Catastrophic injury lawyer Michael Shannon leaves his office at least once a week to visit north Toronto's Célestin Restaurant for some food for the soul.
His office is at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP on Bay Street and there are days when it looks more like a police medical lab than a legal hub. Police reports, medical histories and crime scene photographs, many of them ghastly pictures of car accidents and worse, clog his files.
The 48-year-old lawyer leaves all the evidence behind when he enters Célestin. Sometimes, however, he can't escape the mental images of the human tragedies that are his day-to-day business. On those days, Célestin's Paris-born chef, Pascal Ribreau, prepares his signature dish, rabbit ravioli, to cheer up the lawyer.
It is not the pasta that inspires the lawyer. Rather, it is the chef. He first met Mr. Ribreau, 40, at a Toronto rehabilitation clinic in 1999. He was hired to help the chef fight for an insurance settlement, several weeks after a swerving car plowed into Mr. Ribreau's vehicle near Montreal, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.
The meeting was the beginning of a unique relationship between a lawyer and a client that paved the way for Mr. Ribreau to cook from a vertical wheelchair at Célestin and claim bragging rights to what must surely be the only top-rated restaurant run by a paraplegic chef.
It could be said that the unusual bond was formed between the two men because Mr. Shannon broke an unwritten rule in the legal profession, the one that says lawyers aren't supposed to become emotionally involved with clients.
Less than two years after hiring the lawyer, Mr. Ribreau asked Mr. Shannon to become involved in a way he never had before with a client. Mr. Ribreau, who had worked as a chef at posh Toronto and Montreal restaurants before the accident, wanted the lawyer to invest in his improbable dream of opening his own upscale venue.
"It was high risk for him - he had only known me for a year and a half and I was asking him to invest in me," Mr. Ribreau recalled during an interview in his sun-filled restaurant during a lull between lunch and dinner.
Until that moment in 2001, Mr. Shannon's financial relationship with clients was a simple one. Injured clients hired him to fight for compensation and his fees were paid on the contingency that he would claim a portion of money earned from settlements or trials.
The "difficult emotional task" of representing clients with irreversible injuries, Mr. Shannon said, was navigated by "getting them compensation for the treatment they required to get through life."
When Mr. Ribreau pushed for a business joint venture, Mr. Shannon was initially hesitant, fearing that a restaurant would be too physically taxing for his client. It didn't take long for the chef's irrepressible charm and enthusiasm to win him over.
"He is such an optimist - he wasn't going to be deterred," Mr. Shannon said.
While other potential investors might have been concerned about the risks of backing a handicapped chef in a busy restaurant, Mr. Shannon took the plunge. "Something deep down struck me about this case. He deserved a chance and I wanted him to have an opportunity to get back into the kitchen."
Combining some of the proceeds from Mr. Ribreau's insurance settlement and Mr. Shannon's savings, the two men, their wives, family and friends opened Célestin on New Year's Eve, 2002. Under their business arrangement, Mr. Ribreau owns "slightly more" than 50 per cent of the restaurant, while "slightly less" is owned by Mr. Shannon.
Although Mr. Ribreau insists their venture "was never about money," Mr. Shannon boasts that Célestin, which supports a staff of three dozen, has been profitable for years.
For Mr. Ribreau, the business success is only a side dish. The main course is the delicious taste of overcoming huge odds to earn Célestin a ranking as one of the city's top-rated eateries.
"Michael and I have shared something," the chef said. "It was important to show that a man who has a disability could run a high-end restaurant. He took me on, he believed in me and we have made this."
While Mr. Ribreau may say Célestin might never have happened had it not been for his lawyer's "courage," the restaurant has paid big dividends in other ways to Mr. Shannon. Whereas he once "tried not to get too emotionally involved" in the wrenching cases that fill his day, his involvement with Célestin and Mr. Ribreau has come to represent much more. When clients walk into Mr. Shannon's office these days, he views it not simply as the start of a legal case, but rather the beginning of a long-term relationship.
He regularly visits clients and families long after legal files are closed. For some, he finds real estate agents, financial advisers and health care workers. Others are matched up with prosthetic companies, wheelchair makers and even designers of robotic arms.
One time, Mr. Shannon took action after he saw accidents waiting to happen as he drove by the yard of Nelson Mandela School in the inner-city Regent Park area. Shortly after spying dozens of bareheaded children riding bikes, he returned with a donation of dozens of helmets for the school.
"If you are not emotionally involved, if you are detached, you can't be any good at this job," Mr. Shannon said. "There is more to these types of cases than just getting them a settlement. It is a life-long responsibility."
After a medical setback more than a year ago, Mr. Ribreau has reduced his hours in Célestin's kitchen and its in-house bakery was sold.
Rumours have wafted through Toronto's restaurant market that buyers are circling Célestin, but neither man will discuss their long-term plans. A lawyer and a chef have forged an unusual bond and, for now, that is enough.
"Both of us have proven how much we could gain from this venture," Mr. Ribreau said.