Presenting – Michelle Gebhart – A True Renaissance Woman

My Celebrate Toronto article series is starting with the Beach, one of Toronto’s coolest neighbourhoods. Not only does the Beach offer a resort like feel and sports opportunities akin to Southern California ocean front communities, it is also a great entertainment area with a wide variety of restaurant choices.

I had heard some interesting things about a fairly new restaurant called “Michelle’s Beach House” and decided it was time to check it out in person and meet the owner behind this establishment. Last Wednesday, after doing some shopping in the local Book City in the Beach I sat down at one of the tables by the window and watched people walking back and forth along Queen Street East.

After settling in I had a chance to take some photos of the restaurant and was particularly enchanted by the suspended fish tanks that are home to a diverse range of brightly coloured tropical fish. One of the fish tanks on the north side apparently contains a species of man-eating fish. Fortunately they are well encased in thick glass.

The light-coloured birch and teak décor is very avant-guarde, and the two round elevated tables in front of the bay windows provide a perfect view of the busy street. Walls are decorated with black and white photos and the granite bar provides a solid anchor in this stylish establishment. Interesting architectural touches are added by the washrooms, an area that is usually not paid enough attention to by restaurant owners: I have to admit Michelle’s Beach House has some of the most attractive restroom facilities in town, with cutting edge glass bowl vanities and beautiful pictures inside the private stalls. The hallways are adorned with interesting oversize art. And interestingly enough, the men’s and women’s washrooms don’t have any permanent signs attached. No, the women’s restroom is indicated with a bikini, while a pair of swim trunks signals the men’s facilities. Now someone definitely had a sense of humour here.

I had arrived a little early and just a couple of minutes after 7 pm Michelle Gebhart, the owner of “Michelle’s in the Beach”, incidentally also the owner of “Michelle’s Brasserie” in Toronto’s upscale Yorkville Neighbourhood, arrived. A tall, young and very attractice-looking woman with a definite flair for fashion introduced herself and after taking care of some staff questions, we sat down at my table and I got a chance to get to know this successful hospitality entrepreneur.

Michelle spent her early days growing up as an “army brat” in Timmins and later moved with her family to British Columbia. Her father, an officer with the Canadian Armed Forces, is of German descent while her mother, a retired high school teacher, is from France. She arrived in Toronto as a teenager and says she always had a Cinderella complex, being the middle daughter.

There is no doubt that Michelle is an adventurer: at 16 she hitchhiked across the country and later worked on a horse ranch. An even more interesting item graces her resume: she used to run a trap line. When I inquired what that is she explained that she used to trap wilds cats and beaver for a company that used to sell the pelts to fur makers. Michelle also tried tamer activities such as selling life insurance. At a young age, Michelle got some work experience as a bar tender and soon developed a liking for the hospitality industry.

After high school Michelle took a program in graphic design, but she never worked in that field. But her keen eye for design shows, both in the tasteful, modern design of her restaurant, and her personal taste in fashion. Soon Michelle decided to open her own business, and started a restaurant called “Michelle’s Alibi” in Newmarket, but unfortunately a business partnership with a friend went sour. Michelle says she got “cleaned out” by her business partner and went back to becoming an employee. She worked for a time for the Founders Club at the Skydome and gained valuable experience in the high-end hospitality business.

Michelle was offered a location for her own restaurant in Yorkville five times, but she turned all those offers down. In 2002 she finally made the jump and created La Brasserie in one of Toronto’s most upscale entertainment districts. She was not deterred by setbacks such as her partner bailing out on her, or the SARS epidemic which hit Toronto’s hospitality and tourism industry like a ton of bricks back in 2003.

With a lot of determination and hard work Michelle made it through those tough times, and in late 2005 she started to look for another restaurant location. She chose the Beach for her new venture and started to look at different properties. A placed called “Stoney’s Sports Bar” had gone out of business, and when Michelle had a look at the property, she saw a sugar locust tree growing on the backyard patio. The same type of tree is growing at her Yorkville restaurant, so Michelle saw this as a sign and bought the location in November of 2005.

