FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Michael Noble
January 17, 2017
Choosing to take Foods and Nutrition over Shop Class sent him on a path, to world class Canadian Chef – to Executive Chef, to owner.
And he's a leader, not a follower. He’s been part of the ‘local food movement’ since 1986. “We don’t print it on our menus or brag about it, we just do it. I’ve done it because I believe in it”.
Born in Calgary – raised in Vancouver. Middle child of three sons, his mom an active volunteer and homemaker, his dad a construction supervisor in high-rise developments – so his time in Bridgeland was short – his family moved to Vancouver in 1970. But he came back to establish Catch at the Hyatt Hotel in 2002. Chef. Star. Entrepreneur. He’s divorced, and re-coupled. He has three grown children. And few regrets … though he made it clear in our meeting, managing his career and a marriage with three kids took a toll on the marriage.
Calgary-born Chef, he’s worked in Switzerland and France, attended culinary school and did his apprenticeship in Vancouver kitchens where he rose to prominence and garnered international acclaim in the 80’s and 90’s at the Hotel Vancouver, Four Seasons, then the Metropolitan Hotel. His ‘chops’ well earned in competition internationally, one of Canada’s most acclaimed chefs. And Calgary called him back in 2001 (he was 40). The owners who kept hearing his name everywhere they inquired as the ‘go-to chef in Canada’ invited him to visit their premises – an empty restored Imperial Bank Building. And he was offered the role of creator and Chef. He told his wife on the flight back to Vancouver, “well, it looks like we are moving back to Calgary”. He changed the proposed name to Catch – and he quickly established its reputation. “Coming back to Calgary was great – a fantastic city for my family”. When he left Catch, he did a consulting role creating dishes for Earl’s. The personal time afforded by a day-job took some adjusting but it re-lit his creative fire which fueled his yearning to create his own restaurant, which then hung in large part on ‘finding a great location’. His wife spotted a sign on a property on Bowness Road with high traffic, an 'easy to find' location and NOtaBLE (his medals are on display there) was born. They opened August 6, 2010 and have been a runaway success from that first day – announced by a Facebook post that brought 40 customers in the first half-hour, and by 6:15 the place was filled … and The Nash came later when NOtaBLE customers, the Kerr family who were renovating the old National Hotel building in Inglewood, invited him to take a look. He recalls those early days of NOtaBLE, “I was working seven days a week for months, but I had a $50,000 wood-fired rotisserie to pay for …". Seems that's going rather well!
He’s battled Chef Morimoto on Iron Chef – Battle Potato, the only Canadian to challenge the Japanese chefs. He’s represented Canada in the Bocuse d’Or, and been part of Canada’s Culinary Olympics team.
He was a bit of a jock in high school – male athlete of the year, but no star academically. Always highly competitive, he “loved to do things intensely”, and that seems to have not waned. In high school he skipped the shop class route – enrolling in Foods and Nutrition courses for his options. He’d enjoyed cooking at home and it wasn’t just a ploy to spend time with 16-year- old girls, it just looked that way! “One day we made waffles”, and that was his turning point – “the chemistry was really cool. I got straight A’s, was top of the class in Grade 12”. He enrolled at the Pacific Vocational Institute (now Vancouver Community College) in a one-year Culinary Program. Tuition was $170. He played hooky with some buddies on the 2nd last day so he was denied his diploma, but “I was turned on by the science and teaching – we hardly sat down, didn’t get bored”. His early days at the Hotel Vancouver were ‘stints at each station’ but he wanted to pursue apprenticeship as a Chef – and he got the job, spending two years working every service and loving the demands of cooking for large numbers in the hotel. A girlfriend, exloring jobs in Europe, then the first of his children born in France, return to Vancouver - it all makes for riveting stories of his time in Nice, Monaco and the Hotel Loews – and then a return to Canada, to cook at the Canadian Club restaurant at Expo 86, then LaBelle Auberge and the strong influence of Bruno Mardi began his international culinary competitive career. He competed in the Bocuse d’Or – continued as Chef at the Four Seasons, The Metropolitan Hotel, Diva at The Met – and then ‘to Calgary to create Catch’. Our conversation in the private dining room at NOtaBLE was long – too many good stories to include here. I’m an eager home-cook myself, so I was entertained beyond my imagination.
Key things leapt out of our conversation worth noting: “love cooking in a large kitchen”, “driven”, “very determined, and the ability to cook beautiful food”.
Why are you successful? “Because I do what I do for the right reasons – for need, not for greed. I’ve never stopped learning. I have a love of food and love teaching others."
What has held you back? “Divorce hit me hard, and that loss was a very sad time. And early on, not having all the tools and resources I needed back then.”
How do you see your business – and the restaurant industry – going forward over the next quarter?
… governments – not just in Alberta – aren’t looking out for small business. This is a very difficult time. I employ 130 people … and we need a more buoyant economy.
And over the next five years?
... connect-ability is great – social media is wonderful for marketing, but the copycat opportunities for restaurants to do what everyone else is doing gets easier. Being unique and fresh is an 'all the time' challenge.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I wouldn’t buy a car from someone I didn’t have a good feeling about. The same with people. I want to know who I am buying from, not just ‘about the product or service’.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Michael Noble, and why do they do business with you, why do they choose you, over your competitors?
… same answer. This is a people business. I spend four nights a week in my restaurants.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I’ve learned how to lead without ‘doing everything’ – and that requires a level of trust, and mentoring people.
… YES! I really value that now – and have some regrets about not having it in the past.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… how things are going in Alberta. It is a challenging time, particularly to keep talented people working and growing, to not have them leave this business.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
... Bruno Mardi – at a pivotal point for me many years ago I was considering a culinary school job as an instructor. Bruno persuaded me not to – he said, “we need great chefs more than we need more instructors”. He’s been a friend and fan and continues to be an influence on me.
… golf, travel. We’re heading off soon to New York for fun and to check out some food. I just got back from spending time in PEI hanging out with and cooking with my friend Michael Smith at his new Inn at Bay Fortune.
What do you read?
… I don’t have enough time! I read books that help me improve as a person – explore my spiritual parts.
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