Christopher Noble is fond of saying that he's world famous... in China. He's the rakish central figure in a Hollywood-caliber commercial spot that swarmed the TVs of Sichuan Province and points east in early May. It was a commercial advertising something called the International Butler Academy, in Chengdu.
The International Butler Academy, China (TIBA) turns out to be the satellite campus of a castle-based school in the Netherlands that trains men and women from around the world in the fine art of extremely upscale service. Think white gloves, coattails, mises-en-place. The Downton Abbeyish site of this specialized training, in the Netherlands, is the gloriously Dutch Huize Damiaan, in the town of Simpelveld.
In China, TIBA in Chengdu is the only game in town. And perhaps it comes as little surprise, but butlering is booming in the world's most populous nation, where "millionaires are born every day," according to TIBA chairman Robert Wennekes. That's great news for Chris Noble. He's the 45-year-old training director there, and he happens to hail from Cleveland, Ohio.
Noble descends from a tree of distinguished local bar owners -- Pickwick & Frolic's Nick Kostis is his godfather -- and for 13 years, he owned two Cleveland bars of his own. One on the east side, one on the west. But a few years after reading a newspaper series on the International Butler Academy, he decided to pursue a different sort of dream.
"I remember the line from the last paragraph of the last story in the series," Noble says on a sunny afternoon in Cleveland. It's only his second trip home in more than three years. "It said, 'It's living the life without having to pay the bills.' I folded up my paper and told myself at that moment, 'This is what I'm going to do.'"
Owning bars afforded Noble certain luxuries -- "I never had to punch a clock," Noble says, for instance -- and so, one day in 2012, he took eight weeks off to attend one of TIBA's training sessions in Europe. The rigorous curriculum is the same one he now oversees in China, (though his own course is six weeks, as opposed to eight: "Fewer field trips," he explains). The training often involved grueling 16-hour days of endless information and meticulous physical activity: house-management, table-management, cigars, wine, laundry, the whole deal.
"You will be responsible for the rest of the staff, and possibly the yacht, the jet and other properties," TIBA apprises potential students on its website. "You will be the estate or house manager, sometimes the chauffeur and at times even the housekeeper, handyman, accountant, gardener etc. Whatever your role, we will teach you to do it with style and grace."
Noble got hooked in a big way.
"It was right up my alley," he says.
So when he returned to Cleveland after the course concluded, he sold his bars and made his life's new direction official.
"Look, I was getting burned out," he says. "It was the same people, the same stories. A customer may be a great customer, but he'll tell you the exact same story that he told you eight years ago. Not eight hours or eight days ago, eight years. It was one of these things where it was like, if I don't get out now, I'll be owning bars in Cleveland for the rest of my life."
Right now, Chris Noble's nursing a hard cider at Johnny's Little Bar & Grille, the watering hole on Frankfort Avenue between West 6th and West 9th. He's admiring the woodwork and shaking his head at the photos on the wall with an almost Proustian nostalgia. He's dressed in a three-piece greenish suit that presents as a sheeny strain of tweed. His hair is parted with the same geometric precision of Europe's celebrity footballers. And if you're wondering whether or not he's wearing cufflinks and a tie tack, rest assured that he is.
"Nothing has changed since the day we built this place," Noble says (except, perhaps, himself).
Back then, before it was Johnny's Little Bar & Grille, it was just Little Bar. Noble's step dad Tony Harris owned what is now Johnny's but what was then called Isis, and Noble says it was the biggest lesbian bar between New York and Chicago, visited by such trailblazing entertainment luminaries as Lily Tomlin and Patti Labelle. In 1982, Noble says, Isis hosted a $100,000 light show, unheard of at the time.
Nineteen eighty-two was the same year that Noble, his brother, his mom, Tony Harris, Nick Kostis, a carpenter and an electrician built Little Bar, adjacent to Isis. They gutted the place, re-did the wood, fixed the doors.
