The good life: Mike and Monica Black, Chef/Co-Owners, Black Spoon Bistro, B&B, Café and Pastry Shop

By Sean Moon

The good life: Mike and Monica Black, Chef/Co-Owners, Black Spoon Bistro, B&B, Café and Pastry Shop

In his typical down-to-earth manner, Mike Black segués easily between a telephone conversation and a business deal about to go down at the back of his busy restaurant. “Can you give me just a second,” Mike politely asks, “I’ve just got to buy some halibut for tonight’s special from a gentleman at the back.” Deal done, Black turns back to telling his story of how he and his wife Monica have turned a passion for food, and love of making people happy, into a mini food and hospitality empire in the small Cape Breton town of North Sydney, N.S.

A graduate of the Holland College culinary program in Charlottetown, P.E.I. back in 1995, Mike has spent the better part of 20 years plying his cooking skills around the Maritime foodservice scene. Just a couple of years out of school, Mike opened Les Deux Forchettes in Moncton, N.B. with a couple of partners before moving on to brief stints in the franchise world at Boston Pizza and East Side Marios, along with culinary management positions at a couple of high-end golf courses in the Moncton area. Before making the big move in 2005 with Monica and their three kids to her hometown of North Sydney, Mike also served what he calls “10 years hard time” at the Dorchester Penitentiary, although he was working on the “right” side of the bars.

“I got to go home every night, thanks to good behaviour,” Mike says with an easy laugh.

Inspired By Dad

Like many successful chefs and restaurateurs, Mike took an interest in cooking while still a kid. With both parents working and two older brothers at home, Mike says he was always messing around in the kitchen, mainly because teenaged boys are usually looking for something to eat. But it was his father’s job as an engineer that propelled him into the foodservice industry.

“My Dad is a very smart man and he loved his work. Unfortunately, he brought a lot of his work home with him at the end of the day. I remember when I was younger saying that I did not want a job where you had to bring your work home with you. Little did I know that opening your own restaurant, obviously, it’s 24-7.”

Mike and Monica took the plunge into full-time restaurant ownership in 2005 by opening the Black Spoon Bistro, a “fun casual” place popular with both locals and tourists, some of whom stop by on their way to catch the nearby ferry to Newfoundland. And like many chefs and restaurant owners, Mike’s personality comes through in his approach to life and business, evident in the way he interacts with customers.

The bright side of life

“Those who know me know I don’t take a whole lot seriously, which is not necessarily a good thing, I guess. But it’s not a terrible thing either,” says Black. “I love my family and I love my work but you’ve got to have a lot of laughs to help ease some of the stress that comes with any job. We’ve got to keep laughing, having some fun and sharing some of that awesome Cape Breton hospitality that we’re known for.”

Since opening the restaurant, Mike and Monica have gone on to create a number of other venues for sharing that trademark hospitality, including a five-bedroom bed and breakfast in a former convent and a bustling café and pastry shop which has garnered several dessert awards at local food festivals.

Both Mike and Monica wear a number of different hats for the three businesses. Mike cooks at the bistro and is usually the one who zips around town to pick up grocery and liquor supplies for the restaurant. Monica is the bookkeeper, the baker at the café and does breakfast at the B&B. They are also parents to three children. With so much going on, it’s no wonder Mike says no two days are ever the same.

“Being small, you don’t have the luxury of having people to do a specific job. It gets rid of the redundancy for sure. Sometimes you feel like the politician who is out rubbing elbows and kissing babies and the next day you’re the guy in the trenches banging out a busy day at the restaurant.”

Irons in the fire

When not busy tending to the restaurant or other properties, Black enjoys playing golf and hockey (“mainly for the cold beer at the end”) as well as spending time with the family. As for any new projects on the horizon, Mike smoothly evades the question, hinting only that he is currently working on “something that North Sydney is looking for right now.”

Black says that while Monica was the driving force for initially opening the restaurant due to his paralyzing fear of failure at the time, his great sense of humour and supportive family helped him realize that some things are worth the risk.

“Obviously we should use fear as a motivator and not be afraid to take a calculated risk. When we first started, I was a nervous wreck from fear and anxiety. Fortunately, through hard work and perseverance, things have worked out rather well and life is good.”

About the author:

Sean Moon is the managing editor of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News.

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