Montreal’s food scene deglamorized

Stéphane Larue’s novel offers a rare, nuanced glimpse behind the curtain of Montreal restaurant culture

The Dishwasher is a coming of age story told through the eyes of a down on his luck 20-year-old in early 2000s Montreal. Stéphane Larue’s story is both strikingly familiar with its realistic depiction of the city and a nuanced glimpse behind the curtain of Montreal restaurant culture that is so rarely seen. 

The book follows a young man studying graphic design, trying to make it as an artist, who under the weight of crippling gambling debt takes a job as a dishwasher in an upscale Italian restaurant in the Plateau. Many comparisons have been drawn to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and with good reason, but for those of us in the industry there’s less shock and awe than there was in the Bourdain classic. Instead, Larue holds up a mirror to the industry, encapsulating the nearly mechanical dance that is navigating an unruly dinner rush and the sweet, impossibly quenching taste of the first sip of a cold beer when the night is over.

The restaurant scene in Montreal may have changed dramatically since 2002 but reading The Dishwasher one can’t help but appreciate the people who slogged away in the supper clubs and high-volume steakhouses that produced the great talents who would eventually make this town the international food capital it has become. 

I recently spoke with Stéphane Larue about his book, which was originally published in French under the title Le Plongeur in 2016, about the English release of the novel, cooking culture and Montreal then and now. 

Clay Sandhu: I moved to Montreal in 2009 and was working in kitchens by the age of 20, so there’s a lot of parallels between my life and this book, but I started in restaurants nearly a decade after your story takes place. Do you think the industry has changed since the early 2000s?

Stéphane Larue: From what I’ve seen, I can say the industry has changed. I think the industry changes continuously. In the early 2000s, where the novel takes off, the culinary culture and the foodie culture in Quebec did not exist as it exists today. There were no chef’s TV shows, and cooks were not the media stars they get to be now. Being a cook at that time was not a “cool” career and there was no real way of being recognized outside the inner circles of the industry. I do think though that the people who choose to work in that industry today are the same kind of people that chose to work in it 10 or 20 years ago. This line of work still attracts misfits for whom a nine-to-five schedule is unbearable, people who need an adrenaline generating job, people who sometimes have an unusual life course and people who feel better being up late at night than being up in the daylight. 

The industry changes and so do the cities and the culinary culture that lives in them — economic, political, cultural and social forces transform the faces of every city, constantly. It has a direct effect on the restaurant industry. For example, if you worked in Montreal restaurants in 2009, 2010, you got to know a very different Montreal than the one I depict in my novel. After the 2008 financial crisis, many renowned downtown restaurants pulled the plug; most of their clients had lost their jobs or had no more money to go out. Montreal’s main arteries slowly transformed into ghost alleys and, bit by bit, new restaurants and bars established themselves in the many Montreal neighbourhoods. While Mont-Royal Avenue, St-Denis Street or St-Laurent Blvd. were less and less frequented by restaurant-goers, restaurant life flourished in neighbourhoods in full gentrification swing. Yes, the industry has changed, but I think it’s still a precarious field of work where working conditions and salaries are dire compared to other fields of work. 

CS: There’s so much realism in your novel, it’s sometimes hard to tell what is fiction and what is an anecdote from your real life. How have you used your own experience to write this book?

SL: I think we always write using our own experience. When I decided to write about my first years in the industry, it was mandatory for me to be as realistic as possible. Not because it was inspired by true events that happened to me and to people I worked with at that time — I think fiction always filters true events to make stories out of them — but because I was depicting an environment and an industry that was not usually depicted in fiction, in French-Canadian literature, at least, a reality that most people don’t really know about. I had to make sure that every bit of it would feel real and true to anybody who gets to read the book, people from the industry and people outside of it.

CS: Themes of guilt and regret, especially in regards to gambling, are prominent in the novel. Why was this important to telling The Dishwasher’s story?

SL: Before answering this question, I want to say that every addiction story is unique in itself and I don’t pretend to know more than what my own addiction experiences made me live. But, as a writer, I’ve allowed myself to use these experiences in fiction and they did help me, I think, to create a credible gambling addict character. So, since the narrator’s gambling problems trigger the whole story and intrigue, it was mandatory to be consistent with everything someone who is dealing with addiction goes through. And when someone deals with addiction, he’ll hide things and he’ll tell lies to the ones who are the most precious to him, mostly to preserve himself in their eyes. Living a life of lies and theft creates, at some point, guilt and regret. If I were to portray a realistic narrator battling with addiction, those themes needed to be felt in every narrator’s friendship or family relations. And it’s really what is at stake, here, in this particular story: losing strong and precious relationships and friends because of a gambling addiction.

