In order to keep a ship afloat and traveling on a good heading, a few imperative elements are required: repairing the hull and mending sails so the ship doesn’t take on water or drift off course, having a strong ability to navigate rough waters, and most importantly, employing a skillful and dependable crew.
Michael Brisson, owner and cook (he doesn’t like to be called “chef”) at l’étoile restaurant in Edgartown told Edible Vineyard during a visit that the analogy of the pirate ship aptly captures the dynamic of the high-end eatery. “It’s kind of like I’m the conductor of the orchestra, but I’m also playing along with the entire group — I’m the captain of the pirate ship, but I’m just as much a member of the crew,” Brisson explained as the late morning milieu of North Water Street shifted toward the lunch hour.
The story of l’étoile begins in a little grocery store on the side of the road in Pawtucket, R.I., where Brisson worked his first “actual job,” he said. “Back then they would call them greengrocers. I was like 14 years old, making $2.25 an hour because I was small enough to fit into the meat display counter and clean the blood out of the corners.”
When Brisson’s family moved out of Pawtucket, he got a job at a pizza joint called Uncle Tony’s Pizza. There, he would sit down at the end of the night with the rest of his coworkers and they would all share stories of the day, commiserate over the franticness of the evening rush, and laugh together. “There’s this kind of bunker mentality where you make it through the night together — the comradery, the beer mugs pulled out of the freezer full of Coca-Cola, we were a team, a crew,” Brisson said.
The supportive nature of his manager at the pizzeria struck a chord with Brisson. He noticed how much the manager supported and encouraged employees to do their best and be their best. It’s a lesson Brisson has carried with him all the way up to today, as he seeks to do the same with his crew at l’étoile.
There are a few moments Brisson can recall in his life where he became entranced with delicious food, moments that helped put him on the trajectory toward making a living doing what he loves. By the time he was 16 years old, Brisson was asked by the assistant manager of Uncle Tony’s to work in a new restaurant he was opening in Smithfield, R.I. On occasion, Brisson would stir the spaghetti sauce at the new restaurant as it was being made. “I would be stirring, and I would take some plain bread and put some sauce on it. Man, I just absolutely loved that,” Brisson said.
Brisson grew up as one of six kids. Both his parents were hard workers, and sometimes his mother would make a special meal that he thoroughly enjoyed. But Brisson’s first food epiphany occurred when he was very young, while hanging out at his friend’s family home. “Back then, apart from once in a while when my mom would make something really tasty, eating was a bodily function — it wasn’t a joyful moment,” Brisson laughed. “When I was at my friend’s house and his mother gave me some frozen peas boiled in saltwater and tossed in some butter, I was absolutely blown away. We didn’t have butter growing up. I had Mazola, I had margarine.”
After trying out college for a semester, Brisson realized that his passion was in the kitchen. In 1978, he was helping run an Italian-Hungarian restaurant in Rhode Island, and the restaurant’s owner had an opportunity to buy space in the Charlotte Inn. Brisson fell in love with the Island immediately, and became the sous-chef of the restaurant, Chez Pierre. By the time he was 18 years old, he was running the restaurant largely on his own.
Brisson knew he wanted to expand his culinary abilities to encompass every aspect of working in fine dining, so he left the Vineyard and worked in several high-end restaurants on the mainland, eventually rising to the level of chef de cuisine under the tutelage of world-famous chef Moncef Meddeb. “Meddeb told me one day, ‘You will open your own place, I know you will,’ and that really set me down this road to where I am now,” Brisson explained.
Eventually, the space at the Charlotte Inn that his old boss purchased became available, and Brisson knew it was his time to forge his dream. He took over at the inn, and in 2005, Brisson moved his restaurant to its current location on North Water Street, and continued sailing his own ship.
For Brisson, comfort, attention to detail, and quality ingredients have always been mainstays of l’étoile. But the most important aspect of the dynamic dining experience in downtown Edgartown is teamwork.
Especially during the worst days of the COVID pandemic, Brisson needed a dedicated and passionate crew in order to weather the storm. While some restaurants and businesses were hiring “warm bodies” out of sheer desperation, Brisson said, he continued to be highly selective in whom he brought onboard. It’s a decision he said he has never regretted, and many of the folks he hired several years ago still work for him. “I have the best crew I have ever had in 35 years. I have hired kind, considerate, hardworking, mindful people,” Brisson said.
Over the years, l’étoile and its staff have adapted to a constantly changing business environment — one thing that Brisson said they’ve gotten pretty good at. Additionally, Brisson has always worked hard to walk the thin line between remaining fresh and relevant as a restaurant, and not shaking things up too drastically too often. “I never want someone to walk by my restaurant and say, ‘Oh, it’s that old place. That place has been the same for years.’ At the same time, it’s hard to be constantly updating and changing menus. It takes a lot of time and work,” Brisson said.
But the old saying “don’t fix what isn’t broken” applies to the l’étoile menu, as some timeless classics have remained, and have become representative of the kind of cuisine folks can enjoy there. Although some newer items like the grilled octopus and chilled golden tomato gazpacho are huge hits, any Edgartonian (or Islander who’s eaten at l’étoile) will advise you to try the foie gras. “The octopus is something I’m really proud of because I’ve never done it before, but I do specialize in foie gras, and people really enjoy that,” Brisson said.
Brisson also loves cooking other duck dishes, along with lamb, lobster, and gnocchi. For him, it’s all about making the experience memorable and unique. “I make food I want to eat, and I make food that you really don’t make at home. That’s why you don’t see a pork chop on the menu,” Brisson laughed. “And you don’t normally see people making foie gras at home, unless you want to set off every smoke detector in your house.”
Brisson gave a shout-out to all the different people who keep l’étoile’s machine moving. He said his harmonious and hardworking staff have time after time taken the initiative to have their own influence in how the business operates, and he always encourages that and offers opportunities to stand out. “When I built the brand-new bar, I basically handed it over to Lola and the rest of the bar staff, and told them to make it their own. I say, ‘I’m not a bartender, you are professionals, take charge,’” Brisson said. “They did so incredibly — it’s called taking pride in your work, and it goes far in any profession.”
Apart from his staff, Brisson pointed out some folks in the community who are also helping his business and businesses like his survive and thrive. “We really have so many good people on this Island who keep us going: Seth Williams, my electrician Chris Greene, my massage therapist, my chiropractor, the guy who built my bar, Andrew. The support people here who are keeping all of us restaurants going, those people are stars,” Brisson said.
He thanked all his food providers who always get him fresh ingredients, like the folks over at Net Result who supply beautiful cuts of fish regularly. Whenever he gets a cut of fish, Brisson said he treats it with the utmost respect when turning the raw product into a delicious, gourmet meal. “I make sure to send the folks at Net Result pictures every now and then of the finished meal, and I say, ‘Thank you so much for this beautiful fish,’” he said.
In that same vein, Brisson generally doesn’t associate his name with the business, although he is a well-known face around the Island, especially in Edgartown, where passersby constantly greet him as he sits on l’étoile’s porch. For Brisson, the value and identity of l’étoile is the restaurant, the food, the staff, and the experiences the entire package provides. At some point in the future, he hopes to walk away, and pass the restaurant on to someone who cares just as much about great food as he does.
At this time in his life and his career, Brisson said he is proud to have built a business that has weathered the test of decades, a COVID pandemic, and all sorts of other curveballs. But above all, he said, he is happy to provide both locals and visitors with enjoyable experiences and delicious food.
“There is such a sense of community and home here on the Island. I have people who eat at my restaurant all the time, and I have people who are eating here for the first time — it doesn’t matter as long as they’re smiling when they walk out the door.”