GOING BEHIND THE GIG: Made with Lizottes of Love
W/ Jess Moog
THIS MONTH’S BIG GIG WIG NEEDS ABSOLUTELY NO INTRODUCTION. HIS MOUTH-WATERING MUSICAL INFLUENCE HAS BEEN FELT THROUGHOUT AUSTRALIA (AND THE WORLD) FOR OVER TWENTY YEARS, WITH HIS REVOLUTIONARY RESTAURANT STANDING OUT AS ONE OF THE COOLEST VENUES IN NEWY. OBVIOUSLY, I’M TALKING ABOUT THE REMARKABLY KIND AND EQUALLY TALENTED BRIAN LIZOTTE: A MAN WHO HAS MANAGED TO COMBINE GOOD FOOD AND MAGICAL MUSIC TO CREATE ONE DELICIOUSLY LOUD EXPERIENCE FOR ALL TO ENJOY.
Our friend Brian had his first taste of the music industry at a very young age, growing up in a large tune-loving family. In fact, three of his six siblings went on to become professional musicians, including his brother Mark Lizotte (better known as Diesel), who has been causing a ruckus in the Australian music scene for almost three decades.
‘My family was a very musical family. I played trombone when I was younger,’ he said. ‘My mother wasn’t a musician, but my father was – he played sax, and he was very passionate about his music.
‘For me, it always about supporting. So from early on, I was a huge supporter of what my brother was doing and tried helping him as much as I could to get him off the ground. Taking him to band practice, just being his support in general, and then just seeing his career explode.’
Throughout his teenage years, Brian began to take notice of his substantial interest in food, and slowly started pointing his nose towards the hospitality industry.
‘When I was in high school I could never really work out what I wanted to do. But then the hospitality bell rang, and that’s when I realised that was what I wanted to do,’ he explained. ‘At one of the restaurants I first worked at as a young waiter, I kept asking for a night off work to play with a big band I was in, and he said, “Well, what do you want to do: play trombone or make a living?” So that was kind of like a slap in the face… And I made that decision to maybe go on the other side. I embarked on a Diploma of Hotel Management and Catering and completed that, then it just steadfasted me into the hospitality industry.’
Shortly after, Brian landed a catering gig at Sydney’s Rhinoceros Studios, where he graciously fed some of the biggest names in Australian music at the time. He then went on to co-create More Than a Morsel, a catering business dedicated to blessing the bellies of a whole bunch of arm-pinching artists, including Elton John, Madonna, Nirvana and KISS.
‘We really did pioneer the mobile catering business into what it is today. There were very, very few people doing what we started doing in the music industry here in Australia, so that’s pretty exciting,’ he asserted. ‘There was no service before – there was just Jatz crackers and VB and cabanossi platters in the dressing rooms. So to create that was a huge feather in our cap, one I’m very proud of, and I have very many fond memories of doing that.
‘There was many a year where we wouldn’t sleep much and we would travel… But we’re not the stars; we looked after the stars.’
In the year 2000, Brian and his wife Jo took their curtain call with the catering industry and went on to create their first restaurant on the Central Coast instead.
‘That’s where Lizotte’s and Kincumber were born. That was our first restaurant and we had that for ten years,’ he said. ‘Then three years after we opened Kincumber, we found this theatre… So Newcastle was the second one. Then two years later, we opened Dee Why as well.’
Unfortunately, running three restaurants while also raising a family resulted in Brian biting off a bit more than he could chew, and he eventually decided to downsize his workload by concentrating on one venue instead.
‘Three years ago when we closed the other two, we moved up to Newcastle permanently, and we’re loving it,’ he explained. ‘Loving the Newcastle vibes and the music industry!’
So far, Lizotte’s has housed an incredibly impressive range of both Aussie and international acts, with some of Brian’s personal favourites including Jimmy Barnes, Macy Gray, Mick Fleetwood and American blues icon Taj Mahal.
‘We’re a small venue, so unfortunately that is a cross against us… But you know, we’ve had some of the biggest names in the world grace my stage,’ he told me.
‘Personally, Taj Mahal was one of my highlights. I ended up having dinner with him when I cooked after the show and I was here till about 2:30 in the morning drinking red wine with him. The stories he told and him making me feel comfortable as a venue owner was pretty special. I will never forget that.
‘Mick Fleetwood was another one. He ended up taking paintings off the wall and buying paintings from the venue,’ he went on to say. ‘And the calibre of those acts… They really don’t have to play 200-seater venues, that’s for sure, so we’re pretty lucky.’
But it isn’t just the well-known wonders Brian is fond of; he reckons that some of the best performances are actually put on by our lovely local musicians – the young ones in particular.
‘The music industry is definitely alive and well… I love supporting local music,’ he explained. ‘We’ve got great music schools as well, so one of the big music initiatives for us was to get into the schools… I don’t know any other venue that supports local schools as much as we have in the past and as much as we will in the future. We’ve got 15–20 high schools who use our room on a regular basis… It’s just one after the other, and almost every single one of them sells out. It’s awesome!’
When speaking of Newcastle’s music scene in general, Brian believes one of its defining qualities is the huge support system present amongst local musicians and industry professionals.
‘The biggest standout for me about the music industry in Newcastle is that almost every local music initiative show that we’ve ever put on has pretty much sold out, which shows great faith and support,’ he said. ‘I love that a lot of them band together and look after each other as well, so you’ll often find a band of merry men and women, a whole circle of musician friendships that have been created because they support each other.’
He does, however, point out that Newy’s music venues are definitely in trouble, especially with the growing threat of housing developments in town. But while professionals in the area are pushing for more protection, Brian is taking more of an optimistic approach.
‘As you would’ve seen in all the press lately, it is struggling, and they’re calling it a crisis. I’d like to not think of it as a crisis, but that it’s just a tweak,’ he told me. ‘It is serious, there’s no two ways about it. It’s my livelihood that’s at stake as well if these venues don’t survive… But I think that we have to encourage people and keep bringing the good live acts, keep supporting the local music industry, and hopefully the rest takes care of itself.’
The impending doom of potential closure isn’t the only basket of rotten fruit Brain’s had to face, with other career hurdles including the economic stress of running three venues and regularly keeping up with trends.
‘Obviously running three restaurants was huge… It didn’t work the way I was hoping it would,’ he said. ‘Having a family and work commitments is always difficult for anyone. Jo is a major part of this business; she always has been and she always will be. There was no question that our relationship had to be even stronger to continue doing what we did and going through the trials and tribulations together. Without being soulmates, it would’ve never worked.
‘We also like to think our menu is intercontinental, so my chefs are always proficient in having something on the menu for everyone,’ he went on to say. ‘Over the years those are the challenges that you have: to keep on the edge of what everybody wants all the time.’
But despite the harrowing financial woes and string of sleepless nights, Brian is beyond thrilled with the work he has done, and that he still gets to do every goddamn day.
‘[The industry] took me around the world, being footloose and fancy-free,’ he smiled. ‘I’ve got a very famous saying that I like to use all the time, and it’s that I regularly make my vocation my vacation. It’s like a holiday when I’m at work.’
Well, I think it’s about time we all contact our travel agent and put down a hefty deposit, because that sounds like a bloody great adventure, if you ask me.
Newcastle is sending you a million big sloppy kisses Brian. Thank you for being an outstanding individual!