Food provides an introduction to the stars

Everyone has a story to tell

When Mike Flaherty was 10 years old and helping his grandfather and uncles in the family-owned Meca Tavern, little did he imagine he would one day be making Shepherd’s Pie for Keith Richards or packing sandwich lunches for Ken Thomson.

Mike Flaherty living the Canadian dream with Lord Stanley’s Cup. Flaherty has brushed up with the famous many times in his career as a chef.

Today Flaherty, 45, is a chef at the Air Canada Centre’s Platinum Club but in the intervening years he has practically, as Bob Dylan would put it, ‘dined with kings’ – or at least made dinner for some rock and roll royalty, a smattering of film stars and a few heads of state. He’s been dubbed by one co-worker as the ‘chef beyond the velvet rope.’

Flaherty got his first taste for cooking when he worked alongside his grandfather and uncles George and Alec in the Meca Tavern at the corner of Queen Street East and Coxwell Avenue.

“They had me in there working on Saturdays, working in the kitchen,” said Flaherty. “At a very early age I learned how to compromise. I had to learn how to do things three different ways, depending who was there.”

He credits his grandfather with teaching him all the recipes he knows.

“He was my walking cookbook until the day he died,” said Flaherty.

During his high school years, he graduated from the Meca kitchen to the Arcadian Court in the downtown Simpson’s store. Here, he had his first brush with fame. Newspaper magnate Ken Thomson ate lunch there regularly and Flaherty would sometimes make and pack sandwiches in plastic containers for him.

Flaherty moved back to the Beach and began an apprenticeship at the Toronto Hunt Club, a venue he said was not only a great place to learn but also where he was one of the cooks who made 450 meals in one day for the Economic Summit in the late 1980s. Diners included Brian Mulroney, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“At one point during the dinner, Maggie Thatcher just got up and decided to walk into the kitchen just to see what was going on,” said Flaherty. “Her handlers were all beside themselves saying ‘What are you doing?’ She came over and chatted with us. I thought that was really nice.”

A brief stint in law took him out of the kitchen for a short while, but after taking a few law courses, he decided “this really isn’t me.” His next move was to answer an ad for film and concert catering. One of the people doing the hiring turned out to be an old friend.

“He said, ‘I know you want to work in the kitchens here, but how would you like to go across North America with U2?’,” Flaherty recalls. He went home and ran the proposal by his girlfriend Julie.

“The first thing out of her mouth was ‘I think you should go because if you don’t you’ll be regretting it for the rest of your life.’ And that’s when I said, ‘That’s the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.”

In April of 1997 he went on tour with the band for three and a half months. In September, he went out again, this time with the Rolling Stones.

One memorable event took place right here in the city, when the Stones (minus Mick Jagger who was sidelined with laryngitis) decided to rehearse in a space in the Eglinton and Warden neighbourhood.

“It was Keith, Charlie, Ron Wood and a couple of the backup singers, and it was impromptu — just them, a few back line guys and Jeff (another cook) and myself cooking,” said Flaherty.

Flaherty has also catered on film locations and one of his favourite recollections was working on a set with James Earl Jones.

“He’s the nicest man I’ve ever met,” he said. “I remember knocking on his trailer door and all I heard was ‘Come in’ and I’m like ‘Oh my God, it’s Darth Vader.’”

Flaherty no longer goes out on the road, but he is still involved. Along with his chef job at the ACC, he is also a catering and production runner for Live Nation, making sure bands get where they have to go on time, and buying and sourcing all the food. He’s been sent out to buy 20 dozen roses, the petals of which were subsequently scattered on a dressing room floor, and to deliver a three-tier wedding cake to a dinner the following day. He accomplished both.

Flaherty is busy at home, too, with Julie and their young daughter.

“Your life is made up of moments,” he mused. “It’s what you do with those moments that determines your fate.”

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