"Those stock certificates on the wall?" Noble says, gesturing to the corner where they're framed to this day. "My dad dug them up from someplace and put them up. And the pictures of that building being demolished? My dad took those pictures."
Tony Harris also owned the Ontario Street Lounge, so Chris Noble's teenage years were spent in the kitchens and on the floors of downtown bars -- back when Cleveland was slightly more, shall we say, rough and tumble than it is today. Back then, the Warehouse District was literally full of warehouses.
"Cleveland was a funny time in the '80s, man," Noble says. "It was a depressed economy, and besides a couple little bars here and there, it was empty."
But that didn't deter the crowds. Noble remembers having to install a makeshift dumb-waiter in Little Bar (a garage door opener and aluminum trays) to accommodate all the patrons on the second floor. Today the second floor is dark and dusty, home to bathrooms but otherwise attic-esque. Not back then.
"It was packed every single day," Noble says, energized by the memory. "And while my friends were out chasing girls, I was here or over at Ontario Lounge every night and every weekend all summer, washing dishes, cleaning up, checking the booths for spare change. This is where I grew up... And if anyone ever tries to tell you Little Bar has been around forever, unless they mean since 1982, it hasn't."
After high school, Noble bounced along a rudderless trajectory that's familiar to a lot of teenagers without immediate plans. He tried out college, but he and Kentucky's Morehead State didn't get along so well. He did some odd jobs for awhile, but otherwise "just kind of floated through life," says Noble.
In '93, at 23 years old, he joined the Coast Guard, ultimately serving for eight years in both Alaska and Florida.
"And that's where things started clicking for me, in terms of high-end service," Noble says. "I was quickly tapped for front-office work, and I became part of the command cadre. I helped entertain guests: foreign dignitaries, domestic consular generals, politicians, you name it. Every politician in the lower 48 wanted to come to Alaska in the summer months to go hunting or whatever, and that's where it started."
When he was transferred to St. Petersburg, Florida, he was assigned similar work.
Owning bars seemed like a natural extension, even a kind of logical extreme, to the entertainment skills and experience he'd accrued as a Coastie. So after he got out, he returned to Cleveland and quickly bought two joints: the Fidelity Sports Lounge on West 117th, which he converted to the private Oriole Club about six years later, and the Union Club Tavern on East 26th and St. Clair.
Noble says the Union Club, in particular, was a huge success.
"It worked out beautifully because every trade was there," Noble says. "from iron to steel, carpenters, electricians, elevators, longshoremen, you name it. They always had their union meetings there so that helped out." (The hardhats and blue-collar appurtenances that adorn the walls of the Union Club Tavern to this day -- appurtenances remarked upon in our own excursions with the Cleveland Bar Experiment -- Noble says were his idea, expanded upon by the bar's current owner).
And for a long time, Noble enjoyed the roller-coaster ride of bar-ownership, even loved it. But during those 13 years, he was nursing an itch in private, a drive to explore the world's faraway corners. Maybe that's why he read the Plain Dealer's travel section so sedulously. Maybe that's why the International Butler Academy held such allure for him. He says after he read the TIBA series but before he decided to take the course, he checked the website from time to time just to make sure it still existed, just to make sure he hadn't lost his chance.
"Don't get me wrong, I love Cleveland. Cleveland had been very very kind to me. Beautiful family, beautiful friends. But I wanted to do and see things, man. I wanted to see the world," Noble says. "So after the butler course, I sold those bars as fast as I possibly could."
GATEWAY TO THE WEST
For all the talk of Cleveland's renaissance, China's rebirth and explosive 21st-Century growth is in a category unto itself.
You know, or at least have heard the names, of the major coastal cities: Beijing, the capital in the north; Shanghai, the international business center with the radical skyline (and the largest "city proper" population in the world) that has served as a memorable backdrop in a number of recent action movies -- Mission Impossible 3, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Skyfall; Hong Kong, the autonomous territory on the South China Sea, long under British rule; Guangzhou, across from Hong Kong in the mainland, with a metropolitan-area population (that includes Shenzen, Dongguan and Macau) of 44 million.
