How are you?
It’s a question we ask of each other every day, sometimes without even waiting to hear the answer. Yet when I ask Brian Lizotte, “How are you?”, I do so with concern and a little trepidation.
“I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life,” he replies, smiling, and with his eyes gleaming through thick-rimmed glasses. “For sure!”
I’m surprised to hear that. After all, about nine months ago, the owner of the renowned restaurant and music venue that bears his name, Lizotte’s, was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“Yeah, I’ve definitely come to the conclusion that it’s the best and worst thing that’s ever happened to me in my life to have been diagnosed with it,” he says. “I just have a different perspective on life. I’ve really taken to thinking about what’s more important in my life.”
A part of that change is evident as we order our meals at Moor in Newcastle East. Lizotte orders a “bowl of goodness”, which suits his diet. He has cut out dairy and meat. He’s shed 13 kilograms and is loving food.
“I love the cleanliness, I love the fact it doesn’t make me bloated, I don’t have inflammation anymore, the things that go with eating a lot of fatty foods, too much dairy,” he says. “I’ve never felt better. I’ve never felt fitter, healthier and happier, clear-minded and less depressed, and just more focused.”
Brian has kept red wine in the regime. He enjoys the occasional glass, and since enjoyment is good for state of mind, a little red wine is a good thing, he reasons. So we clink our glasses and toast each other’s health.
“I think I’m winning,” Lizotte says. “I’m definitely more ready for the rest of my life than I was before, because I was too busy.”
BRIAN LIZOTTE has been busy for much of his life. He was born in 1963 on the east coast of the United States, the sixth of seven children. In the early 1970s, in search of adventure, his parents packed up the family and moved to Australia: “In those days people didn’t even know where Australia was!.”
Initially, they lived in the Villawood migrant hostel. Lizotte remembers his mother, Theresa, tangling with other mums to get enough toast for her kids, and, with the vivid recall of a chef, the hostel meals: “We’d all look forward to the fish and chips and jelly and ice-cream on a Friday, and dread the moussaka we’d have on a Thursday.”
They arrived with few possessions, but the Lizottes did carry a love of music. Their Dad, Hank, was a saxophonist, and both he and Theresa brought some music into the hostel. To talk about that, Brian phones his little brother, Mark.
These days, Mark Lizotte is one of Australia’s most celebrated guitarist-singers, having created a string of hits for his band Johnny Diesel and the Injectors in the late 1980s, then continued his success as a solo artist, simply known as Diesel.
“I just remember our first Christmas out here at the hostel,” Mark says on speaker phone. “Mum and Dad went out and bought a combo stereo unit and a couple of records, I think Ray Conniff and the Singers, Here We Come A Caroling …”
“Oh yeah, I know that,” says Brian. “And Brasil ’66”, adds Mark. “Sergio Mendes, yeah.”
Hank and Theresa bought a stationwagon, loaded it with the kids and their few records and drove to Albury. They stayed a couple of years but then kept moving, eventually stopping when they hit the west coast.
“Why we went to Perth, who would know?,” says Brian. “But the memories are good, we always had something to eat, always had adventure. A very close family.”
Yet after five years in Australia, Hank and Theresa, along with three of their children, moved back to the States, ending up in Arizona. “I don’t think Mum and Dad could ever really understand why they did that,” muses Brian. “We hated it. By that time, we knew we were Aussies.
“We tried to surrender to the fact that we were going to be living in America again, but it just didn’t feel right. It never felt right.”
To help ease the pain, Brian took up the trombone, and Mark played the cello. When Hank and Theresa decided to move back to Perth, the boys brought their instruments. All the children played music, but it was Mark who really showed talent, at least in his older brother’s ears. Brian would wake to the sound of his brother practising the cello. The family then bought Mark an electric guitar.
“When I picked up the guitar, I applied that discipline that had been put into me with the cello,” recalls Mark. “I thought, ‘If I want to get good at this, I need to play it all the time’.
“And it’s not like I forced myself, there was nothing I wanted to do when I came home from school besides plugging the guitar into the amp left behind for me by my older brother Michael and the one pedal I bought down the road at the organ shop and just caused havoc.”
