Michael Anthony has been at Clio since April as the general manager. Before that, he spent time working for Thomas Keller's restaurant Bouchon in Las Vegas. Here's Anthony to talk about what it's like to work in a fine dining restaurant, the difference between dining on the East and West Coast, and changes to late-night ramen at Uni Sashimi Bar.
Let's start by talking about when you started at Clio and how you came into this role.
I started back in April. Ken [Oringer] and I knew each other indirectly through a sous chef who worked with him back in his days in San Francisco. That particular chef had worked with Thomas Keller and then became chef de cuisine at Bouchon in Las Vegas where I opened and worked. When I decided to get back into restaurants, I asked around about who was really a risk-taker, established, and had a track record for performance, and obviously [Oringer's] name came up. We chatted and had a mutual liking for each other, and boom, here I am.
I was afraid that I'd set the place on fire if I even tried.
How did you get into the hospitality industry in the first place?
I actually started in the back of the house as a line cook. Nothing overly complicated — this was back in Arizona, where I'm originally from. I worked at a number of smaller family restaurants. Pretty much every restaurant I worked at, I had people telling me that I should be a server. The thought terrified me because I felt I knew nothing about food and beverage, and I didn't want that responsibility. I was afraid that I'd set the place on fire if I even tried.
At some point, I crossed a threshold and started as a busser, like everyone does, and in a couple of months, they made me a limited server. That was at the cusp of Southwestern cuisine and being in Arizona. I got into service and never looked back. At that time we didn't have the internet; we just had Windows of the World, so we talked and learned and food became really exciting. From that point on I had a voracious appetite to learn, and I wasn't too fearful of making mistakes. It's been a great process for me. I then left Arizona for Las Vegas and was wine director and general manager and had a lot of fun in the process.
How did you get connected with Thomas Keller?
I had a friend of mine that was chef de cuisine for Thomas Keller who I had met when he dined at Renoir, where I worked. My friend told me that Thomas was coming to Vegas, and I was like, That's awesome! He then said it would be a full-service restaurant, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I said, No thank you. I don't want any part of that. He told me that it was different and that I should just talk to him.
We spoke, and I wasn't still quite sure, but when they finally finished with their opening team, the GM circled back and said that he thought I'd be great for the wine director position. It's interesting because in my capacity, I was really a lead sommelier, and we did all the beverages, which was coffee, etc. I almost don't like to use the term wine director because it seems grossly overplayed in terms of what we function as; I mean, we facilitate beverage. So with that, I had an opportunity to do an opening of a stunning restaurant, great concept, and it ended up being my favorite culture. I learned a lot about myself and immense things on my craft. Paul Roberts, who was the master sommelier at the time, was incredible to work with. Very patient and just a very encouraging person to work with. I was there the longest, and the only reason why I left there was to come to Massachusetts with my wife.
What's it like to work for Keller?
He's actually a very interesting individual, always one to listen and be very receptive. Always one to be, and I've noticed that this is a common denominator amongst really good chefs. They always seem to self-evaluate their efforts and what their guests are responsive to. There's no real element of pride or the attitude that they are the billing of the show. They are really responsive to their staff, and they truly are some of the best operators, and they can just cook their ass off.
It's very impressive to see the type of energy that they put into their business and making themselves available to all employees in addition to the burden of doing their own promotion, events, and charity work. Anyone that thinks it's awesome to be there doesn't have a clue. Also, the cleanliness of the restaurants was incredible. Nothing ever hit the floor, and in fact, the floor was as clean after service as it was before. The linen area was never just a dumping ground, and the back of the house was treated like it was in view of the front of the house and its guests. I learned a very key lesson there — that it doesn't take any more time and effort to do things the right way; it's just that application of effort to do things the right way. So when people tell me that they don't have time for something, my response is always that time isn't being made to do it and the short cut is being taken consciously. We try to always do it the right way, and even under duress when it's most important, it was a very cultural thing for me to take away.
