… post tenebras lux & the flowers that burst concrete
Curator & Writer | Hakan Burcuoğlu · Venue | Gastown, Vancouver · Gear | Leica
Aflower bursts from concrete, yet we seldom question how. It’s the token “against all odds” story, perhaps a soul-rending hymn that delivers us to glory. We like our truisms with treacle, we just yearn for that spark. But we’re wary of its wonders; so we beckon heroes to fight in the dark. There goes one, swinging fistfuls of love. He runs through alleys, he soars like a dove. I’ll just watch from here, I’ve got no bull in this fight. The flowers doth bloom, but we stand in their light. We fain over flowers, we bring them to the fore. But Mark jackhammers concrete, behind him, a lifetime of lore.
Darkness begets the light, and Mark’s anything but monochrome. A bit picaresque, he’s beyond the pale—primed for the streets, parsing social justice into palpability. Bid adieu to doublespeak, and to cryptic killjoys who dare doth speak. He’s tethered to love, and tied by blood, marching alongside an army of capacious hearts entrenched deep in the mud. Turn on your radio, their oeuvre’s gone platinum. Things are changing. And that is fact. Collectively, they’re conjuring a life force to bring those flowers back.
In contemplating this interview, I mused to myself—Is there anything Mark hasn’t been asked before? Turns out there is, and here below it lies. In what feels like a journey to the moon, this constitutes our heftiest publication to date. Mark’s brought a suitcase full of dreams, and given us the key. So open it now. Set that flower free.
Welcome to The Curatorialist, Mark Brand.
HB: I always start off Chronicled pieces by asking about provenance. You’ve spoken about your upbringing quite extensively, but never about this recent discovery regarding your grandfather. It’s pretty astounding.
MB: We spent beautiful times together but I wasn’t old enough to ask the questions that were important to me. I knew they were farmers, and a part of Edmonton’s founding story—they lived off the land, hand-to-mouth, and were poor. That checked all the boxes, and there was no triage, so why did I need to dig any deeper? It’s all I needed to know at the time.
HB: And that didn’t placate your curiosity, surely.
MB: My grandfather was a severe, stoic, beautiful man—a pillar of his community. Beaten and abused by the Catholic Church, he’d ended up in an orphanage. Lots of bad stuff happened to him, but we’d figured that part out. I got closer to him in my late teens—I’d ask questions but wouldn’t get answers a lot of the time because he had started to fade. Years after he passed, my dad asked me to join him to clear out the basement in their family home in Edmonton with my aunt and uncle. And that’s when we found the locked suitcase.
HB: What was in it?
MB: Hundreds of letters and photos dating from the late 1930s to the 1950s, most of which were penned by my grandfather’s father, whom he never spoke about. I had a bundle of letters I needed to transcribe and honestly just never got to it. But I knew something was going on. So when I returned home to our cottage in Chester, Nova Scotia this past summer, I pulled them out and started reading. I was blown the fuck away.
HB: What did you discover?
MB: I discovered that my great grandfather was one of the first abortion doctors in British Columbia, and that he’d worked in the Downtown Eastside. He was arrested and prosecuted, put through prison camps, became mentally unstable and eventually got institutionalized for mental illness. And the letters were check-ins from the provincial mental hospital in B.C.—documenting my grandfather’s attempts to check in on his father’s status here in Vancouver. There’s dozens of them.
HB: And up until then you had no idea he’d even resided in Vancouver?
MB: Hell no! Even my father had no idea! But what’s super interesting; I always felt this incredible resonance to Vancouver and the Downtown Eastside, and I thought it was because I had some struggles as a teenager—that was enough for it to resonate with me. But as I got more into the letters, I realized it wasn’t just that. It finally made sense—this is my place, it’s in my DNA. It’s in my blood—this mental illness, this struggle, this trauma, this underserved population. It’s not just because of lived experience, it’s my fucking family blood. So coming upon this, I felt my whole being settle. It was a niggling feeling when you know something’s wrong. Crazy, right? But apparently, not at all. All along I’ve been taking generational steps and I had no idea.
HB: This discovery must’ve brought you closer to your parents—especially your father. Do you feel you get to spend enough time with them?
MB: Yes, but not as much as I’d like. My dad’s my best friend—we speak every other day. My mom and I have gotten closer over the years, she’s had a lot of very serious health issues all her life. My first restaurant Boneta was named after her. But in this later part of her life, she’s quite ill—in the fifth stage of renal failure. She’s become really soft, and really proud. It’s an incredible transition for us, because we were often at odds, but not anymore. We just celebrated her 68th birthday in New York. We could use more time, and I prioritize it. I adore them.
HB: How close were you with your mother growing up? I’m curious since you had a transient upbringing, much like myself.
MB: When I was a kid, it was me and my mom. My dad worked overseas, and my mom worked all the jobs. I was alone a lot of the time, and then my father moved to Australia and I moved along with him. That’s when our relationship started to solidify—in my early 20s. He was around, but he wasn’t around. He was working overseas to make sure we were looked after. We always came first.
