The Old Hands: Michael Carlevale

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As well known for his uniquely personal sense of the sartorial as well as his wit, charm, and vocabulary, I always felt that Michael Carlevale was an eccentric in the true sense of the word.

I first met the late Michael Carlevale in November of 1997, not long after I had arrived upon Canadian shores from my native Scotland. I had been introduced to him by my new friend, then Wine Agent, Jamieson Kerr, who had suggested that I would be a good candidate to take on the role of Sommelier at Michael’s new venture, The Boston Club, which was slated to open in January of the following year.

Upon our first meeting at the bar of Enoteca della Piazza, I distinctly remember him fingering the fabrics of both my shirt and my admittedly cheap suit, followed by a politely disparaging commentary about the lack of fashion sense of the Scottish people. Quite taken aback by his direct approach, I was immediately both impressed and intimidated by this truly larger-than-life gentleman.

Despite never properly accepting the position at Michael’s ill-fated Boston Club, a move that led to him choosing not to speak to me for some two years or so, we continued to keep in touch throughout his later years in Toronto, crossing paths at many a wine dinner or tasting, always sharing scurrilous gossip, bawdy jokes, and ribald tales about our lives in Toronto’s hospitality community.

The spirit of hospitality burned bright within Michael.

“You know Jamie, at the end of the the day we are all just waiters and cooks”.

I’ve never forgotten those particular words of his.

Michael passed away between Christmas and New Year of 2014 at his retirement home in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, at the age of 65.

Below are some thoughts from a number of his friends/colleagues followed by an interview I conducted with him in the first few months of last year for the seventh in our burgeoning Old Hands series. In this series we probe the memories and minds of some of the founding fathers and original influencers of Toronto’s restaurant scene. And Michael was certainly one of those.

Anne Martin (Head Sommelier, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – worked as Sommelier at Prego 1996 – 1999)

Michael was undoubtedly an iconic restaurateur, with a talent for schmoozing the clientele, and creating a buzz in a room that I have never experienced anywhere else. He truly understood service and with his innate skills could sell anything to anybody. He also managed to attract many stars and very high profile people, who added to the excitement surrounding the restaurant.

Steven Campbell (Grand Fromage, Lifford Wines):

Michael was a brightly burning high octane fire whose flame enchanted, delighted and enthralled a generation of restaurant goers . Relentlessly brilliant, wickedly fun and with more than a few eccentricities he held court at Prego and fed the cognoscenti while at the same time encouraging and developing a great restaurant team. I will miss him.

Cindy Wilkes (The Brooklyn Tavern)

Michael was a person who enjoyed life to the fullest with a heart as big as the sky. He was a very religious man and loved his family. He told me to never turn down a invitation because then you won’t be asked the next time. He still called me every two weeks and I will deeply miss him.

Jamieson Kerr (The Oxley/Queen and Beaver – worked as Wine Buyer at Prego 1995 – 1996):

He was such a unique character. I remember when I first met him. He picked out exactly what I was wearing – right down to the designer. Perhaps he had a crush on me and hired me because I actually loved fashion!  An extremely intelligent man who had flaws like all of us, but he had an innate sense of detail and was always the most courteous around people. He was the quintessential host. Incredibly well spoken and a really considerate soul.

Norman Hardie (Winemaker – worked as Maître d’/Sommelier at Prego for three months in 1995):

I will remember Michael fondly for his sense of true hospitality and his incredible generosity. He had an uncanny knack of making everyone on the patio, bar and dining room (as many as 150 at a time) all feel very special and welcome. I never quite figured out why he felt his managers were required to wear jackets on stifling hot August days on the patio… one of the many and mostly wonderful eccentricities most of us never worked out.

David Rukavina (AKA Dave The Rave, Wine Agent):

How fortunate Toronto was in 1979 to have Michael Carlevale rescue the city from its staid and conservative demeanor . Michael brought style, exuberance, panache, and civility to an otherwise monochrome existence. The man and his restaurants will always live on in the memories of those who shared his grand adventure. How impoverished we would have been without him. I am proud to call him a friend.

Mikey Morrow (Bartender at Prego 1991 – 2000):

It’s amazing the number of talented people who passed through his restaurants and have gone on to do great things in the industry. His hiring policy was definitely not corporate, as skills were often secondary to an interesting personality. I guess he thought that you’d figure it out for yourself. I also remember his favourite Sunday dinner… Swiss Chalet take out with a bottle or two of Gaja Barbaresco!

Good Food Revolution: Great to be in touch again Michael. Now, for our readers at Good Food Revolution, how long have you been involved in Toronto’s hospitality industry and where did you get your start?

Please remind us of your history in the industry?

Michael Carlevale: I opened Carlevale’s Restaurant in November of 1978. I left Prego in January of 2009. A chronology of the other restaurants is available verbally.

GFR: And although this is a huge question, what are the most significant changes that you have seen in the dining scene over the decades? Where is Toronto at today and what have we seen by way of changes since you were in the game?

MC: The fervour of a new way of restaurateuring which spawned in the seventies and eighties found its logical outcome in what I call the Cathedrals of the nineties ( North 44, Centro, Prego etc.)  In the two thousands, the Cathedrals wained and the action moved to King Street, Ossington, and Queen Street East.

These were smaller, less expensive endroits with really competent and interesting cooking; maybe not much to look at but with great energy. Perhaps also, cooks became more important than the restaurateurs. A point of view .