While his kid brother mastered the guitar, Brian studied catering and hotel management. With his diploma in hand, and a passion for food and cooking, Brian crossed the Nullarbor, working in restaurants in Sydney, attending Swans’ games, “partying too much and [having] a ball”. He later moved to the US to reconnect with his eldest sister then travelled on to Europe. All the while, he tracked his kid brother becoming a rock star back in Australia.
But then the kid brother came to Brian, in London. Mark was touring with Jimmy Barnes, his future brother-in-law, along with his girlfriend (and Barnes’ wife’s sister), Jep. Backstage at the London show, Brian Lizotte got talking to Jep about how she did catering in a recording studio in Australia.
When he returned to Australia, Brian would go into business with Jep, who married his little brother. For a decade, their company put food in the mouths of musicians in studios, and backstage at the concerts of some of the world’s biggest performers, from U2 to Madonna.
Music and Mark had also led to Brian meeting his wife, Jo. It was at a Johnny Diesel gig in Sydney: “It was definitely love at first sight, for me definitely. It was that classic inkling of looking at someone and going, ‘Ooh’.”
From “Ooh” came marriage and two daughters, Sammy-Jo, who is now 27 and works as Elton John’s production assistant (“she’s taken the rock n’ roll leaf, to my horror!”), and 25-year-old Emelie.
Brian and his family moved out of Sydney and away from rock and roll in 2000, setting up a restaurant on the Central Coast. But he missed the music. So he combined food and concerts, organising dinner shows with industry friends, including Wendy Matthews and Jenny Morris. Then he contacted his brother.
“And he went down kicking and screaming for sure … ‘I’m rock and roll, mate’,” laughs Brian, of Mark’s reaction.
“He hated the thought at first. And I’m, ‘Come on, I need it. I need you. I need this to be a success. Please help!’ So he agreed. The shows sold out.”
Lizotte expanded the Live n Cookin’ idea from the Central Coast to Sydney and into the former King’s Theatre in Lambton. Yet having three venues was physically and psychologically exhausting, and, at times, financially perilous.
“The biggest thing I learnt was that more is not more,” muses Brian. In 2015, he and Jo shut two of the restaurants and had decided to retain only the Newcastle venue.
At one point, they had also put the Lambton venue on the market, before deciding “King’s Theatre is the nest egg … that was the driving force to say if we keep one, that’s obviously the one”.
When three venues became one, Brian says, it was “a massive relief. I could breathe, I could get my life back together and do more important things, like seeing my wife.”
Yet early in 2017, Brian received the diagnosis that forced him to reassess his life. With two older brothers having had prostate cancer, he had himself regularly tested. When he received the results of a biopsy, indicating he had cancer, “it was a surprise, but I guess I was just prepared for it”.
“I was more determined to face it,” he says. “I had my moments where I freaked out and shed some tears, but it didn’t last very long. It was ‘get on with it’ because I felt so incredibly healthy.”
Initially, Brian decided to have the prostate removed. He was scheduled to have the prostatectomy in August. He talked with family, friends and the Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia about alternative options to surgery, which, he says, doesn’t necessarily lead to a longer life.
A month before the operation, he cancelled, deciding to try the approach of changing his diet, exercising more and thinking positively.
“If I’ve got time, it’s not crucial and it’s not life threatening at the moment, I’ll see if I can nudge it and make a difference another way,” Brian says, adding that recent test results indicate the approach is working.
“I’m loving life and still eating like a horse, and I’ve literally never felt better.”
Mark Lizotte wasn’t surprised by his brother’s approach, “because he was born with such a happy, positive disposition. If anyone thinks that’s going to do it, it’s Brian.”
And Brian has a lot to live for. He is to become a grandfather this year, with Emelie expecting twins. There’s a packed schedule at the music restaurant. He and Jo have plans to travel. Next week in Tasmania, there is a Lizotte family reunion, with all the children gathering to honour their late mother and father, and to celebrate the beauty of life.
“It’s the first time we’ve all been in the same room for 35 years,” says Brian. “It will be an amazing thing, and music will be a large part of it.”
We have to finish lunch. Brian has to return to his restaurant to prepare for a sold-out show by Mark. He will be joining his little brother on the Lizotte’s stage, playing the trombone, just as he’s done on some of Mark’s recordings.
“I’ve got a great life,” he smiles. “I’m a happy chappy.”