HB: My father was a diplomat, so we’d move every couple of years. I still find it difficult, lacking those roots. Was it a glass half-empty, or half-full situation for you, in retrospect?
MB: It goes further back—I was born in Scotland, then moved to Tunisia, then to England, and then Calgary, and finally to Nova Scotia. And that was all before I’d turned 9. Nova Scotia was where we’d put our roots down—where we had family—but I still didn’t feel planted down because we travelled back and forth to Nigeria. It affects you deeply in an area of trust. When you’re transient you don’t feel safe as a kid. You’re not able to form those deeper bonds. So I’ve become very particular about the company I keep, and those friendships I do have.
HB: It’s perhaps the quality of the bonds you have, as opposed to just “staying in touch” out of some half hearted obligation.
MB: I took away the confines of what friendship means to most people, which is, you can walk to somebody’s house. “We were kids who got raised together”—I didn’t have any of that. It didn’t exist in my life. And the nomadic style of my life is very much based on the work of making other people feel safe, and looked after. And this is of no fault to my parents who both came from very difficult and poor situations. What the fuck were they supposed to know? My mom’s father died when she was 12, and her mother got institutionalized the same year. My dad had tuberculosis as a kid and was also institutionalized for two years. How do you provide a stable base when it’s never been provided for you? They’re wonderful role models, and love me to death. There’s no question. But was it the traditional, supportive white picket fence shit? No.
HB: Surely it made for good bones, hailing from a family of hard knocks.
MB: I don’t begrudge any of it. And I don’t see it as half-full or half-empty, I just don’t think there’s a glass. There’s no comparative. It was traumatic and violent growing up, and then amazing, and then traumatic again. That’s just been the pentameter of my life. When you choose to be stable, that’s something you yearn for, but it’s never something I yearned for. What I always did want, was to feel like I had place, and now I’ve got hundreds of them. So it worked out. I sleep in the jungle of Panama and am totally at peace. The world feels like home.
HB: It must take a lot out of you, the travel.
MB: I get tired, deep bone ache tired. Stare at the hotel TV menu looping a movie trailer for 40 minutes with my mouth open tired. But, I’m in a different situation because the travel I do has a tremendous impact on people’s lives directly. And that’s not being facetious, that’s real. I can spend time at a far North Indigenous youth center and sit with some impressionable teenage boys—who don’t have role models or even feel like the outside world sees them—and have deep dialogue. You have a couple of these experiences and you go “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m in flow of the universe”, and feel that way without being in any way ‘woo woo’. I feel like the way we talk about “energy” in 2018 is like how we talked about emotional impact in 2008. It was still taboo, but that doesn’t make it any less real. We are made of it, if we can be in tune with it and not fight it or ignore it, life becomes more purposeful and makes way more sense.
HB: Once you’re in that headspace, things do start feeling serendipitous… even if they aren’t.
MB: I’ve got a perfect story to illustrate it for you. Something incredible happened at our Greasy Spoon fundraiser with chef Charlotte Langley in Toronto. One of the speakers cancels last minute and another woman, Sally Maclean, from the same agency, Sistering Toronto, is brought in to be the ringer. We had a last minute cancellation on one of our dinner tables, so we invited the gentleman who donated the venue to come to that specific seating. There were four seatings over two days. We watch Sally speak… we get emotional. Me so much that I need to take a minute before continuing, first time ever. The venue donor, Losel Tethong of Propeller Coffee, comes to me and he’s like “I need to talk to her”. I’m like “Then don’t talk to me my dude, make it happen”. Turns out she’d held him as a baby in a refugee camp in India. There are 7 billion people on the fucking planet! You got to listen when the universe shows you stuff. So no, I don’t begrudge the travel in these moments. What I care about is that we raised $16K for marginalized women, and people who learned about the work are advocating for it now, changing the face of their city because of it.
HB: I get the feeling that you’re a kid trapped in a man’s body.
MB: [Chuckles] I always loved community, and all the homies! We organized parties and I was the DJ. I love seeing people happy. It’s always been a station of mind to be in service. I’ve been in service my whole life. And I adore it. I can think about childhood cooking with my aunt—just being underfoot in the kitchen, constantly wanting to serve things up. It gave me tremendous joy. It’s been a thread throughout my whole life.
HB: Is this a fruitful way of filling that void for you, being of service?
MB: Everybody’s got emptiness, and it comes from the disconnection we’ve suffered as a society. I bring groups together and watch people fill up. A young chef who works at a very high profile fine dining restaurant came and did a Greasy Spoon and quit the next day to come work with us. When you find the stuff that makes you feel amazing, money further loses meaning. One of the things that keeps me safe in my sobriety is that I live with purpose. I don’t need the things I used to, to stifle the darkness and pain. I’m an empath—I feel people’s energy. So I battle that darkness with positivity to keep it on the level. I go back to work and do the job.