CS: A lot of parallels have been drawn between Anthony Bourdain and yourself. Kitchen Confidential is often credited for stoking a fire for a new generation of cooks, galvanizing the idea of the warrior cook, willing to give everything for the craft. What do you hope the impact of your book will be?

SL: I’m very flattered by those parallels, even though Anthony Bourdain and I have very different backgrounds, and a very different success. Even though writing took a huge place in our respective lives, I don’t think we write from the same place. I don’t know if Bourdain initially wished for his books to have this huge impact on fellow cooks all around the world, but for my part, when The Dishwasher was first published in French three years ago, I just hoped it would reach its fair share of readers. The novel got to be a huge success in Quebec, and not only among people from the industry. It touched lots of readers, in very different circles. What I hope for now is that it continues to meet readers, on and on, in the English reading world, new readers from different backgrounds. The Dishwasher is about kitchen life, of course, but it’s a coming of age novel, too, about friendship, treason, addiction, nightlife, work, money, urbanity, Montreal. I think these different themes all bind together to make The Dishwasher a book that can reach many, many people.

CS: What do you think draws people to wash dishes, and what kind of person do you think makes for a great dishwasher?

SL: Washing dishes is a really tough job and a really badly paid job. You usually won’t go wash dishes when you can choose another job. Sometimes people will wash dishes as a first job and because it’s a good entry point in the restaurant industry. Personally, I think anybody who works in that industry should wash dishes for a time. Sometimes people wash dishes because the job and the schedule suits them fine; sometimes people wash dishes because they just got to the country and they don’t have the references to pick any other job; sometimes people wash dishes because they are at a point in their lives where they are out of options. It’s a job that draws many different people. 

The dishwasher is the backbone of any restaurant. If there is no dishwasher, the restaurant can’t run properly. A great dishwasher is a dishwasher anybody in the restaurant can count on. It’s a dishwasher who foresees the critical moments of the night before they happen. A great dishwasher is a highly valuable asset for any restaurant and his presence influences the whole service, from the beginning to the end.

CS: In your novel as in real life, the afterhours scene plays a significant role in the lives of restaurant workers. What do you think that role is?

SL: I think it plays the same role as in any worker’s life. Day-job workers have their happy hour after work. It’s the same thing for restaurant workers. The difference is that restaurant workers finish working late at night, so their happy hour is intertwined with the nightlife and everything that’s tied to that. And when you’ve been working in that industry for a couple of years, slowly you make friends only with people who share the same nightlife schedule as you. You tend to see fewer and fewer friends and family members who live a day life. It means that when you are a restaurant worker your social life mostly exists between 11 p.m. and dawn and since you spent the whole night serving people who are partying and having fun, it’s kind of hard going home afterward without having a beer or a bit of fun with your colleagues who are as exhausted and as socially isolated as you.

CS: Your depiction of kitchen life clearly comes from the perspective of someone who has lived it. How important is truth and authenticity to your writing?

SL: I’m not sure that telling something that’s drawn from one’s own experience ensures any authenticity and truth, but it certainly gives access to a special kind of emotional and factual knowledge, which always makes good fiction material. For my part, being authentic and true in my writing is being conscious of where I write from and respectful of what I try to depict. I hate it when I read a book that feels false or untrue. It usually happens when the author doesn’t respect his subject and the reality that he tries to describe, no matter if he lived it or not. For example, there are huge crime fiction novelists that sound deadly authentic and true even if they are not writing about events from their own life — they sure know about their subject and every word they write is true and respectful to their subject. Authenticity and truth are at the core of my writing. But it’s not about telling true events exactly as they were lived. It’s about finding the right tone and the right voice to tell these events.

CS: There’s talk that the book may be getting a film adaptation. Who would you want to play the narrator, and what do you think is most important that they get right when adapting the book?

SL: Francis Leclerc (Mémoires affectives, Un été sans point ni coup sûr, Pieds nus dans l’aube) and Eric K Boulianne (Prank, Avant qu’on explose) are working on the script right now. We’ve met a couple of times already and they are both really respectful of the book. They want the movie to feel as real — in its depiction of the kitchen life, for instance — as the book does.

For my part, what I really want is that they make the best movie they can make out of the book. I’m sure they will find their own cinematic language to tell the story in a whole different medium. I heard the auditions have begun. Francis Leclerc mentioned once that he wished the cast to be young, which is consistent with the book, where most of the characters are under 25 years old. I think it’s a good thing and I trust Francis Leclerc to pick the best actors that he sees fit for every role. ■