MENTORS—Stuart Brioza [State Bird Provisions, The Progress] on Mickey Bakst

A tip of the hat to the personalities who fostered today's explosive talent.

January 5, 2016 ● 4 min read

I had never met anyone like Mickey before. 

We did a collaborative dinner back in '98 or something. I was [John] Hogan's young sous chef at Savarin in Chicago. He came walking into the kitchen one night, and I’m like, "Who is this guy?" I remember I was working fish station. He's this short, Jewish guy with a ponytail and kind of fucked up teeth, but the way he would just come in and talk to everyone…you just felt something. It was memorable. He made himself known without being overindulgent. He didn't cross the line. That's what I always remember, that he was just so respectful and so curious. You can see the passion just dripping out of his ears, and out of his mouth.

Mickey was the maître d' of Tribute at the time, and the chef at Tribute, Takashi Yagahashi, was Hogan's best friend. That's how I knew Mickey, and Mickey was the one who really encouraged me to go up to work with Pete Peterson at Tapawingo. Mickey had worked with Pete for about a decade, and when he heard that I was considering Tapawingo, he called me immediately and gave me a hundred reasons why I needed to do this, and what he would do to support it. It was [Pete] who gave me my first real opportunity in a kitchen. 

I've always felt that the qualities that I've taken and I display in my own dining room are the warmth and the hospitality and the graciousness that I picked up from him, and from Pete, for sure. Pete was wonderful at that. I love that feeling, and I realize that it is not present everywhere, and there are only a few really good ones for a reason. It is not easy to do.

Mickey is outgoing and so in-your-face in so many ways, but so caring and so whimsical. Truly, I don't know if there is a better maître d'. Everyone talks about him as the mayor of Charleston now, and he is; he walks down the street, he knows every single person.

He has this uncanny ability to invite you into a world that you didn't know existed, and make you really feel it. He can do this with about a hundred people at a time. It’s spectacular. I remember the first time I ate at Tribute—and Tribute was Farmington Hills, a very wealthy suburb of Detroit—Nicole [Krasinski] and I, we're like 22, maybe 21, and we roll in with holes in our pants, California kids at heart. We were treated just as equally as any other millionaire guest that was sitting in that dining room.

Pete Peterson, Brioza, Krasinski, and Bakst | Courtesy of Mickey Bakst

One thing that we don't talk about enough is that the job of a restaurant, the job of a wait staff and the food, is to bring people back. Our number one job is to make sure that people are coming back to our restaurants, and Mickey understood that so well. What Mickey does is he makes decisions, quickly, in the dining room. He looks at situations, and he can break them down and there's nothing that's too challenging. He's not focused on just turning tables, he's focused on people having a really nice time.

When Nicole and I left Michigan for California, Mickey called me every two weeks. "Where are you at? What are you doing? Can I make introductions? Can I help?" He introduced me to Drew Nieporent and Larry Stone, which led to us being hired as the chefs of Rubicon. His voice always commanded my attention, and I listened to him, and I respected what he had to say. He’s a great sounding board, and a bit paternal; as with a lot of the mentors in my life, that paternal quality, age as well as wisdom, was something that maybe perhaps in my own family life was lacking. I just really admired that.

He made himself present in my life, and Nicole's life, and he followed up. There could be six months of no conversation and we'd pick up exactly where we left off. He always felt that he had a lot to do with the success of Nicole and I, and he was very proud of that, even though we all never actually worked together. He's made it a point to come out to California and visit, and spend time in the restaurants. He became like family.

He talks big, he walks the talk, he's passionate. He means a lot to so many people, and he's had a significant impact on so many people's lives. In many ways, what he is, a true maître d', is a dying breed, but what he does means so much. He is a perfect example of one who’s found the exact profession that he belonged in. He needs people to survive. He needs that feeling.  

The old crew reunites for a surprise dinner thrown by Charleston Food & Wine in Mickey's honor; at right, Bakst and fellow Tribute alum, Takashi Yagahashi, who cooked one of the courses that night. Brioza says, "It was such a heartfelt moment. I got up on stage in front of 90 people at the dinner to speak on Mickey's behalf. It was such an honor. I was just like, 'Fuck, this is amazing,' the whole time." | Photos courtesy of Stuart Brioza 

So I've really have had four really significant mentors, and we've always all looked out for each other. They're all slowing down and ramping up at the same time, finding passion projects. 

Pete Peterson is opening up another restaurant in Northern Michigan, since Tapawingo closed after 25 years. He sits on the board of the culinary school, lives in Traverse City now, and is again mentoring a young chef, and they're helping out and partnering to open up a small restaurant. Larry Stone has moved his entire family up North, he's putting great stakes in the ground, and starting a vineyard, something that he's always wanted to do, in Oregon. Probably one of the most important sommeliers in the world.  [John] Hogan is continuing, and he's got good people around him. Drew [Nieporent] is just unstoppable, and will be Drew until the end of time.

Mickey ended up in Charleston of course. There's something really special there, and they value his personality and his person, so he's continuing to be at The Charleston Place Hotel, the Charleston Grill. His community and life is what he is totally involved in. He's amazing, that guy.         

As told to Cassandra Landry | Original photo of Bakst via Katie Gandy, illustration of Charleston via Anderson Design Group, Inc.