my day at 6 a.m. and work until noon or take a nap, and then go out and check one of my restaurants to make sure they’re doing well, then go to bed around midnight. It’s the double shift of a chef; it’s a curse,” he says.

It’s also hard on a relationship. “I think the biggest challenge for my partner was that she didn’t know anybody in the restaurant industry, so at first it was, ‘Where are you? How can you work so many hours?’”

His partner is Sarah Stradtner. They met at a liquor store in Vergennes, where she worked and he bought liquor for Black Sheep. “The rest is history,” says Mahe. “Now there’s a 5-year-old boy, Jonah.”

The biggest challenge for those in the restaurant business in the last 20 years has come from television, he says. “Once upon a time, cheffing was not a luxury job,” says Mahe. “I would say we were like blue-collar workers: We worked a lot; we weren’t stars. Then came the Food Channel and more unique goods flowing into the U.S. markets. The Food Channel has made stars of us, and the public has become more aware of the ingredients they can access.”

This has created both good and bad results, Mahe continues. “There’s more exposure for our business and a bigger following,” he says. “At the same time, these TV shows don’t tell you what it costs to make what they’re making, so you have a risk, when people think, ‘Why don’t we get caviar from Russia to put on top? It would be so nice.’”

An upswing in interest in culinary school is one good outgrowth of this popularity. “Twenty years ago, it was almost a guild system, where you started as a dishwasher and worked your way up. Now people have an idea that a chef is in a white shirt like the ones on TV.

“This is not a pleasant job; you’ve got to love it. You’re on your feet 24 hours a day, and you spend the first few years peeling potatoes. That’s the reality. Look at me! I own three restaurants, and I’m still up at 6 in the morning.”

Asked where he goes from here, Mahe answers quickly. “I don’t know. Right now, I’m going to sit tight on what we’ve got. I’m always looking at restaurants to buy; it’s kind of in the blood. My partner has given up trying to stop me.” He laughs.

He mentions one interest outside of food service: photography. “I’ve been doing it for 15 years, but keep it very close to myself,” he says. One day he envisions traveling the world on photo safaris. “I was going to do one this year to Cuba, but the economy stopped me.”

He laughs again when the subject of being the cook at home comes up. “I’m a terrible cook at home — I make an enormous mess; I don’t have a dishwasher to clean up after me; and I don’t know how to cook small quantities.”

What he does love is being in Vermont. “In San Francisco, New York, you are anonymous,” he says. “Here people know my cars, and it’s fun.

Mahe is far from slowing down. “I always say to people, ‘If you don’t like it any more, stop, because you’re going to mess up anyway. I still get up in the morning and jump up to start work. It’s not a burden. The day I get up and don’t want to go, then I’ll think about stopping.

“I have every intention of giving it my best. I will stop one day, but not today.” •