When I first got here in 2008, you probably couldn't pry a Sam Adams out of dead hands.
Have you noticed much of a difference between an East Coast/Boston restaurant and working on the West Coast?
What's impressive to me is how adventurous East Coast eating has become. When I first got here in 2008, you probably couldn't pry a Sam Adams out of dead hands, but to see how cocktail culture has evolved...the only thing that I think is still a bit behind is wine culture. I think that's only a matter of time because this current generation is growing up in a culinary mecca in terms of having things available and information available. The scope of the culinary landscape and diversity that it offers, there really is no better time to be eating and drinking than right now. It's very encouraging to see some of the trendsetting that's taking place here that other markets are paying attention to when historically this area's always been two or three years behind. So that's a lot of fun to see and that's good to see a lot of restaurants not just copying but being adventurous and pushing the walls out a bit.
What advice would you give someone who might be looking to get their feet wet in craft cocktails and more fine dining?
Immersion is everything. In fact, when I was in wine, a master sommelier told me that if I wanted to learn about wine, you have to really work at it. That was one of the reasons why I moved to Vegas. I did things in those restaurants that I probably would never duplicate again. I learned classical wine, and I had the chance to have $50,000 wine nights. I'd get to drink, taste, service, and offer things I'd probably never be able to offer again.
Find the closest target to your interests and bring three things with you — humility, fortitude, and curiosity. And with those three things, in any environment, you can excel. I think you also have to be able to embrace any mistakes that you encounter, because those are a very important part of the learning process. You don't want to repeat them, because that means that you didn't learn from them. Falling down is an inevitable part of moving forward, and you reach the part where you don't fall down anymore. You start to run at your own pace.
The word hospitality is probably as overused as the words "fresh" and "organic," but it really boils down to how you can shape your environment to fit someone else.
Have you noticed a shift in how customers react to fine dining?
Formal rooms started with continental cuisine, you know — with lamb chops and mint jelly. Where it's going now, dining is basically entertainment. Another thing that Ken did that really impressed me was that he was really self-evaluative and took the table cloths off the tables here. It's still the same food and service component, but now you can come in when you're in a hoodie and t-shirt and sit alongside people who are on their 20th anniversary, and you can dine without the normal barriers.
To me, that little move took some cojones. He took a very established restaurant and said, I'm doing this to it now. And that's one of the many things to like about him and what Clio has become. Here, it's really about making sure people really enjoy themselves. We didn't want to present people with barriers; that's the wrong experience. The word hospitality is probably as overused as the words "fresh" and "organic," but it really boils down to how you can shape your environment to fit someone else. The places that can do that are the ones that are successful.
What's is like working at a place where there's two — three if you count late-night ramen — totally different vibes between Clio and Uni under one roof?
Super awesome. I'm surrounded by people that really get it and make what I do so much easier. They are so talented and are here for the right reasons. Tony Messina is our chef at Uni, and his execution leaves me in awe of how he is still as under the radar as he is. Our kitchen is always themselves outside of what Ken's directives and choices are. He gives a lot of latitude back there. The bar has always been a great hub for the restaurant, and we've continued to evolve our beverage program outside of where its accolades were. Much like Clio, we want to continue to invent and improve, and I have a great time doing that.
Anything new and exciting going on at Clio and Uni that you'd like to share?
We just again received best late-night ramen, which is always a challenge because people have certain expectations. This year we've opened the door to more street food, and we've got some awesome hard-shell tacos, scallion short rib pancakes with kimchi, and chicken wings, so the menu is so much more fun for late-night. We've seen a lot of people order one of everything because they're just so excited to see more goodies.
Beverage, which used to be restricted, has been streamlined so we do everything for all of our guests now. You can have all 45 cocktails at Uni, and we have redone the beverage list. We're also doing some fun things at Clio — we're offering a five- and nine-course menu that is hyper-seasonal, as well as an a la carte menu. Nothing earth-shattering, but after 17 years we try to focus on our relevancy and our education as well as finding ways to grow and challenge ourselves.