Chef/restaurateur Jeff Osaka just opened 12@Madison after a two-year period spent building Osaka Ramen, Sushi-Rama and the Denver Central Market, but he says there's one person on his team who has made the growth of a restaurant mini-empire much easier, someone who takes care of business behind the scenes without the recognition or praise that chefs generally receive. That man is director of operations Michael Burbage, who met Osaka when the chef opened his first Denver restaurant, twelve, in 2008.
Burbage was a wine rep and met Osaka while making his restaurant rounds; the chef immediately recognized Burbage's nearly obsessive attention to detail and offered him a job. "He would pick up shifts to make some extra cash," Osaka recalls.
Twelve closed in 2014, but Osaka soon began planning Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama. He hired chef Jesus Silva, who had worked at Sushi Sasa, for his seafood knowledge, and Silva reconnected his boss with Burbage, who had also spent time at Sushi Sasa. Burbage had also picked up management experience with the Hillstone group and at La Tour in Vail, so Osaka knew he was the right person to oversee front-of-house operations.
Now with three full-fledged restaurants and Silva's Fish Market (inside Denver Central Market), Burbage handles the day-to-day business at all the locations, and Osaka says his right-hand man continues to be instrumental in planning and launching new eateries, like the Sushi-Rama scheduled to open later in 2017 at Belleview Station in south Denver. "He does all the big tasks and menial tasks that I don't have time for," Osaka notes.
That includes everything from sourcing repairs to finding talent to training staff. "He's very resourceful," Osaka says. "We needed a refrigeration guy [at Osaka Ramen], so he was on the phone immediately." And when a cook no-showed the day before 12@Madison opened, Burbage used his connections to track down a replacement that chef de cuisine Ashley McBrady was able to hire the next day.
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"Michael frees up my time so that I can cook more instead of just putting out fires," Osaka adds. "From the outside, things look smooth, but there's not a day that goes by where something doesn't go wrong." While the two are seldom in the same place at the same time, Burbage and Osaka try to meet in person once a day to compare notes, and when they're at different restaurants, Osaka appreciates that Burbage prefers talking on the phone to sending texts or e-mails.
It's not just the tireless work and the tasks Burbage takes on that Osaka finds valuable. The chef points out that Burbage's management style and personality are also a great fit for the growing business: "He's great comic relief and a great storyteller, so he takes away some of the daily pain of the restaurant business."
"I tell him all the time how thankful I am for [him] being the oil that keeps the engine running, but he stands quietly in the wings," adds Osaka, who despite the praise and attention he receives as the mastermind behind his restaurants, still prefers to deflect attention to his hardworking crew.