You may be less familiar with the heartland, China's answer to the American Midwest and the West Coast. It's dotted with cities you've never heard of that are all significantly more populous than Chicago and L.A. Chengdu, for example, where Chris Noble lives, is home to 14 million souls. ("Are there, like, skyscrapers there?" Scene is embarrassed to say we inquired. The answer is yes. Among other things, it's home to the New Century Global Center, the largest building, by floor area, in the world). Chongqing, a two-hour train ride from Chengdu, is now China's most populous municipality, with an estimated 30 million people living there.
Many of these millions are very very rich. "Super-rich" is how the class of newly wealthy Chinese has been defined in such print venues as the New York Times and the New Yorker. And the quest for (and acquisition of) Western-style wealth has engendered a desire for Western-style amenities, Western-style service.
Enter Chris Noble. His first internship after he graduated from TIBA in the Netherlands was with WangJiang in Chengdu, a real estate firm keen on distinguishing its luxury apartments from all the others cropping up. Noble wasn't working for a specific family the way Carson does for the Crawleys in Downton Abbey. In some ways, he was positioned in for-sale units for effect. And the effect, as far as his employer was concerned, worked marvels. Noble tells a story:
"There was one lady who came to the project where I was working, a Chinese lady from the states, late 40s, early 50s. She had an entourage of eight people with her. They arrived at 10 a.m. and stayed all day, until 10 p.m. During that time, I'm serving them coffee, tea, whatever they want. At about 9:30, she calls me over and she goes 'Chris, I wanna tell you something. I'm buying a unit here today. I was looking at another high-end luxury place down the street, but I'm gonna buy here today, because of you and your service.' And I said, this is what I'm here to do. I'm proud to serve you. And she goes, 'I didn't just buy one unit, I bought 10.' That's a true story. She had a stack of credit cards this thick."
Noble makes a claw with his thumb and index finger that could grip a pop can.
So effective were Noble and his friend, a Swiss man who took TIBA's course the same time Noble did, that WangJiang hired them full-time. Shortly thereafter, WangJiang and TIBA met to discuss a "China Campus," which Noble would run.
"It was needed," Noble says. "China's funny, man. Twenty years ago, you could build it and they would come. Now, people are more choosy. You can have two luxury apartments -- same construction, same gold fixtures -- and the only thing that sets apart one from the other is the service."
TIBA China was officially established in the summer of 2014 -- it's still very recent -- and it's now run out of the WangJiang Hotel Chengdu. Noble says that many real estate firms in China now like to bundle butler service with the sale of luxury apartment units, and so most of the students, at first, were sent there (and paid for) by big firms or high-end hotels.
"But I'm starting to see a change," he says. People in China are beginning to recognize butlering as a viable career path and are paying for the course (about $8,000) themselves. Noble says it's certainly no small investment, but that in his experience, it's worth it.
"We offer worldwide assignment, and even if a placement isn't available right this moment, there might be in the future. Right now, there's a man building the biggest house ever made on the island of Hainan [near Hong Kong]. It's absolutely humongous. He's hiring two butlers --- he wants one male, one female who both must be good-looking and must be from Hong Kong; he won't budge on that -- and he's paying them $1 million RMB per year (~ $167,000). This is a life-changer not only for the individual but for the individual's family."
Noble knows all about life-changers: Taking TIBA's course in the Netherlands in the first place -- eight weeks he describes as more rigorous than boot camp -- was a risk; moving to Chengdu, to a city he thought would be all pagodas and pandas, was about as dramatic a shift from Cleveland, Ohio as one could imagine. What's the next big change for Chris Noble?
To hear him tell it, probably moving back home.
As China looks West, so too does Noble. He's enjoyed his years in Chengdu and the work he's done with TIBA, but he misses the states, and he says he's already eyeing lakefront property in Euclid. But what would a world-class butler do in Cleveland, Ohio?
"The hospitality industry, probably." Noble speculates. "I'm interested in hotel management."
He'll certainly have plenty to choose from.