A Chef at Home: Michelle Marek of Foodlab in Montreal
Who cooks and eats here: Michelle Marek, chef at Foodlab, and Anthony Kinik, film professor and food writer
Where: Montreal, Quebec
Rent or Own? Rent
When I was in Montreal a few months ago I looked around, as I always do, for a cook to visit, someone willing to open up their own home kitchen to all of us. On this trip, I got a double pleasure: a visit with chef Michelle Marek both at home and at the restaurant, Foodlab, she runs with her partner Seth Gabrielse.
While we don’t really handle the restaurant beat here at The Kitchn, I thought it might be intriguing to see a cook both at home and in the professional kitchen, and to talk about how her cooking differs between the two. Today we’ll start at home — come take a peek into Michelle’s cozy and vibrant home kitchen.
Michelle and Anthony live in a long, narrow upper-floor flat near Rue St. Urbain in Montreal. The whole place feels comfortable and cozy, with art, posters, and records everywhere — every wall feels filled with interesting things to look at. Both Anthony and Michelle love food and cooking; Anthony, a film studies professor, has also written cookbooks and magazine articles on food, and at home he’s the avid cook of the household.
Michelle and Anthony also write a food blog together that explores the Montreal food scene, as well as their own travels and food explorations. It’s become a favorite read. Check it out!
→ Visit Michelle and Anthony’s food blog: An Endless Banquet
Michelle’s Cooking Story
Michelle grew up in Vancouver and worked in film before going to pastry school. She worked as a pastry chef at Montreal restaurants and then had the opportunity to open Foodlab, a unique restaurant inside SAT (Société des arts technologiques), an experimental art and digital multimedia center. She runs Foodlab with her chef partner — an unusual arrangement we’ll talk more about tomorrow.
Her cooking style at the restaurant is inventive but always grounded in a sense of place, and grounded by homey, rustic touches. I was curious, though, whether she cooked at home as well, or if that was Anthony’s area?
You cook at home and in a restaurant… or do you? Who does more of the cooking at home — you or Anthony?
This one is easy, Anthony does 99% of the cooking at home. I shop for the restaurant, I cook at work, and by the time I get home (between 11-12 pm) Anthony has already shopped for and cooked himself some dinner. I might have a bite, since he is an amazing cook, but I am trying to cut out the late night eating. After so many years in the industry, those late meals have taken their toll. On my nights off, we often cook together.
Left to my own devices, though, I am a minimalist eater. Salad. A tuna sandwich. Toast.
What does Anthony cook most often? (And can you remind me of that amazing bread he had while I was there?)
He cooks a wild range of stuff. Just recently he made a superlative goulash, which is one of my favourites. He then made a mushroom paprikash which was an amazing vegetarian main dish. In the winter, more soups and stews, congee, etc. In the summer, a lot of BBQ, salads, pasta.
He is also a bread baker. The loaf you tried might have been his Danish rye. He makes sourdough breads every week, on the weekend. Rye, whole wheat, sesame, walnut, you name it. It is the best bread in Montreal.
I hear that you have some pretty epic parties in your flat. What’s the most people you’ve packed in there?
The most people we’ve had at our place was a Christmas party a few years ago where we found ourselves with over 60 guests in our house. I had a dish in the oven that I wanted to pull out and it took me over 10 minutes to squeeze through the throng to get to it. Burnt, of course.
That was over-the-top, and since then we have seriously cut down our invitations for our Christmas party. I wish we had more room around our table, since I am drawn to dinners for between 10-15 people. Our guests have gotten used to squeezing, and they don’t seem to mind too much.
Do you have a signature party dish?
My signature party dish is anything that takes too long to finish, is labour intensive, and that I insist on leaving until the last minute for “freshness”. How many parties have featured the first guests being roped into prep? Too many to count. They know by now what they are getting into by arriving on time.
The worst example of this was last year’s smorgasbord spread. One guest was forming meatballs and browning them. Another was slicing smoked salmon. And four more were putting together the open-faced sandwiches according to drawings I had laid out for them. They earned their drinks, let’s just say that. I guess I am trying to work service at my own party?
Anthony on the hand always chooses his dishes wisely. Done in advance, ready to serve, drink in hand.
Michelle’s Kitchen Story
Michelle’s home kitchen is a sunny space, colorful with vintage kitchen pieces and mementos from travel. I was curious about the bottles on the top of the cupboards.
What’s the story of the wine bottles on top of your cupboards?
Whenever we have an especially good night, we keep a bottle as a memento to remind us of the company, the food or the wine. We eventually have to cycle out some bottles out in favour of new ones. It is funny to see our wine tastes progress. Lighter, lighter, and still lighter. I have a bad memory for wine, so I need the visual cue of what I drank that I loved so I can keep my eyes open for it in the future.
Your collection of vintage kitchen pieces and ephemera is really striking. How did you build it? Is there something you’re always looking for?
I can’t resist kitchenware. Garage sales, junk shops, antique stores, flea markets, I’ll be in the kitchen section. Like any collection, it started out small. Things we needed, that we found used, and went from there. I am always looking for something: cake stands, potato mashers, bottle openers, cutlery, enameled cast iron, wooden bowls. Anything I love, I usually buy, whether I “need” it or not. Let’s just say I have quite a few “one-use” tools. The weirder the better. I have lost a lot of them to work, however. RIP cherry pitters.
Who are some of your favorite purveyors in Montreal?
Thanks so much, Michelle and Anthony!
Stay tuned: Tomorrow we’ll visit Michelle at her restaurant kitchen.