HB: So zero downtime? [Chuckles]
MB: It never stops. I became a professor because I’m aware of my body. I have polycystic kidney disease—it’s hereditary, and my energy levels drop year after year. I’m medicated and eventually will dialyze, and when that does happen, I won’t be able to run around the planet. But I can still make my impact, and fill that void, on a computer screen. I’m a professor of innovation and teach two doctorate courses at University of Southern California. So even if I was a fucking head in a jar, like in Futurama, I still get to do the job. I still get to be in service.
HB: You’ve been very open about your past struggles, but I’m more compelled to ask about the circumstances that led to them.
MB: It’s different for everybody, of course. Mental health is a huge player in how people perceive themselves. You’re a product of who you surround yourself with. And if you surround yourself with the “glass is half-empty” alcoholics, you become that. And as positive a person, in the parts of my life I struggled the most, I was around very negative people in very negative situations. And that’s easy to come by in our industry, though the cool guy shit has gone out the window, for the large part.
HB: Absolutely. There’s a healthier discourse now. Learning to be vulnerable.
MB: The aloofness and unapproachability, the fact that I’m talking to you about it right now—it didn’t exist 10 years ago. We’ve worked really hard as an industry to be like “I want you to feel comfortable that you feel dark”. Cause it’s fucking normal, and everybody goes through it. You have the option to not end up on a couch in East Van, ordering cocaine and having a tough time. You can do better. Our industry’s tough on our bodies and minds, and we’ve lost so many great people… it’s like a floating group of folks who’ve died that could’ve been prevented. These paths of darkness, and this toxic masculinity that exists, still, in part, makes people feel like they’re not enough. They are, you are, I am.
HB: I was quite moved by your words on social media following Tony Bourdain’s passing.
MB: I shared a story of attempted suicide on facebook after Anthony Bourdain passed… it just became very resonant for me. I just didn’t want it to be in my head anymore. Hundreds of people messaged me saying, “I’ve been in that place” or “I’m in that place”. If you’re in a dark place and you feel the world no longer needs you, that’s where you live. Your mind’s a trap and you fall into the trappings of society—alcohol, drugs—prescription or otherwise. So people end up in it and die. I’m very very lucky I didn’t. Obviously, I got kept around for a reason. I’m happy to share those stories and be vocal about it.
HB: How’d you free your mind from those traps?
MB: Being very mindful of your time, who you surround yourself with, and what you do. If you don’t think you provide anything to the world, then start to provide something. There’s a thousand different ways one could be of great service, instantly. Just connect with other people. If you think you’ve got it bad, step out into the street and have a word with a guy who lives in an alley between Columbia and Carrall. Your life gets perspective real fast. I encourage people to also seek help. I’m very lucky that I’ve always had people I could call and talk to. But it’s a huge leap to take that step, and say “Hey, I think I want to die”. The weight and responsibility you’re handing somebody is fucking huge. It’s complicated man, we’re complex individuals, but what I can say with certainty is there’s always someone to help, and that we need all of us to be for each other. Really and truly for each other.
HB: We’ve come to understand that addiction stems from isolation, of having nothing to turn to. I stumbled upon an article about Ken Foster—downtown east side’s impoverished artist who’s been selling paintings on the street over the last 20 years. He says “My drugs are how I frame my day. How I space time… how I reward myself. There’s nothing wrong with it, other than how society looks at it. The only problem is they’re just so expensive.” What’s your view on that side of the story?
MB: I have no problem telling the other side of this story because I’ve known Ken 10 plus years. Ken’s got a daughter, an ex who I speak with via twitter, to sometimes pass along messages to him. If he thinks that’s functional, it is, until you’re not just thinking about yourself. So no, he’s not OK. Nobody’s OK in that. That’s an addict’s way of saying “I’m good”. It’s fucking Bukowski-ism—the alcoholic author—the Hunter S. Thompson, the Graham Greene. It’s the romanticism of killing yourself slowly, by writing poetry or making art. It’s fucking bullshit. He’s a beautiful, brilliant, amazing person who’s addicted heavily to drugs. Luckily, and unluckily, he’s got a community in this neighbourhood that loves him.
HB: Why the double-edged sword?
MB: Almost every single person who lives in any of these buildings has bought a Ken Foster piece. And almost every single penny of that has gone into drugs. A couple of dinners here or there… the odd haircut. Everybody gives Ken clothes, and we look after him, because we care. We see ourselves in Ken. The problem is it’s perpetuating, consistently. Until Ken dies, which he will. It’s not a maybe, it’s just a when. Fentanyl is so rampant now, 100% of heroin tests positive for it. Somebody just died while I said that sentence. That’s not OK, and we can’t romanticize this shit and be like “Ken’s just doing his thing”. Hunter S. Thompson did LSD for breakfast, coke for lunch, and died a very lonely, paranoid and delusional life. It’s not the way any human should go out. And though he left an impressive legacy behind him, it’s still one we have to stop romanticizing. And I romanticized him. I saw myself in that. But I also saw myself in Ken. Isolation is the single biggest cause of addiction. I want Ken to be healthy and happy and still make the art we all love. I want him to be safe.
