A Chef at Work: Michelle Marek of Foodlab in Montreal
Yesterday I gave you a peek inside Montreal chef Michelle Marek’s home kitchen, and today we’re going to visit her restaurant. No, we don’t usually write about restaurants at The Kitchn, but we certainly take inspiration for home cooking from them, and I felt that it would be interesting to talk to Michelle about how home and restaurant cooking differ from one another.
Those differences turn out to be less dramatic than I expected at Foodlab, an unusual restaurant that initially bootstrapped itself into existence with few resources; Michelle and her co-chef Seth carried appliances and tools into the restaurant straight from their own home kitchens, even biking in the food itself before they got stoves installed!
Here’s what Michelle has to say about cooking with love and making do — at home and at the restaurant — and why her KitchenAid mixer has never made it back to her home kitchen.
Foodlab lives on an upper floor of the SAT (Société des Arts Technologiques), an interdisciplinary art and media center that hosts workshops, films, and galleries of digital art. It’s located on a bustling and slightly seedy corner; when I went for dinner I almost missed the entrance of the building and wouldn’t have known that a restaurant existed inside. So it was a pleasant surprise to walk up the cleverly lit central stairway and find a spacious dining room and completely open kitchen waiting for me.
The SAT is a self-funded space and a non-profit, so the restaurant also has a “not-for-profit” mission. This is reflected in the extremely reasonable cost of the meals. A prix-fixe the week I was there (three courses plus a glass of wine) cost only $35.
A Not-for-Profit Partnership
I was especially curious about how Michelle and her co-chef, Seth Gabrielse, work together. A co-chef arrangement would be antithetical to the military structure of most professional kitchens. Having two chefs collaborating in a completely equal way sounded refreshing — and surprising! I asked her how it came about, and how it worked.
It’s interesting that you are co-chef with Seth. This kind of equal partnership between chefs in restaurants seems rare. How does it work for you?
We started working together at Laloux in a traditional way. He was the chef, I was the pastry chef, but we found we often discussed the menu together as a whole. Though I lacked the chops on the savoury side, I had plenty of ideas to contribute. When we opened at the Foodlab, it was as co-chefs. I wanted to have more freedom on the savoury side of things.
And honestly, two chefs takes the pressure off of one person. The demands of special events, groups menus, private dinners, media, menu planning, staffing, shopping and orders is enough to bury one person in admin for life. Two people working towards a common goal is better than the sum of its parts. By talking things out we come up with better solutions and ideas than if each of us was banging our heads against the wall separately. I am surprised it doesn’t happen more often.
The challenge is for our staff (of 2). “Who told you to do it this way?” “Chef.” “Oh.” (Looks at other chef with a quizzical look.) They hear us hash it out all the time. For some reason it’s not personal when my ideas get shot down by Seth. Anyone else I’d be defensive and adamant. He makes me see reason. Maybe because there is so little ego in our working relationship. It is about the whole.
A Restaurant Not (Too) Different from Home
Another thing that sets Foodlab apart from many other restaurants was the scrappy nature of its beginning. As befitted a restaurant in an experimental digital arts center, Seth and Michelle started from scratch in their big concrete-floored space that felt more like a gallery than a professional kitchen. At the beginning they had no stoves, no equipment. Nearly any home kitchen would have been better equipped, and their home kitchens actually did much of the cooking at first.
How does cooking at FoodLab differ from cooking at home? Have you brought tools from the home kitchen to the restaurant?
At first there was very little difference between home cooking and work because when we opened we had nothing (no water, no fridge, no oven, no staff). We would cook at home and bike down with our food for service. (Anything I do after this will be a piece of cake.)
After a few weeks of this we bought two used home stoves for $400 and set them up with a table and fridge. That was our kitchen. We brought food processors, blenders, and pots from home. We didn’t have a hood, so that seriously limited what kind of cooking we could do. As did those stoves. They took a serious beating for one year, and still worked more or less.
Finally we got a gas hookup, real stoves and a hood. That changed everything. We haven’t looked back since. I still have my trusty old KitchenAid [mixer] at work. We are looking to buy one so I can bring it back home. Whipping cream by hand is not how I like to spend my weekend. We have a real kitchen. You really appreciate things when you have made do for a time. We take nothing for granted now. The day we hired a dishwasher is forever burned into my memory.
Foodlab’s Themes & Menus
One of the other things I found most interesting about Foodlab was the way Michelle and Seth arrange their menu around monthly themes. The menu the month that I was there was “Mediterranean,” and the theme was “Provence.” This lets them draw inspiration from all sorts of places and times (this past winter, for instance, they did a Nordic theme, actually setting up a yurt on their terrace and serving grog, smoked trout, and other seasonally appropriate dishes). The night I ate at the restaurant the Provençal flavors were lovely, with a socca and updated ratatouille the highlights of the meal for me.
I love the creativity of menus like these, and how they let the chefs deeply explore one cuisine. Michelle said that some guests come back over and over throughout the month to eat their way through the whole menu.
How do you choose your themes and menus at Foodlab?
We discuss ideas, and are always aware of what works best in certain seasons. Winter is an obvious time for anything Central European, and we do at least one of those every year. (It’s one of my favourites.) Seth loves old school French, so we always find a place for that during the spring or fall. Height of summer is anything vegetable-centric: Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Summer of Rosé…
We don’t only work on regions, it can be a time, or a person (in the form of an homage), or an idea (spring cleanse). One or the other of us will have a clearer vision of a certain menu, and the other will chime in with ideas and refinements. Or reality checks…
On Making Food with Love
I didn’t know quite to expect when I went to Foodlab for dinner, before meeting Michelle. I half-expected something like, well, a lab — very molecular gastronomy and clinically white. I didn’t expect the mix of modern dining space and truly homey, comforting food, like the best piece of sour cherry clafoutis I’ve ever had. The restaurant offers both a chicly minimalist dining room, with galleries below, and a vague thumping behind you of the video installation one room over, but this environment is combined with perfectly prepared food that made me feel completely at home. I think that this impression speaks very much to Michelle and Seth’s approach to food.
Where do you find inspiration for recipes at FoodLab?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Sometimes out of thin air. It can be talking with someone and they describe a dish they had years ago that resonated with them. I have no small number of cookbooks at home, of which I tend to favour the very personal ones, with a lot of writing, not just a collection of recipes. It can be a cuisine we imagine, rather than know for a fact.
That comes with its harrowing moments. During our Jerusalem menu (for which we had invented a few things) a client stopped me after his meal and said “I am from Jerusalem.” I think I stopped breathing. He went on to say that our food tasted like his childhood, which he had never experienced since then. He loved it to such a degree that there were tears in his eyes as he grasped my hand and thanked me. It can be risky to delve into foods that aren’t yours. There are so many politics, and it’s so personal. I never want to appear to be trite or disrespectful.
We love food. We are fascinated by the way different cultures cook and use spice. I have never experienced such a steep learning curve as when I worked the wok for a Chinese menu. Take what you know about cooking and turn it on its head. It was amazing. Keep in mind it is not rocket science, either, it’s food. People eat food all over the world, and we make it our own because we love it. It just has to be good and made with love.
Thank you so much Michelle, Seth, and Foodlab!
1201 Boulevard Saint-Laurent – 3rd floor – Quebec, Montreal