Due to a very busy winter season at her Yorkville Restaurant, Michelle postponed the renovation of her new location to March of 2006 and then rolled up her sleeves and got to work on completely gutting the existing establishment. The centerpiece, the heavy oak booths, the drywall, everything was removed, and Michelle could get started on her own design.

But Michelle did not only take care of the design and the organization of the renovation, she was right in there, working herself on the plumbing, the electrical, she cut the granite for the bar’s countertop, laid the flooring, put up the drywall. Some of the renovation tidbits included ripping out ceilings with dead mice dropping the floor. Despite all these minor details, Michelle and her dad completely restructured the premises and finished the renovation about two months later. Today she has a gorgeous looking restaurant to show for.

She had a few extra helpers: teenagers from a downtown Toronto drop-in location called the Evergreen Youth Drop-In Centre assisted her with the construction. Michelle regularly volunteers for this organization. Every other Monday she cooks for the kids, donates the food and brings along a few of her employees to make it all happen. The Evergreen Centre has a day-care centre, provides initial housing for teenagers and helps street kids with job search efforts.

I asked Michelle how she connected with the Evergreen Centre, and she said her motorcycle group, “Los Silverados”, regularly donates to this organization. My jaw dropped: I had thought I only had a talented hospitality entrepreneur in front of me; now it dawned on me that I was talking to a woman who is able to do plumbing, electrical and construction work; a woman who rides a motorcycle; and a woman who regularly volunteers at a downtown youth drop-in centre, using her own time and resources…..

If I was wearing a hat I would have taken it off at this point. Being a totally hopeless klutz myself, a woman who can operate power tools (including a motor cycle) and who does community work will always get my attention.

All the while Michelle kept insisting that there is nothing to her story, she claimed she really didn’t have anything interesting to share, and the more I listened to her I realized that despite her modesty, I was talking to a multi-talented, multi-faceted, highly unusual woman right then and there. I started to enjoy the conversation more and more.

Michelle’s design in the guest bathroom called for a stylish bowl-type vanity, the type of vanity that is really in fashion right now and can cost several thousand dollars. Michelle simply went to Home Depot, bought several components, and constructed her leading edge vanity itself at a cost of a few hundred dollars. At one point she needed to get a washing machine hooked up in the basement in order to be able to wash the linens and napkins on site. She called in a local plumber to get an estimate: $900! Michelle figured that the job would take at the most 20 minutes and maybe $50 in parts. She dispatched the plumber and ended up doing the project herself. Now here is an empowered woman!

A TV show about restaurant renovations called “Opening Soon” even interviewed Michelle and taped the “before” segment with her. When the production crew came back to tape the progress of the project, Michelle and her dad had already finished the renovation. The crew said that they had worked too fast and indicated that they would not be able to use the footage after all. As a result the show about the renovation of Michelle’s Beach House never got produced. Talk about getting punished for working efficiently….

Shortly before the official opening of the restaurant, Michelle was hosting a special event: a promotional launch for a winery that had booked her premises for a private event. Michelle had been doing renovations all day, shoved all the tools and materials into various closets, got her clothing and hair fixed up in the last moment – a local store down the street did her make-up – and after a hard day’s work Michelle played the role of the gracious hostess all night long.

On May 18 finally her establishment opened and “Michelle’s Beach House” was born. There were a few glitches at the beginning, for example a chef with a super-sized ego. But Michelle doesn’t tolerate divas in her kitchen, whatever work needs to be done needs to get done. Michelle will even bus the tables herself if the need arises.

The restaurant is certainly hard work. Michelle actively works every day in both restaurants. If she opens one place for lunch, she’ll close the other one after dinner and vice versa. Being present on site on a daily basis is very important in maintaining control over quality and costs. Michelle picks up fresh fish every day at a local fish store and used to handle all the purchasing herself, a task that required her to get up at 4 am every day. Now one of her employees assists her with the procurement tasks.

Michelle loves the kitchen and has done extensive catering. Her philosophy is based on high quality food and fresh ingredients, yet despite the upscale quality of her cuisine, she believes in providing solid portion sizes. The menu is changed on a seasonal basis, and she describes the cuisine at “Michelle’s in the Beach” as French Riviera style with lots of olive oil, lemon and various Mediterranean influences. Signature dishes include bouillabaisse, paté, a salad Niçoise and bacon-wrapped dates.