HB: And you feel that connecting people via food, amongst other things, is the perfect way to break that isolation, to give a leg up.
MB: We feel like nobody cares, and that we’ve burned every bridge. We created these organizations so that people had somewhere to turn, to have an open door, or a hot meal. To always have a seat, and not to turn anyone away, unless they’re really violent or intoxicated. Places of inclusion help create the safety of “I am good enough”. We’ve used a velvet glove for too fucking long, and justified too many things, and the fact is we want people to be safe, to live, and to recover. And if that happens functionally, say through opioids, it’s a step and that’s fine. We really want people to get better man… badly.
HB: Perhaps this is a good time to talk about Mike.
MB: My dude Michael Haggerty, aka Football Mike. Mike and I have been together since 2006. It’s just so crazy to see someone physically change so much. Street entrenched, heroin addict. [Shows photos of Mike’s progression on his phone] This is what investing in somebody looks like. This [points at ‘before’ picture] is “Fuck the world, fuck the man, fuck the system, fuck everybody”. He has 6 grandkids by proxy now and lives in a beautiful place, stabilized. If that was the only thing that happened out of there, home fucking run. We intrinsically changed a human’s trajectory who’s now a valuable member to his family, and to society. And in turn, he’s now helping his brother Adam out. He sits at the counter everyday at Save On Meats. Now how we do that 100 million times? How do we make that exponentially possible for people? That’s what we care about now.
HB: What you’ve accomplished wouldn’t have been possible without a knack for the meta. You’re a systems and metrics guy, but the work also demands an active, ground-level participation. How do you strategize?
MB: When you’re in the club DJ’ing, how do you deal with leaving after your set? Super polite? Know a lot of people? It’s your job to know everybody. And it’s the same thing in the restaurant industry. Come sit at my bar—I know your name, your favourite drink, the little league your son plays for. Not because it’s part of my job, but because I give a fuck and it makes my job way more interesting. There’s levels to it. Am I intrinsically involved with everybody I serve? That would be up to 1,200 people a day. So of course not. But am I involved when we have crisis of triage, or a serious issue—yeah, straight in. And I have to be. It’s important to me. I don’t protect myself from it anymore. But I used to.
HB: Just being open and available, and present, if crisis hits.
MB: Indigenous culture says your soul leaves your body whenever you drink. It becomes challenging when you’re not your whole being. But when you’re ‘whole’, you realize we’re all connected, to everything. It’s easier to deal with somebody on a “We’re the same” level. They just need to see me connected to them. Energetically the relationship is “I’m for you”, even though I may not be with you. And you’d find a lot of outreach workers to harbour a similar relationship, because they have to. Good ones will be able to hold energy and space for people without being in their lives constantly.
HB: Social work has no off-switch. It must take a tremendous toll.
MB: I’m here for everybody. I’m here trying to do all of this, we all are. And there’s a mutual respect for all of us—from the person who’s picking up discarded needles to those delivering food to SROs. We’re all doing the same job. If people perceive hierarchy, or see some fame attached to it, the energy changes completely. That’s why I’ve always been in my streets.
HB: Which in turn makes for another trap.
MB: Exactly, also one that leads to addiction and mental illness and all those things. If you’re in it, year after year, you’re part of a microcosm and ecosystem, and people die. If every time somebody passed, especially with this opioid crisis over the last handful of years, if it’d slowed us or stopped us, we would’ve quit a long time ago.
HB: You and your staff have lost many people dear to your hearts in the time that you’ve been here.
MB: When people close to us started to die, it was overwhelmingly emotional for everybody. We’d all go drink, mourn… tell stories. My ex-partner and I would hand out cigarettes and coffee on their death days. We’d reminisce, hand out remembrance cards. It was all significant at the time, and a part of the evolution of us being in the neighbourhood. One day I found out one of our prep cooks—super sweet guy who had a family—had fallen back into addiction. He’d gone into a rage and was tasered by the police and killed. We were devastated. He was an intrinsic part of the team, and he’d suffered. His folks came in to talk to our team and told us the last months of his life were the best because he had family here, and people who loved him. His loss prompted a conversation of how to service people properly. We were trying so hard, but we were also fucking up.
HB: That must’ve been a very difficult conversation to have.
MB: I rallied the staff together and everyone was pale, like “What now?”. We’re going to lose more people. A lot more. So you either have to be able to do that with us, or now is the time to go. If this is going to be crippling to you, and you’re unable to do your job, then this isn’t the work for you. It was overwhelming for them, and some chose to leave. But our organization’s changed massively, especially in the last 3-4 years.
