The history behind our paintings

After Paul Mackay opened El Gaucho Seattle in 1996, he made a conscious decision to adorn the empty restaurant walls with commissioned art. The paintings would serve multiple purposes: to tell the story behind the people, or “players” in El Gaucho’s history (both guests and staff alike); to use for advertising and marketing; and to give a local artist business and recognition.

Paul chose Nina Mikhailenko, a Russian born and educated artist, now local, whose paintings are full of energy, color, and motion. His first impression of her work was not stirring, until he saw one piece of five waiters outside of a New Orleans Restaurant. It struck a chord, and he commissioned his first painting “Elegance.” Since then Paul and Nina have worked together to add more than 20 paintings to the El Gaucho collection.

The Gaucho culture has been celebrated by poets and immortalized on canvases by many great painters. Gauchos would gather together and cook meat over an open flame. This was also a spirited time of singing, dancing, and sharing stories.

This mural was a combination of old Marlboro ads and National Geographic pictures, plus characters in El Gaucho’s history. Measuring 7’ x 18’, it is four panels and painted specifically for the Wine Cellar, a suggestion from the staff. Many personnel are included in the painting, including Philip Christofides (El Gaucho architect), Howard Lieberman (business advisor to the Mackays), Michael DonRicco (cigar captain), Jon Sheard, Paul Mackay, and others.

Twenty Years

The 20th Anniversary painting was a surprise for Chad Mackay and Paul Mackay. Chad had never been featured in any of the other paintings and the team wanted to highlight him, as well as several employees who have dedicated their careers to the company.  Chad and Paul are front and center with operations director, Cooper Mills serving two of El Gaucho Seattle’s longtime employees, Maik Tow and Rebecca Olsen. On the right, we see former El Gaucho Seattle general manager, James Parsons serving operations director, Tony Capra and AQUA by El Gaucho general manager, Sivi Mennen.

The first painting commissioned by owner Paul Mackay, captures real El Gaucho employees doing what they do best – providing elegant, old-school, tableside service, and helping guests create a night to remember. Five individuals monumental in El Gaucho’s history are featured alongside Paul Mackay.

Karl Reimann, affectionately called “Papa,” was El Gaucho’s maître de. He was the only staff member allowed to wear red and many considered Karl the host of Seattle. George Thomson waited tables with Paul at the original Gaucho. Jon Sheard was a Seattle icon in the restaurant industry. He worked with and for Paul many many years. Al Black, bartender at the original El Gaucho, was called “Reverend Mr. Black.” He would pontificate to his guests or just simply ignore them. His cold dry wit was engaging and people were honored if he roasted them. Paul recalls, “He was the epitome of a great bartender.”

Described as a “knock out,” Paul claims this painting as his favorite. It captures the complete essence of El Gaucho: personalized, elegant, old-school, tableside service. This is the hallmark of El Gaucho’s legacy. The painting was intended for women to picture themselves as a princess and the center of attention while dining at El Gaucho, perfectly enveloped by the setting. The men are all historical El Gaucho characters: Paul Mackay, Dave Williams, Karl Reimann, Jon Sheard, and Michael Kaminski.

A swanky depiction of a typical evening in the cigar room. The men include Santos, a cigar captain at El Gaucho Tacoma, and frequent El Gaucho diners and cigar box holders. The woman, Eva, was an Argentine tango dancer, and friend of the artist. “I liked the idea of a woman in it surrounded by men,” Paul exclaims, a similar feel to the “Anniversary” image.

Paul commissioned this painting when El Gaucho Portland opened, in March 2000. It was a signature way to thank the investors. The restaurant opened in less than three months and could not have happened without their support. Flamenco guitarists Masud Tahmassbi and Mario Diez, regular characters who play nightly at El Gaucho Portland, flank the guests (most are investors in El Gaucho Portland).

The masculine allure of Seattle El Gaucho’s cigar room is depicted here. Featured characters include “the regulars”: Frank Isernio, founder of Isernio’s sausage, Cigar Manager/Captain Michael Don Ricco, and Joe Toro, (now retired) a Longshoreman who “ran the docks.” Michael Don Ricco was named “Mr. Hospitality.” Everyone enjoyed his genuine care and attention to detail.

A nightly scenario typical of any evening at El Gaucho presents known patrons and staff: Paul Mackay, Gary Gayton a well-known Seattle attorney who you’d find nightly at the bar, Detlef Schrempf (El Gaucho investor), Norm (opening bartender), Joe (bartender), Charles Ainsley (friend and investor), the artist Nina herself, who is talking to renowned Seattle architect Fred Bassetti, and Hal Lee, a friend of Paul’s.

