Thursday, November 01, 2012

Baby's Turning One

1st anniversary fig. a:  déja un an!

Foodlab/Labo Culinaire turns one this weekend [!].  With this in mind AEB conducted an exclusive interview with its chefs, Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek, at Foodlab, on the third floor of Montreal's Société des arts technologiques.

"A Brief History of Foodlab"

AEB:  First off, is it “Foodlab” or “the Foodlab”?  You know, like “Mile End” or “the Mile End.”

S:  Foodlab.

M:  Definitely just “Foodlab.”

dear Richard fig. b:  Michelle & Seth

AEB:  What was the first thing that ran through your minds when you were approached with this project?

S:  “You’re out to lunch.”  

Seriously.  I thought they were flat-out crazy.

The idea seemed to go against everything I knew about the business.

M:  Plus, there was a very specific notion about how this place would function.

S:  Yeah, they had this concept that involved doing a 5 à 7 every night, then stopping service for the show in the dome, then starting up again to serve food from 9:30 pm to 1:00 am.

AEB:  [laughter]

M:  And it all seemed very pie in the sky.

AEB:  But obviously both of you are here, so there must have been things that enticed you.

S:  More than anything, we were intrigued.

And there was the prospect of complete control over the menu.  It sounded like a rare opportunity.

Plus, there was the vast amounts of travel we’d be doing.

M:  And the massive staff we’d have.

S:  And the research budget.

M:  And the cleaning team.


We didn’t know at the time that we wouldn’t actually get a pizza oven.

S:  At one point we had the idea that we’d be baking bread and that the aroma would be vented out onto the street to entice any passersby.

People would be lured into the lobby and then they’d be overwhelmed by Michelle’s display case of desserts.  [This display case of desserts doesn't exist as of yet.]  When they saw those they’d be totally powerless.  They’d come up the 3 flights of stairs without any hesitation and they'd be ours.

AEB:  How did you settle on the rotating theme approach?

S:  We did one week that was all over the place.  No theme to it at all.  The only constant was that everything was small.

M:  And everything came with a $6 price tag.

S:  Including tax

M:  We knew we needed a direction, but we weren’t ready to decide, we weren’t ready to settle on a fixed menu.  And there’s something about this building, this space, that demands flux.

S:  Plus, the constant change allows us to keep our sanity.

We have something really special here.  There are no restrictions on which direction we take the menu.  We can change the entire menu in a way other restaurants just can’t.

We do these tributes to all these different regions, all these different cuisines, and we’re interested in doing them justice and being true to them, but, at the same time, everything is always our interpretation of these dishes.

Because, you know, Michelle and I aren’t Japanese.  [They ran an izakaya/manga menu last February, around the time of Nuit Blanche.]

AEB:  Really?  Because there’s a rumour going around town...

[dead silence]

foodlab by night fig. c:  Foodlab by night

AEB:  Okay...  Moving right along.  What were some of the crazier themes that you came up with, but ultimately passed on?

S:  Well, when we did our Fou de cochon menu, the idea that was presented to us was that it should have a mud theme.  It should be a mud menu.  Everything should either be brown or have mud involved in the dish.

AEB:  Or both?

S:  Yeah, or both.

M:  One plate was supposed to involve five different shades of brown, including something baked in mud...

We ended up kind of using that idea--we just went the opposite direction with it.  I thought, it’s spring in Montreal, we’re sick of brown.  We’re craving colour.  And that’s what we did for our Homage to Fou de cochon menu--we added colour--and everyone was really happy with it.

AEB:  How about some of the crazier themes you guys came up with?

[Michelle consults her notebook]

M:  Wedding menu theme.  It would be like attending someone else’s wedding.  Someone you didn’t know at all.  There’d be a fixed menu and you’d have to stay the duration, and there’d be a big, elaborate cake.  And a cake ceremony.  And dancing.

“Wartime Europe Under Rations.”  

AEB:  Ooh, that's a catchy one.  Who wouldn't want to relive the pleasures of Turnip Winter?

M:  “Real Cocktail Hour.”  Where the emphasis would be on mixed drinks and the food would only consist of snacks and they wouldn’t be sufficient to soak up all the alcohol.

S:  Is that the week that we take off?

M:  Yeah.

“Sommeliers’ Ball.”  This would be about the dancing.  We’d turn the dome into a ballroom and get some dancing instructors to teach everyone some moves.  It would be on a Monday night and all the sommeliers in town would come and learn to dance while they drink.

S:  “Expo 67.”  

We ended up turning that one into a TV episode.  [For the Les Touilleurs show.]

M:  “Dinner at sea.”

S:  Oh, yeah.  And we talked to Fred [Morin, of Joe Beef fame] about doing a train menu.  We’re still hoping that one actually happens one day.