HB: I’d also have a hard time imagining people staying for the long haul.
MB: When I first came into this neighbourhood wanting to do Save On Meats, I sat down with a mentor and she was like “There’s a cycle, you’re in it now… just watch”. People will do 3 years, maybe 7 max and then they’ll go. After a while people just leave. Ok, but then nothing’s ever going to get fucking solved?! If we just burn people out until they’re no use for us, and then just get the next person—who may be coming out of addiction—and burn them out as well, it’s not going to work. So how do we build systems that support people so that they can tag in or out, and be a part of the solution where they don’t have to take on the whole weight. So when some volunteers are in need of a break, we have alumni on standby who’ll tag right back in.
HB: A gentleman by the name of Patrick Duncan, a downtown east side resident who goes by “Raven” says, “It’s either love in your life, or drugs in your life. You can’t have both”. Would you agree?
MB: I think there’s trouble with statements like that. It was true for me—I couldn’t love myself until I was sober. There’s no feeling quite like the euphoria of a narcotic or alcohol bender. But it’s also not real—you’re taking your body to a fictional place that doesn’t exist in real life. The challenge is to get to that place in real life—it exists. We’re built to do it, we just need to cut through our own bullshit to get there. So I try to live my life out loud, messily, in the hopes that someone could relate to it, or learn from it. It’s hard when you’ve never felt loved, or never loved yourself, and when you’ve never had that experience you think could replace a drug that powerful. So I agree with the quote, but cautiously. I have my lived experience and that’s all I can share.
HB: What parallels can you draw regarding substance abuse and addiction between what you see on the streets, and what’s happening in our kitchens.
MB: Culturally, it’s been the same. For a long time. The environments are very similar. There is an urgency to get to a finish line, to celebrate that, and get the fix. That fix can be an endorphin rush from looking at a chit stabber full of bills, picking it up like a conquered beast—everybody high-fiving, breaking out the shots, which then turn into a hundred beers, that turn into 5 AM karaoke, which ultimately turns into hating yourself at 5:30 in the morning, wishing you were connected to your friends. And then doing it all over again. Losing your physical health, your mental health, deteriorating, and ending up on the other side. If I could tell you how many [former] chefs, servers and bartenders I know that are in that, the number would make your head spin.
HB: I hate to say I’m surprised by that.
MB: What do you think happens at the end of that road? We’ve been trying to build that same road backwards—trying to create a non-toxic culture in kitchens. The modern kitchen isn’t the old kitchen. I’ve had to pull cooks aside and go “You can’t fucking yell at people anymore”. It’s not 2002. I’ve smashed plates during service, screamed at people, and now know this is not the behaviour becoming of humans anymore. Nobody will tolerate it, they’ll just walk out the door. If we can stop the flow into the streets and create better community and culture around the industries that stem so many people in, we can start to fix the problem. The kitchen has the ability to be one of the most supportive environments you could ever work in, whilst also learning incredible skills.
HB: You’ve had your licks I’m sure.
MB: It’s… the worst. I was the guy who co-created that environment—let’s all hang out at the back booth, call the guy, first rounds on me. Weekend in, weekend out. It was a different time, but it still exists for a lot of people. The difference is there’s more of a lens on fixing it now. Nobody was talking about fuckin’ mental health in the late 90s. People were just dying. The industry will eat you alive if you’re not careful. It’s commercialized, bastardized, and used for people’s gain and benefit… Top Chef, Master Chef… This whole thing about who’s a chef, and who isn’t…
HB: I didn’t know how stigmatized the cook vs. chef thing was before I started interviewing cooks, or dare I say, chefs.
MB: I have young cooks who come up to me who don’t have their red seal, or any professional training, and they tell me “Nobody accepts me as a chef”. And I’m like “Two guys gave you a hard time once. You can cook your ass off so take whatever label you’re comfortable with”. I’ve got actual chefs telling me “Don’t ever call me chef”. There’s this toxic fucking thing around it that doesn’t need to exist. And it comes with impostor syndrome, and this threat to people who’ve worked 25 years on the line who say “You don’t get to call yourself what I am”. Why not?! Why does that matter to you? Just fucking own it.
HB: It’s as if there’s a clandestine group of Chefs who decide on who’s worthy, or who isn’t.
MB: But there is! [Chuckles] There’s people that will say this shit behind your back, and other cooks know it so they don’t want to get called out by some guy who’s been on the line for 30 years. I’ve cooked for 400 people in Rome, so I know what I’m doing. But I don’t require the label. So if it makes you uncomfortable, then don’t call me that. If you want to, that’s on you. 5 million people online just watched us talking about how we can better our community. Do I give a fuck that they used the words homeless, or chef? I can’t. I can’t get caught up in somebody else’s insecurity. If the people that I service in the street, my team, family and true friends are proud and happy, that’s the best I can do.
HB: That’s a constructive way of looking at it. It’s encouraging, and aspiring cooks need more of it.