The Billy Wallace Quartet opened with the Pampas Room and played every Friday and Saturday night. Billy played piano and sang, while Floyd Standifer accompanied on trumpet, sax, and also sang. Bob Mathews is on bass. The drummer, Net, was a friend of Billy’s from Denver. They were top-notch jazz musicians who had played internationally for years, but were tired of traveling and happy to call El Gaucho’s Pampas home.

This painting illustrates the nightly hustle and bustle of the open El Gaucho kitchen line, featuring an open charcoal grill. Executive Chef Ken Sharp smiles on while another chef platters a perfectly-prepared and cooked-to-order steak. Exposed in the background, a Sous Chef whips up an El Gaucho side.

This watercolor was commissioned when Paul opened the Waterfront restaurant in 2000. Eventually the Waterfront was rebranded as AQUA by El Gaucho in 2011. The gentleman, Jude, was a very popular bartender in Seattle. Paul loved his smile so much that he asked to capture it in the painting.

Sherwood Dudley was El Gaucho Portland’s Maître D’. He was a local celebrity and named the “honorary mayor of Portland.” He and Paul Mackay worked together at 13 Coins in the ‘70s. Here he’s shown making our legendary tableside Bananas Foster.

Featuring Chris Sparkman, AQUA’s General Manager for many years, and founder of Sparkman wines. Chris approached Paul one day while he was enjoying his daily cigar at El Gaucho Seattle with Karl Reimann. Paul was so impressed with Chris’ experience and background he offered him a job on the spot. The only problem was, Chris lived in Washington, DC at the time. It took a year, but eventually Chris moved to Seattle, starting as captain at El Gaucho Seattle, then transferring to The Waterfront (now AQUA by El Gaucho), eventually being promoted to General Manager.

Bob Long was a busser at the original El Gaucho. A loyal member of the El Gaucho family, he was hired as a wine captain when Paul reopened El Gaucho. In this painting he is preparing our famous tableside Bananas Foster for Paul’s wife, Gail.

John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie was an American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, composer, and occasional singer. He was, arguably, one of the greatest jazz trumpeters of all time. This painting was rendered from a photo that Nina had of him.

Jon Sheard is here making Coffee Diablo, offered on the El Gaucho menu for years, and sometimes still by special request. Using cloves, orange rind and lemon, Paul learned to make it at Maribeau, then mastered it at the original El Gaucho. Inspired by a scene in “The Rains of Ranchipur” movie, Michael Rennie makes his wife, played by Lana Turner, her favorite beverage – a coffee diablo – on the train in India.

Nina requested to try a new medium, and this pastel features two prominent El Gaucho employees, Jenny Potter, a server for years at El Gaucho Seattle, and Nic Kassis, who served as General Manager.

Capturing the essence of the Gaucho, this painting was commissioned to fill a large space in a private dining room at El Gaucho Tacoma. It measures 8’ x 8’. Nic Kassis, who at that time was the General Manager at El Gaucho Seattle, was used as the matador.

Paul wanted to capture Jon Sheard’s old school and unique personality. Jon was truly one of the finest dressers Paul can remember. “He was dapper and always had a walking stick.” Jon and Paul worked at four restaurants together throughout the years: 13 Coins, the original Gaucho, Maribeau, and again when Paul reopened El Gaucho.

Paintings Not Currently on Display

Paul was thrilled to capture one of his respected restaurant and business mentors, Victor Rosellini, in this painting. Victor owned and operated Rosellini’s 410 for nearly 40 years beginning in 1956. Rosellini was famous for collecting gorgeous sterling silver restaurant pieces, and Paul purchased much of his collection, which was so large, El Gaucho is still enjoying some of those pieces today. Silver is a timeless and meant to make the customer feel extra special.

Live music is integral to El Gaucho’s swanky and ritualistic ambiance. This particular painting illustrates Daniel Davison, the very first musician hired by owner Paul Mackay in 1996. Daniel was also the third employee, coming on board right after Paul himself and Chef Ken Sharp. Daniel commissioned this painting himself, which is now a part of his personal collection.

BB White graced the Pampas room stage for five years with the Billy Wallace Quartet. Patrons could hardly wait to hear her serenade them with, “Peel Me a Grape.” When El Gaucho owner Paul Mackay discovered her, he thought she’d surely become famous. Tragically, she lost her battle with breast cancer at the age of 48.