If Michael Brisson had the opportunity to serve God the perfect meal, he would make his spice crusted foie gras, etouffee of lobster, and his pistachio and limoncello creme brulee. He’s had 25 years on the Vineyard to perfect those recipes at his restaurant l’etoile in Edgartown, and has more energy than ever.
“I never have to go to work, I love coming here,” Mr. Brisson said sitting in the dining room of his restaurant on North Water street. “I wake up and I can’t wait to get here every day.”
Mr. Brisson knows he’s living the dream of owning his own restaurant, having a smaller venue on Chappaquiddick (the Chappy Grille at the Chappaquiddick Beach Club), and being able to live on the Island. Even with 16 weeks of an intense summer season and a powder keg of personalities in the kitchen, Mr. Brisson considers himself lucky.
“I love working on the Vineyard, love it, love it, even as hard as it is,” he said throwing his hands up in excitement. “It’s a quality of life decision to be here; it has nothing to do with money. I feel extremely wealthy in that sense.”
Mr. Brisson’s time on the Vineyard has been full of highlights (making President Bill Clinton a birthday cake) and lowlights (having an electrical fire midsummer), but his New England-classical French food has remained consistently top tier.
“I’m a taster, not an eater,” Mr. Brisson said of his fresh farm-to-table style cooking, describing the fish he uses as “still breathing” when it comes in. “I’m a cook, not a chef,” he added, of his high level of technique while being less of a technician.
Mr. Brisson can often be seen enjoying a large glass bottle of chocolate milk when he goes to pick up his order from Morning Glory Farm, talking to his loyal customers from behind the bar, or satisfying his sweet tooth with his favorite Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
He loves having other people cook for him, but if he had the opportunity to cook for anyone he would have Leonardo da Vinci, Robert McNamara, chef Fernand Point, his mentor chef Moncef Meddeb and his parents at his table.
One of six children, Mr. Brisson grew up in Rhode Island and noticed at an early age a difference between his eating habits and those of his brothers and sisters. “I remember just starting [to eat] and having my brothers want to go back outside, and I would say, but I’m just getting started,” he said of the trough-like atmosphere at his family dinner table.
To get out of the house, Mr. Brisson started working as a dishwasher in 1975. At the staff dinner at the end of the night, Mr. Brisson enjoyed the camaraderie among his co-workers and knew then that he wanted to continue in the restaurant industry. “I got the bug,” he said. “It was so much more fun than home and more fun than school.”
Mr. Brisson gave college a try for a semester, but found prep work in the kitchen to be a better and more enjoyable use of his time. It was then that he started coming down to the Vineyard a couple days a week, prepping at Chez Pierre in the Charlotte Inn in Edgartown, eventually working his way to sous chef.
“If anyone could open up a book by Paul Bocuse and could learn, so could I,” he said of his self-taught lessons in classical French cooking. “I learned how to make chocolate mousse, creme caramel, bearnaise sauce and I did it every day, but every day I got better and understood what was going on more.”
Mr. Brisson wanted to be able to do everything, and so he returned to the mainland where he worked at CafÃ© Budapest and L’Espalier in Boston under Chef Meddeb and eventually held all positions in the kitchen, including chef de cuisine.
“Meddeb really encouraged me. I’d be baking during the day and then I’d have four hot appetizers [at the appetizer station] and other people would only have two or three,” Mr. Brisson said. “I’d be like, why, why? And he goes, because you’re going to have your own place some day and you can do it. And I did it.”
Mr. Brisson leapt at the opportunity to open his own restaurant when the space in the Charlotte Inn became available. He remained there until five years ago, when he moved l’Ã©toile to its current location.
“Having your 21st year be your first year all over again with debt, uncertainty and the economy . . . I’ve learned how to run my business better,” Mr. Brisson said. “I had a plan to come out of the ashes and we’re doing really well. We’re on our way and fighting strong.” He added that he’s not only determined to survive but flourish.
But leaving the Charlotte Inn wasn’t easy at first. “I’ve spent the last five years trying to convince people that we’re not the most expensive restaurant on the Vineyard, that you can come in here and have a great time and don’t have to have a suit and tie on,” he said comparing the different locations. “If anything we want you to be comfortable. Who has a good time when they’re not comfortable?”
An “awakening” allowed Mr. Brisson to realize what he always wanted l’etoile to be: a restaurant with casual elegance, solid technique, fine food, but more relaxed.
Martha’s Vineyard Restaurant Week is one way Mr. Brisson likes to get the word out about l’Ã©toile’s understated environment, and he hopes to be able to offer lunches on the patio in the future. Lobster rolls, fresh fish and simple salads are all possibilities for the menu.
“I realized more that it’s not just the food, it’s everything. Not only is it the environment, the atmosphere, the service staff which I have, the best, it even comes down to the people you’re dining with,” Mr. Brisson said of his new take on l’Ã©toile. “We just want to enhance your experience.”
The key to enhancing diners’ experience is Mr. Brisson’s reliance on his staff. “You’re only as good as your staff,” he said. “Treat your staff with respect and you’ll get it in return.”
Unlike other cooks, Mr. Brisson says he doesn’t use intimidation in his restaurants and considers his kitchen a teaching kitchen. “Everyone in here is encouraged to do their best, and you don’t do your best when you’re not happy.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have explosive moments, but working in the kitchen with Mr. Brisson is a quiet time, one where food flows in and out of the kitchen with ease. While putting a good staff together is one the biggest challenges of running his business, he says if the personalities are right, the chemistry between everyone is like magic.
“The staff I have are here because they want to work for me. Individually I treat them each differently, but it’s the work of positive energy,” he said, smiling. “Not every kitchen is like working here; it’s a family.”
He attributes his success over the past 25 years to good food, good times, but especially his good-natured staff, noting some of his former staff members are some of his best friends and heroes.
With a quarter of a century under his belt, Mr. Brisson is always looking for ways to improve. He’d like to have another restaurant in the Edgartown area with a chalkboard menu that changes every day and a mentality of “dinner tonight is what we got today."
“I could be a little more spontaneous, a little less of doing the same things that I do everyday,” Mr. Brisson said of how he could grow. “I feel more confident, more energized, and more hopeful than I have in the past,” he added.
“I like to think I am the captain of the pirate ship l’Ã©toile, you never know who’s going to stay and who’s going to come on board,” he said of his experience thus far. “My recommendation for . . . new chefs is to be prepared, be ready for the worst, expect the best and have plan B. And if you’re lucky you get a fantastic staff like I have.”
l’etoile is located at 22 North Water street in Edgartown. For more information see letoile.net or call 508-627-5187.