MB: Some of the best chefs I know aren’t classically trained. And they feel uncomfortable because they haven’t done the $2 an hour stage at Noma so they don’t feel like they’ve earned it. Yo, you make the best “X” out of anybody I know! You mirepoix with the best of ‘em! Who fucking cares?! Just do your thing. Be proud. At the end of the day, my team—some of them won’t call themselves chefs either—feed 1,200 people a day. And I’d call them chefs all goddamn day. Who makes the rules? It’s bullying and it makes people feel uncomfortable.
HB: Since we’re on the topic of industry, I’ll ask you about our beloved Vancity. In one of your podcasts, you said something like [I paraphrase] “Vancouver’s a beautiful postcard with nothing written behind it”. Do you still hold that belief?
MB: The city’s crazy man. Number one, it’s very very young. Vancouver, in this progressive run, is like 50 years old. That’s nothing. I walked through the streets of Lille 5 years ago and had a mind-bending meal in a restaurant that was 376 years old! Meanwhile, 2% of restaurants in this city are lucky to make it past 5 years. We have a limited community history outside the indigenous one we largely ignore, and we’re trying to create it. This entire time I’ve been working my guts out to create a community that supports each other regardless—one that’s not trying to cut its own throat. But I think we have the healthiest restaurant community regarding ownership in the country.
HB: It’s an exciting time. Vancouver’s really become a paragon for progression in hospitality. And I’m seeing it more and more.
MB: I could call Paul Grunberg [Savio Volpe, Pepino’s] tomorrow and we’d instantly be at each other’s doorstep. We all do this shit. We help each other. More than 45 cooks have come into my kitchen to work in support this neighbourhood. Juno Kim, Mark Singson, Pekka Tevala, Kris Barnholden—they’re all hanging out in the downtown east side at Save On Meats, working different events, because we created a space for them to be together and support one another. We need to be together more.
HB: It looks like a fun kitchen to cook in.
MB: You can have beef with somebody until you see them. I mentor young cooks and tell them to get off the fucking internet and be with people. If you feel estranged from someone, pick up the phone or go see them. Don’t let it boil over. Our industry is very prone to gossip. As someone who’s been the target of a lot of negativity, it sucks, but that’s fine. People have fessed up and apologized…be a human and put your ego aside. The only way we’ll succeed in this city is by propping it up together.
HB: Paeans for unsung heroes.
MB: We, as Canadians, tend to fawn over celebrities from other countries. When David Chang opens a restaurant in Toronto, I’m confused. Because I know 100 Canadian cooks, equally as good, who could be in that spot, or feel comfortable in that spot. Canada and Australia suffer from tall poppy syndrome. As long as we hold the status quo, we’re all homies. If you start to gain more celebrity, cut that poppy right off. You immediately become the bad guy. And Canada does this to its heroes. It’s like “Yo, don’t rock the fucking boat”.
HB: You’re rocking the boat, surely.
MB: And I’m thinking why not? I’m just fucking audacious enough to think we can solve these problems. We can be anything we want, we just need people to lead us there. And to believe in us, and to tell us we’re great at what we do. Everything we’ve talked about is around frame of mind, and the trap of it, and positive reinforcement being a way out of a lot of things. We all have a role to play.
HB: What’s our role as a society when it comes to the downtown east side? A lot of people are fearful, and even refrain from going there. How do we unlearn our preconceived notions?
MB: Half of our patronage at Save On Meats is families. It’s a bias, a connectivity to trauma, and a fear we work everyday to break. This is a marathon, and in part, it just has to be people coming to their own understanding. Some people learn through their kids, some through friends and family. It’s why we created the Greasy Spoon—every time we do a dinner, 80% of the people who’d been afraid of the neighbourhood leave unafraid. You just have to experience it. Scary shit also happens. A paranoid schizophrenic man on methamphetamines having an outburst—that shit is just scary. It’s scary for anybody, but it’s almost always safe.
HB: Concerns around safety create unbreakable barriers in people’s minds.
MB: It’s very challenging. It’s an uphill battle to get people to understand the humanity in all of it. There’s no us and them, just us. To break stigmas you have to get people engaged. And I’m most hopeful about the youth because they seem completely unfazed. Kids get it. We haven’t broken them, or added all these biases. I believe in the youth. People think millennials are disengaged. Most of my staff are millennials and they know they could make three times as much working for somebody else. They’re engaged because we do good work—social justice work. They’re not going to engage if they don’t like you or trust you. If you’re full of shit, and greenwashing, they’re not engaged with you. And it’s not their problem, it’s your fucking problem. Most kids care and want to work on these programs. People who’ve worked with us have moved onto start their own programs because they know it’s possible.
HB: The impetus needs to come from us.