GFR: How do you feel about Toronto as a restaurant city? Do you feel as if we are world class in this department or do we still have some way to go?

MC: Toronto is a world class city because it has world class cooks, but more importantly it has world class diners, people who travel and know how good it is at home, comparatively.

GFR: What with a number of New York Chefs opening outposts in our fair city, what do you think that this says about the evolution of our dining scene, and perhaps more poignantly, global dining as a whole?

MC: The propensity for modern chefs of stature (Susur Lee) to license their name is just a modern commercial phenomenon. Its roots lie in the prosperity of any given city, ie Las Vegas, Toronto etc.

GFR: Message boards such as Chowhound often bemoan the lack of polished service in Toronto? Do you see any truth in this?

MC: Baloney. Toronto service beats most because we have the best managers ON THE FLOOR, working, and not hiding. (Franco) Prevedello and (George) Gurnon worked their floors.

Michael relaxing with his friend Karen Doyle from Lifford Wines.

GFR: What in your mind makes for good service?

MC: Not servility but civility, an ancient attribute.

GFR: Over the years, where have you experienced the best service in Toronto?

MC: Centro and Scaramouche, no question.

GFR: Does the future of the independent restaurant in Toronto look bleak or blissful from you point of view?

MC: Of course the independent restaurant is healthy and will always be so as it has since the nineteenth century. Napolean said, ” bread, olives wine “. good enough for me

GFR: “No-shows” can be the death of a small establishment. What do you feel can be done (legally) to combat such situations?

MC: Not an issue which stirs me. Bad manners will always be with us.

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On any given evening, or lunchtime for that matter, Michael could be found gliding around the room at Prego, holding court over his self-contained Yorkville empire, glass of wine in hand, and always an enviable arsenal of Wildean barbs and ripostes at the ready.

GFR: So do you feel that a “no reservations” policy is a sensible solution for a smaller restaurant?

MC: In most cases this is a bad idea.

GFR: How do you feel the recent increase in minimum wage in Ontario impacts the restaurateur? 

MC: The dearth of living wages in the hospitality industry is a big problem Fast food bears the brunt of this. Ontario is ahead of the US. where the subject is a hot issue to the level of our great President. I personally payed well and saw to it that the staff shared the wealth. The Lord said, ” the poor we shall always have with us”. Too true

GFR: Getting into the area of tips? Do you feel that serving staff should payout something to to the house for breakages and the like? What do you feel is fair or are such expenses just a cost of doing business? 

MC: These expenses are a cost of doing business which I believe should be apportioned to the staff and I did. They are like a uniform, you can’t do business with out them, otherwise nobody wins. The restaurateur has enough basic expenses. I did charge but can’t remember exactly how much. There might be questions of legality ! Oops

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Michael with Franco Prevedello and Chef Massimo Capra in 1980.

GFR: And what are your thoughts on the recent case regarding Mario Batali settling a lawsuit regarding skimming of tips to the tune of $5.25 million?

MC: I’m sensitive about this because I charged a percentage for my presence and work on the floor. Mario charging for his name seems greedy. I wonder if he split with the quiet Joe Bastianich ?

GFR: On the subject of Toronto restaurant critics, do you feel that any are worth their salt?

MC: Toronto has in general as qualified and saavy restaurant critics as any that I’ve encountered. This was in my time. I’m away some years now.

GFR: And how do you feel about the legitimacy of guides like Zagat and its ilk?

MC: They are generally quite good or they would not still be around.

GFR: And then of course we have the democratization of food writing… food bloggers… where do you stand on this particular issue?

MC: I don’t follow them. There is too much to read.

GFR: It appears to me that Toronto goes through very obvious trends in its restaurants (tacos, bacon on and in everything, rustic Italian, goodness knows what this week) I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic?

MC: Trends are human nature, you can’t avoid them. It was never the style at Prego. I always thought of my restaurant as classic, probably with the exception of me being among the first to dry age meat. Bersani and Carlevale and Byzantium were also way ahead of their time.

Where much of the magic happened... Prego's patio.

Where much of the magic happened… Prego’s patio was simply the place to be seen during the summer months.

GFR: And what, in your sage wisdom, do you predict for the future?

MC: I have always thought that the foods of the Levant would become more mainstream. They are inexpensive, delicious and healthy. Toronto foolishly missed my Byzantium; other than the martini bar there, they missed the beauty of Eppstadt‘s design and the gastronomy. Wrong neighborhood for some.

GFR: Food Television has exploded over the past 10 years… how accurate a portrayal do you feel it paints of our industry?

MC: Cooking shows are a poor insight into our industry, but are very good for instructing in food prep.

GFR: Canadian wines have come a long way since I arrived in Canada 17 years ago. Do you still feel that there is a resistance to them in some quarters? And why do you think that could be?

MC: Where there is resistance to Canadian wine, there is only ignorance.

GFR: Thanks for all of these answers Michael. Your words are much appreciated.

Michael and I were supposed to have a phone chat, to expand upon his answers, as he told me that he hated typing on a keyboard, but I became caught up in the complexities of having a very pregnant partner. The promised phone call never happened, which is a great pity, as I was very much looking forward to hearing his distinctive banter once again.

In a follow up email he wrote:

“My thoughts are with you on the exigensies of a pregnant  wife and the demands of preparing your home for your first offspring. No worries, mate.”

And those were my last words, via email, from Michael, some nine or so months ago.

Michael, you’ll be missed.

Jamie DrummondEdinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he would like to thank Michael for his trial by fire.

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