How I did it: Reggie Milligan

Young chef burns out but returns with new foodie business

Business in Vancouver's "How I Did It" feature asks business leaders to explain how they achieved a business goal in the face of significant challenges. In this week's issue, Reggie Milligan describes how he went from volunteering in a kitchen when he was 15 to apprenticing in a three-Michelin-star restaurant before starting his own business.

"I grew up watching the food network and I got increasingly into food as I was watching it. At the age of 15 I decided I wanted to get into restaurants.

"At the time, Lumière was the 'it' spot in Vancouver. I knocked on the door to see if I could work for free. I ended up being there for three years, and I moved my way up through the kitchen.

"I really wanted to work at [Yountville, California's] French Laundry, but it's hard to get a position in the kitchen because it's got three Michelin stars.

"I was naive, but I figured somebody would eventually respond to a handwritten letter that they're physically holding. So I wrote a letter a week until they let me in. Like literally, a letter a week.

"The month after I graduated from high school, I went down there to work. I was like a sponge absorbing everything. When you're in kitchens and you're that young, people want to make it work for you and to teach you.

"But then I went into these funny years where I got out of kitchens because I burnt out. I was at this high level, and I didn't know if I totally wanted it. I felt like I'd built a career in kitchens before I was even 20.

"So I headed off to the University of Victoria, where I did a degree in entrepreneurship. At university I saw how people lived and cooked, and the reality was very different from fine dining. Living in a house with five guys, you see how they really eat.

"Because I could cook, we'd have dinner parties, and there would be 30 people there sometimes. People started bringing friends of friends, and everybody was connecting over dinner.

"When I graduated, I wanted to do the same thing but in restaurants. I enjoyed cooking, but we needed to scale it. So we'd reserve a table of 30 and label it something like Young Entrepreneurs' Social Feed or Fashion and Design Social Feed. There would be a preset menu and a communal table, and we'd share a meal and meet a bunch of people.

"It was a pretty simple idea but it seemed to really resonate, so we expanded to Toronto. And then there was a company out of San Francisco doing the same thing that wanted to buy us. It was an opportunity to throw this on our track record and move on.

"I immediately started what I'm doing now, which is Mantry. We send out a package every month with about six products in it. There's all these amazing craft and artisan small-batch makers out there that don't have a marketing platform, and we want to connect them with a group of guys that aren't typically hanging out in farmers' markets but would enjoy their products. We do a mini-magazine with, recipes and applications for the products.

"From my food background, it all syncs together.

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