A few years ago, I had a birthday dinner at the Wine Cask and was surprised by Mitchell Sjerven’s entire family singing for me at the end of the evening. It was endearing and totally unexpected, as if the VonTrapp family had just appeared at my table. But not, I’d say, completely surprising, for there is extraordinary warmth about Mitchell’s personality.
Even during the busiest dinner rush, Mitchell always remains jovial and, when he smiles, there’s a cherubic quality about it. Going to the Wine Cask for a special occasion has been a long tradition in Santa Barbara, and Sjerven’s success — both as co-owner of the Cask, which he helped re-launch with Doug Margerum a few years ago, as well as founder and proprietor of bouchon on Victoria Street — comes from being able to imbue his restaurants with personality and thoughtfulness.
Thankfully, he broke away from his dawn to midnight hussle to answer the Proust Questionnaire.
What is you like about your job the most?
The people, hands-down — both those I enjoy working with on a daily basis and those that come into the restaurants to dine. Every day is different and the people keep it interesting enough to do the mundane tasks associated with running any business. Also, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with a successful night, having guests compliment the food and staff and share what a wonderful time they had.
What is your favorite memory of your running restaurants?
Opening night of my first restaurant, Meritage, in the fall of 1996. I remember sitting down on the front porch at the end of the night thinking, “I finally did it.” After all of the dreaming and scheming, talking about it, and the delays I encountered, I had finally fulfilled my dream of owning my own restaurant. The excitement of that first night has never faded, even as other good memories have been created since. I suppose it’s like a first love.
What has been your favorite dining experience?
It involved my wife and Haagen-Dazs vanilla. Or maybe I should instead say “Smiths of Smithfield” in London. Edgy neighborhood, four unique floors, from nightclub to lounge to café, and, where we dined, a wonderful restaurant. Great views of the city, staff was fantastic, food and wine were phenomenal. I’ve never been back — I’m afraid it would not live up to the memory.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Journeys with my daughter Caroline. She is a phenomenal little traveler, never complains. She’s 12 now and we are heading to New Zealand next year. We went to Austria when she was 10 and took the Sound of Music movie location tour on bikes named Kurt and Gretl — probably one of my all-time top travel memories. We’ve been to London and Paris but are equally happy road-tripping to Bryce and Zion canyons. A regular trip for us is to Las Vegas, as much for the routine as Vegas itself. We take the train from Santa Barbara to Burbank, fly Southwest to Vegas. We both LOVE Cirque du Soleil shows.
What is your greatest fear?
Not being able to provide for my family, and that, even if I can, the near-certainty that I will inevitably wish I had spent more time with them and less on “work.” I imagine I will be reflecting on that irony in my twilight years.
Who do you most admire and why?
Explorers, adventurers, and trailblazers — people unafraid to strike out into the unknown, especially in the name of discovery. Their collective courage provides answers, finds cures, broadens our understanding of the world we live in, all the while creating great stories for generations to come, if not forever for a rare few.
What is your greates extravagance?
Travel and the related expenses of dining out, expensive activities, and adventures. I can easily be convinced that $300 for a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon is worth it.
What is your current state of mind?
Relaxed, as you got me catching up on office work after a very busy weekend. And excited in anticipation for a couple of days away with my wife when my daughter is away next week on a class trip.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Honest, but not to a fault — so frank and never mean. Earnest without stressing out, but having a sense of purpose in what you do and how you handle your scandal. Enthusiastic without cheerleading everything you do, and trying to convert me to your version of happiness. I guess I would roll it all up into having an upbeat, positive attitude about life and your place in it.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Negativity, especially in those who are unable to hold a mirror up to their own choices and see the way to change their lives for the better starts with them. Drama and gossip, too — can’t stand those caught up in what everyone else is doing, as it so gets in the way of my being able to have meaningful relationship with you.
What do you most value in friends?
Flexibility to move in and out of their lives. I’ve worked in the restaurant business my entire life and met many, if not nearly all, of my friends at work. Most of them eventually go on to traditional 9-5 jobs, so getting together for any activities on holidays, weekends, or even ‘standard’ evenings is rare and unpredictable. Thankfully, my closest friends all understand, because they were once in my non-skid dress shoes.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Driven. I will do whatever it takes to succeed, muster all resources to tackle a problem, consider any angle to persevere.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“I’m very busy.” My great friend Greg Brewer told me years ago that he was so tired of hearing “I’m busy” from everyone — and perhaps the litany of activities one has on one’s calendar at the moment — that he swore he would never utter the phrase again. With apologies to the unemployed, child-free, and retired, everyone is busy, so I think the issue was that a simple “yes” or “no” would do. To be honest, I’ve never heard Greg say it since, but no success for me so far.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Sing like a mariachi band lead singer. And play all the instruments. And really be in a mariachi band. Probably related to my birthday being on Cinco de Mayo. And the costumes. Yes, I watch Glee.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Be on time more often.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Children is the first thought, but that isn’t an “achievement,” really, so it comes down to graduating UCSB or opening my own restaurant. Since both come from having moved here with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket I’m going to go with: moving to Santa Barbara with a couple hundred bucks in my pocket and figuring out a way to stay.
Where would you most like to live?
I chose Santa Barbara and it still remains #1 for me. I always laugh at the “Native” bumper stickers because, honestly, that was just dumb luck. I chose to move here to attend UCSB and never regretted it, can’t imagine calling anyplace else “home.” I could imagine the typical spots people love for a while, like Portland, Bend, Boulder, London, Paris. I thought Sydney was awesome, kind of a big Santa Barbara in many ways, great people.
What is your most treasured possession?
I don’t have any treasure. I can’t think of a single memento, even, and don’t have any “family heirlooms.” I can’t think of anything I would miss, so I’m not really a possessions kind of guy. So I’m going with memories, final answer.
What makes you laugh the most?
I laugh at lots of things, but mainly my daughters. They both have goofy/creative sides of their personalities that they are not afraid to show, at least at home. Goofy faces, exaggerated dancing, oddball antics, mainly.
What is your motto?
Carpe Diem! Okay, it’s not really mine. I stole it from Santa Barbara Middle School, where my daughter is a 7th grader. But it works as well, if not better than any, so it’s mine now. Never had a motto before. Thanks for the opportunity to come up with one.