AEB:  What was the kitchen like when you first started?

 S:  There was no kitchen--there was a folding table.

M:  No, there wasn't even a folding table.  There was a riser that the SAT used for their [music] shows.

S:  There was no running water on the third floor [where Foodlab is located].  You had to go to the first floor to do the dishes, and if you wanted to wash your hands you had to go to the second floor.

We cooked at my house and biked everything in.  And all our equipment came from home.  Most of it is still here.

AEB:  Believe me, I know...

M:  There were no plates and no utensils.

We had two induction burners and during our first week one of our staff broke one of them.  So within a week we’d lost 50% of our cooking power.

S:  We had actual stoves for our first menu, but not for the first couple of events we did.

M:  We pitched the idea of just buying two electric home stoves--$450 for both.  We still have them.  They’re the only stoves we have, and one of them is still going strong

S:  Of course, we can only use four burners at a time between the two of them, otherwise the breaker jumps.  So it makes the logistics of cooking here pretty interesting.

AEB:  Did this situation pose any problems when you hosted Omnivore?

S:  Oh, my god.  Did it ever.

Actually, our ovens were doing great until then.  They really took a beating that weekend.

That Saturday we had thirty people in our kitchen area for most of the day, many of whom weren't necessarily chefs.  It was bedlam.

And the fact that our walk-in fridge is down in the basement caused a lot of headaches.

AEB:  What’s still on the wish list?

M:  A sous-vide machine.  A Hobart mixer.

S:  A blender.  A telephone?

M:  A gas range.  They’re on order right now.  They should arrive tomorrow [!].

AEB:  And what was your staffing situation when you guys got started?

S:  For the first few months, till January, Michelle and I did all the prep, the cooking, the cleaning, and the serving.  Michelle was also responsible for ordering the wine.  In mid-January, Heidi [Gindl, Michelle and Seth's trusted assistant] came on board.

Maude [Rochette, Foodlab's sommelier] got hired just before the summer started and she took over the wine list, the service, and the hiring.  Things have been much smoother since then.

M:  Originally, we inherited a bunch of bar servers who didn’t know anything about serving food.

S:  They were used to running kegs up and down the stairs.  And suddenly they actually had to wear [button-down] shirts, and they had to serve food, and learn a menu.

michelle & theo fig. d:  Foodlab + Oenopole

AEB:  What has been your proudest moment?

M:  During our summer boom, when we were suddenly handling way more customers with exactly the same amount of staff.

Especially that special night we did with Theo [Diamantis, of Oenopole fame]--the kebab night.  That was really crazy-busy, and really magical.

I’ve done stuffy events my whole career, but here we’ve had the opportunity to do these special events that are totally different.  There's a freedom and ease to them that I really love.  And we've gotten to work with some of our favourite people.

And people have responded.

S:  With the help of Theo, we got them to come to an Izmir-style kebab night.  No one had any idea what an Izmir-style kebab was, but people loved it.

theo brings it fig. e:  Theo brings it!

M:  And the Richard Olney night.  There were probably some people who had only the vaguest idea who Olney was, but they turned out, they stayed late, and everybody had a great time.
S:  I've worked in a couple of places that were well-known, well-stocked,  and well-managed and that made it into The New York Times.

But we got a mention in The New York Times in our first year, and that made me pretty proud.

AEB:  What can we expect from you over the course of Year Two?

S:  Gas stoves!  Of course, we have no budget for pans, but that's another story.

AEB:  You'll just have to raid your home kitchens again.

S:  More stuff from home!

M:  A Chinatown menu.  My Chinatown menu.  I can't wait.  All the things that I want to eat when I go to Chinatown.

And more events.  We had this other great idea:  a Masters Dinner.

We'd invite all the old-school chefs in town.  All the chefs that have been working the line for decades.

They all know each other, so it would be a reunion.  It would also be a beautiful night of beautiful technique.
AEB:  Anything else?

S:  The release of our first cookbook.  And the launch of our Food Network show.
M:  And our line of cookware.


AEB:  Thanks, guys.  And congratulations!

Foodlab's First Anniversary Party takes place this Saturday, November 3.

On the menu:  
Oysters:  Thrumpbacks and Sea Angels 
Consommé with bone marrow dumpling 
Seafood terrine 
Beef carpaccio with lemon and watercress 
Carrot, cumin, currant, and cilantro salad 
bar snacks 
cake for all!

Festivities begin at 5pm.  (Makes for a great stop after RASPIPAV 2012.)

Foodlab, 1201 rue St-Laurent, Montreal, QC


1 comment:

andrea said...

Congratulations--it all sounds so creative, interesting and fun.