I asked about the specifics of this restaurant and Michelle indicated that the restaurant has 63 seats inside with another 87 seats on the patio. Michelle’s Beach House is certainly a popular hangout in the summer. Her restaurant frequently hosts winemakers’ and brewmasters’s dinners. Another special initiative are the “Manicure and Martini Mondays” which she organizes with a local merchant called Five Star Nails. Guests can come in on Mondays and enjoy some pampering, try some tasty appetizers and wash them down with a martini. Michelle also calls these events “a manicure + a martini + a mouthful”, all at the affordable price of $30.00. At her Yorkville location she organizes the same event as a collaboration with Jeanette’s Spa.

With all these interesting initiatives, there certainly hasn’t been much time for riding her motorcycle, one of Michelle’s favourite pastimes. Michelle owns a V-Star 1100 Yamaha Cruiser and had it customized. This past year she did not get to ride much at all, not surprising considering she has her hands full running two restaurants. She wants to start building her own motorbikes, and I don’t doubt for a second that she has the skills to do it.

Even though her time on the road is limited, she still regularly socializes with her friends form the Silverados, and has been inducted into the Royal Order of the Silverados for her community work. Incidentally, Los Silverados is a group of motorcycle aficionados (definitely not a gang) that started in August of 1997 with the goal of raising money for the Yonge Street Mission, an organization that helps the poor and disadvantaged of Toronto, regardless of race, religion or background. The motto of Los Silverados is “To make a contribution and to enjoy the ride” and their website explains that the name is derived as follows: Los = “the” and Silverados =”people with silver in their hair, silver in their jeans who are looking for life’s silver lining”….the name could come from a mine in Mexico, or from a pickup truck – no one knows for sure. I did not even realize that there was a motorcycle group out there whose stated mission is to make a positive contribution to the community.

One thing that Michelle does take time for is her dog “Puppy”. She bought the Bernese mountain dog & golden retriever mix as a Christmas gift for her brother’s children two days in advance of the holidays and fell in love with him instantly. It was definitely going to be hard to give him up, but fortunately Michelle’s employees pooled their money and bought her a pure-bread golden retriever as a present which she could give to her brother, allowing her to hold on to Puppy. Not surprisingly, Michelle’s Beach House is a dog-friendly restaurant, and Puppy often hangs out in the backyard.

As we were getting close to wrapping up our conversation, out of the corner of my eyes I saw our waiter approaching with two sample appetizers: Michelle’s famous baked clams with herbed bread crumbs and the renowned bacon-wrapped dates served with grapes and onion chutney. Both were exquisite and the dates just melted in my mouth. But her business needed her attention, so Michelle had to excuse herself and return back to work. Meanwhile I had a chance to sample the menu.

I ordered a potato soup topped with gruyere cheese and bacon as the first course and a Canadian cheese plate as a second course. Michelle sent over her talented chef, Ben, who explained the ingredients to me: the Canadian cheese plate includes a Benedictine Blue, a Canadian Brie and a chevre goat cheese. Walnuts, cut grapes and dried berries add a pleasant counterpoint to the tasty cheeses and a fresh warm baguette accompanies the delicacies. I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and the Canadian-Mediterranean spread.

I took a picture of Michelle’s entire crew this Wednesday evening and I could tell this bunch of young people enjoyed their jobs and the atmosphere. As Michelle was attending to her responsibilities I had a chance to savour her restaurant’s cuisine and reflect on a woman with so many interesting and unexpected facets- a multi-talented Renaissance woman and entrepreneur who cares about the community. I figured that in her modesty, there were so many things that this intriguing woman did not even share with me.

After our personal meeting I visited the website for Michelle’s Brasserie and was struck by the welcome message on her home page:

As we sit at the bar called life, precariously balancing our overfilled glass of morals, snacking on plates of somewhat mediocre integrity, one must ask why?

I believe we are always in search of something new to shake up the martini we call life. We wander from establishment to establishment in the hope that somewhere, someone will offer the ultimate pimento to fill our proverbial olive.

Michelle’s was created to fill this need.

May you find your pimento with us.

Vive l’amour,

Michelle

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