MB: The opportunity needs to come from us. There are assholes in every socio-economic background. What unfortunately happens with the marginalized is that we focus on the 10% who are outrageous. If you look at the business world, I’d say that percentage is higher. “There’s a syringe”. Yeah, there’s hundreds of thousands of people who use, and 50 or 60 syringes. Yes, that sucks. But people are out of their minds, they’re getting hit with fentanyl. They’re dying. They think society’s given up on them and they throw shit. Football Mike was the guy picking all the syringes up. In fact that’s how I met him. He had a deep-seated want for people not to step on them. Unfortunately it perpetuates the stigma that homeless people are addicts who don’t want to take care of themselves, and it’s hard because those things do a lot more damage in the social justice sector than any other.
HB: So powerful they’re almost etched in stone.
MB: Those stigmas and biases we create; I sometimes feel like we’re taking one step forward and 10 steps backward. That’s why a lot of people don’t work in it—“I only want to help people who want to help themselves”. If I had a nickel… It’s the easy way to say “I’m going to concentrate on me”. It’s more of an American example but it translates—guy goes into war, has a severe injury and is immediately prescribed a heavy dose of opioids. He comes back and his prescriptions run out. He still needs them for the pain, because now he’s addicted. He can pay $55 for the pill, or $5 for heroin. You tell me what the problem is. Tell me that that person doesn’t want to help themselves. It’s insane.
HB: One of the the biggest problems is that doctors have no clue on how to wean people off opioids.
MB: I could walk into an office and get an opioid prescription right now. We’re talking about an instant life ruiner. My old VP of operations was medicated and ended up addicted to heroin. Thank god he lived. But just fucking barely. This system almost killed him. It’s super broken. And it’s our fault. We’re perpetuating the availability of opioids, and the myths around homelessness. We’re not holding anyone accountable to say “Let’s just build housing”. Look at all of this land. We can’t build housing?! Of course we could. We could have every single person in a home, and extra availability should someone need it. We are one of the richest countries in the world, and we’d rather spend twice as much money perpetuating the problem.
HB: We need to acknowledge that it’s our problem.
MB: People are like “I wouldn’t rather… that’s not me”. It fucking is you. It’s your tax dollars, and your vote. You’re complicit. Now am I going to expect everybody to turn around and figure this out? No, but I’d like for them to start coming to the issue. And the best way to start would be to come down here and see it. Because for decades Vancouver’s looked the other way. San Francisco, Skid Row in L.A., Brownsville in New York City—they all look the other way. It’s not the downtown east side’s problem, it’s Vancouver’s problem. And the great thing about having this as a topical issue is that, if it happens, other people might afford to live here too, vis-à-vis, we might fix the problem culturally.
HB: You obviously have a lot of faith in fellow mankind, but do you ever feel like your message demands too much of people?
MB: You can’t force anyone to care. The best thing I can do as a leader is to lead by example everyday, and do the best with the resources that we have. To keep looking at it positively. Every single day. I’m fucking amped because there’s an opportunity to potentially get people to see this in a different way. Even though every sign says I shouldn’t, I believe deeply in this. We have to fix it.
HB: You’ve been at it for years. Sharing the love, the message. Do you ever feel like you run the risk of diluting your message? What’s your strategy in getting the word out effectively, your call-to-action?
MB: Innovate. Never ever stagnate. The message is constantly evolving. Always. I’ve been working on a digital platform for the past 4 years. You want to shock people? Show them data. I’ve been working with this company—DOMO—for the past 9 months. As a business owner I can plug into my phone and track my business. How fucking wonderful. My concerns are put to bed. Minute by minute, I know exactly what we sold. But what if we could do this for homelessness? [Demos the Positive Access Link dashboard on his phone] This is the only dashboard in the world, locked to me, that aggregates all of the data in every part of homelessness across America—unaccompanied children, veterans, shelters. I have 8 data scientists working on it. On the street level every single person with a cellphone can enter their data, and it’ll eventually give us real time data of what their immediate needs are.
HB: Super fresh.
MB: Right?! So, we can stop assuming what people need, and see how we’ll deal with it. Once I have that collective and cumulative data, there’s no walking away from it. And more importantly, we’re not going to want to. We can then govern accordingly and deal with people on an individual basis which gives me hope that we can fix this thing. Cause we will. Then we know exactly how much money we need. If that’s not shaking up the system I don’t know what the fuck is.
HB: And you’re confident it’ll have traction?
MB: When I talk to my students about my digital platform, they ask me if anyone’s ever going to use it. There’s 300 million people who use an application that’s not social media every single day. It’s called Angry Birds. If you’re telling me I can’t make something as interesting as that to help people out, then I don’t know what I’m doing. We can make that exponential change now. We know. We’ve tested. We know how to get people involved. We had a 9-year old boy from Burnaby drive down with his grandmother to buy sandwich tokens with his birthday money. It’s not an isolated incident. There’s light at the end of the tunnel because we work with agency, and agency works with business in a comfortable, honest way now. In a way it didn’t before. The next generation of leaders in these NGOs and MPOs are much more open and understanding of how we band together. “Playing Politics” is going the way of the dinosaur. Transparency and collaboration will rule the future.
HB: When are you debuting PAL?
MB: I’m finishing the front end, and then we’ll pilot it, quietly. And we’ll break it. And pilot it some more. If anything’s going to come under incredible scrutiny, this is it. And I’m good with that, cause it needs to be bulletproof. Lots of people have tried to use technology to work on this problem, but the thing is, they don’t want to work on the problem. They just want to create the technology and walk away. The ground level people need to be the ones executing the work.
HB: Talking about resources, what is the nature of your relationship with policymakers in the city?
MB: It’s a mix. Everyone has their own causes they care about. I engage with people. I follow the energy. If people are positive and they’re legitimate about the work, then we work. If they’re not, then we don’t. People are like “Why are you working in New York?”. It’s because the energy is there and people want to solve things with me. So we follow the energy and then create those systems we can then transplant into any other place. If Vancouver was a more receptive place as a whole, and more engaging, and we had more resources, we’d be further along. You have to be nimble with any kind of entrepreneurship, especially with social impact.
HB: Plus I can’t really picture you sitting quietly at a Council Meeting.
MB: People get elected, obtain a platform, get settled for 12-16 months, try to do some work, and then they’re back into the election. I wouldn’t wish that shit on anybody! It’s an actual nightmare. I’ve sat through a lot of council meetings, I don’t want to talk about the 4-way stop on 6th Avenue. But that’s the job. You don’t get to pick and choose when you become a civic politician. I would never run.
HB: If you had to pick a single job title, what’d you go with?
MB: Community builder? [Chuckles] My resume says all kinds of things. But at this point, I’m an educator. I had a lightbulb moment watching Michelle Obama speak in New York a couple of months back. I can smell bullshit countries away, but that family has a level of integrity that’s so real, so admirable. She was pushed by the crowd three times to run for president. She said “No” and added, “I can run for president and maybe win, or I could create 1000 of me every year, for the rest of my life”. The greatest gift you can give the planet right now is by giving 1000 people the hope, the structure, the skillset and the focus to do more social justice. That’s my job—to build armies of people who come to the work and find their place in it.
HB: Will there ever be a point where you’re fully satisfied with the results?
HB: Do you reward yourself?
MB: I buy sneakers. [Chuckles] The job is the reward. 100%. I won, and I get to do the job. I get to walk into The Diamond tonight, play with the menu with an exceptional chef and hang out with my friends who I’ve created a cultural hub with. I can walk into Save On Meats and work with people I deeply care about. That’s the win. If I could do it all over, I’d so some things differently for certain, but the end result would be the very similar.
HB: I moved to Vancouver right before the 2010 Winter Olympics. In my experience, the problems of the DTES seem to have worsened. And I know a lot of people who share that sentiment. In light of our talk, I do feel more hopeful. But I’m interested in your view as someone on both sides of the field.
MB: I hosted a dinner in Brooklyn and brought people of affluence to a restaurant to talk about homelessness. I told people it was a safe environment, and that they could say anything they wanted. This guy got up and said “I don’t think we have a homelessness problem in New York City” and the room started turning on him. I was like “Whoa. Hold it”. I thanked him for saying that, and added “Here’s your new curse. You know when you bought that red Honda Civic and that’s all that you saw afterwards? I’m sorry dude, you’re never not going to see homeless people now”. It diffused the energy and opened the room for others to share the misnomers they had heard and felt. That’s safe, that’s the conversation we need to have. That same guy emailed me many months after, telling me he changed his position to focus on homelessness and equity. Our lens is how we approach this thing. Has it gotten better? Fuck yes. Why? Because leadership has gotten less siloed and we have a ground-level inclusion that never existed.
HB: Were you this hopeful in the beginning?
MB: When I came in, it did not go well. And it didn’t go well because of me—I was too arrogant and had little idea the depths of the things I was talking about. My energy was exclusive, not inclusive. Anybody can play now. For a chef to come in and feed 1,200 people in this neighbourhood any day of the week, it didn’t exist in this way. We’ve created an archetype that now travels. We went to Toronto and people got very excited. We were able to create change in people in 48 hours. They get it when we explain it in inclusive and approachable ways, it’s critical.
HB: What’s next for you?
MB: It’s going to be a busy couple of, well, forever. I just accepted the role as Executive Chef for the American Refugee Committee that will take me all over the world, I’m the City of Sydney Australia’s Entrepreneur in Residence for 2018-2019 which will take me there a few times, and we’re also bringing the Greasy Spoon to 22 American cities, 9 Canadian ones and a few international ones to keep continuing to shed a light on people doing exceptional work. We’ve just registered the company in New York as of this month, so expect us to be doing some new projects on both sides of the border around food security and employment. Lots of other really exciting things on the Vancouver front. Life is really beautiful brother, and I’m committed to us.