The future of Montreal restaurants, pt. 2: When dedicated lifers leave the industry

The mark of a good cook has historically been the level at which they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the service of others’ enjoyment. This labour shortage seems to be in direct defiance of that line of thinking.

Going into the third year of the pandemic, Food Editor Clay Sandhu follows up his 2020 feature “What does the future hold for Montreal restaurants?” with input from three industry successes who’ve stepped away from their posts this year.

Introspection. That’s the word, which for me, has come to define 2021.

After the undulating uncertainties of the enduring pandemic lost much of their fear-stoking potency, our collective gaze — at least in the vaccinated parts of the world — shifted inward. A major reflection being had in society seems to be about personal happiness and whether we give happiness enough space in our lives. 

That reflection certainly rings true for me. I’ve worked in restaurants for the lion’s share of my adult life. In the restaurant world and especially in kitchens, there’s a pissing contest being had constantly, one that pits cooks against each other in a competition to prove oneself a “real cook”— a kitchen lifer. I used to think I would be one of those cooks — then I got a bit older. My partner and I had lived together for four years and had barely spent one day per week together. I was eating very poorly and drinking far too much. At my lowest point, I was working 60 hours a week and only eating once per day — I was sick, I was gaunt and I was depressed.

I quit the kitchen shortly thereafter, got a WSET certification and found my way into a job tending bar and serving wine at a reputable restaurant. My work was less gruelling, my hours were much better and so was my pay. I felt like I had hit the jackpot. Nearly exactly a year into that job, however, the pandemic hit. Needless to say, I lost that gig.

future Montreal restaurants
The future of Montreal restaurants is more uncertain than ever as the spectre of a third lockdown looms.

Today we’re hearing a lot of talk about labour shortages, demand for better wages and better working conditions in restaurants. Restaurant workers have seen the light, they’ve had a taste of greener pastures and they ain’t coming back. I realized during my days away from restaurant work that I am not a restaurant lifer. I found a new line of work, one that gives me a vastly improved quality of life and one in which I am able to prioritize my own happiness. I am a restaurant worker who has left and has no plans to return and I’m far from the only one. 

But as the cooks, sous-chefs, sommeliers and servers leave the restaurant world behind, I can’t help but wonder about the state of restaurants in 2022. What will they become and who will run them? When the cooks are now carpenters and the sommeliers work in marketing, will the plate remain empty and the glass stay dry? 

The most attention-grabbing departure from the scene came earlier this month when Joe Beef Group co-owner Dave McMillan announced in an interview with The Gazette’s Bill Brownstein that he had sold his shares in the business and was retiring from restaurants. His departure was summarized with the quote, “I never want to shave white truffles onto asparagus for someone from Toronto ever again in my life” — a statement that will resonate with most anyone who has worked in a kitchen. The problem is, Dave wasn’t a lowly line cook peeling potatoes and cleaning grease traps. In fact, Dave hadn’t worked in a kitchen (at least as a defined part of his responsibilities) in years. From the perspective of most restaurant workers, being Dave McMillan is about as good as anyone could hope to do in the restaurant biz. If someone who has achieved as much as him could leave disheartened and angry, what hope is there for the rest of us?

In that same article, Dave wrote that his breaking point came after a fight with his executive chef Gabriel Drapeau. “In all honesty, I think that’s what brought me to (leaving) at the end. I was fighting with Gab. I was really starting to get angry and see things I didn’t like at Joe Beef, and he is my friend.” Drapeau also recently announced his departure from Joe Beef and restaurants in general, having accepted the position of Director of Culinary Operations for the ready-to-eat meal company WeCook. The eight-year veteran’s departure marks yet another loss for Montreal’s restaurant scene, but a notable gain for the meal delivery scene.

future Montreal restaurants
Is the departure of Joe Beef chef Gabriel Drapeau for WeCook indicative of what the future holds for Montreal restaurants?

For Drapeau’s part, he says his departure was long in the making, or as he put it, “I was ready to graduate from the Joe Beef program” and a great opportunity had presented itself. To borrow his saying, the Joe Beef program has produced much of Montreal’s, and some of the country’s, best cooks and restaurants. The natural evolution of the program generally leads to opening a restaurant, not portioning brussels sprouts for ready-to-eat meal kits. That said, for Drapeau, the end goal is the same. “The idea is making delicious food and making people happy. That’s all that matters to me in the end.”

In our conversation, the ever-competitive Drapeau tried as best as he could to avoid coming out and saying it, but it was palpably clear that despite being a dutiful soldier, the restaurant world wore him down. “It came to a point where one day I was looking at what I was becoming — for me it was time to move on.” After struggling with burnout and exhaustion, he broke. “A couple of years ago I went to the Douglas Hospital emergency room. I was going through a hard breakup, I was drinking so much, I went to see the doctor and I said, ‘Help me.’”

Drapeau was able to find his way back from that low point, citing massive changes in his diet and routine. He even goes as far as to say that in the time before leaving Joe Beef, he had “a beautiful life.” I’ll take his word for it but the exhaustion he describes and the pain he has endured, not to mention McMillan’s account of his last days at the restaurant, struck me as being at odds with Drapeau’s version of things. Chalk it up to the rose-tinted glasses of memory, perhaps. 

I had the chance to speak with two other cooks: Will Weston, a former Joe Beef cook himself and his partner (both in business and in life) Kira German who was the former chef de cuisine of Nora Gray until early 2020. Though both left their restaurant jobs just prior to the pandemic, they shared Drapeau’s sentiment about burnout and exhaustion, along with his desire to continue cooking good food, just under better conditions. Another oft-reposted soundbite from that same McMillan interview is his revelation on restaurant cooking. “It’s 5% cooking. It’s 95% cleaning.” If only it were so simple. Weston, for his part, puts it more acutely. “It’s an ego thing. It’s like, ‘We work long hours and we get paid nothing but we do it because we love it and fuck you if you don’t like it.’ That can work when you’re 21 — getting close to 30 and over, you start realizing that you can’t buy a house with ego, you can’t raise a family with ego. Fuck — you can hardly even feed yourself with ego half the time.” 

The work of cooking is often compared to that of an artist. It is more accurately a trade. Your work is to replicate a dish time and time again, night after night without error. Only a very small part of the work is about menu planning or dish development and that work is usually only handled by the highest tier of the kitchen staff. What’s maybe worse is that, as a trade, it’s incredibly undervalued — a plumber comes by for 20 minutes to unclog a drain and you’re out $200, whereas a cook will spend 12 hours prepping food, cooking dinner and cleaning up for 200 people and barely walk away with $100. Restaurant workers are asked to work exceptionally hard in the name of passion but passion devoid of actual compensation is an utterly valueless currency. 

Finding alternative ways to exercise passion and dedication to the craft of cooking without suffering the daily grind and indignities of restaurant kitchens has been a major factor for both German and Weston, who are close to wrapping up construction on their first business, Paradiso — a handmade pasta counter slated to open early 2022. “It’s nice to focus on the parts of the business that we want to focus on, which in this case is making pasta and perfecting that skill,” reflects German. For Weston, they, like many people are “…just finding creative ways to do something a little different while still holding onto that passion and love for food.”

Cooking is seeing an expansion, at least in so far as in the areas of professional cooking that are seen as legitimate. If cooks like Weston and German — or, for that matter, Anita Feng who recently opened Épicerie J’ai Feng (an extension of her popular 2020 pop-up) — are any example, 2022 seems ripe to see a lot more restaurant adjacent culinary concepts. Drapeau seems to think so too. “People are starting to do bodegas and épiceries — I think it’s the future. It’s so damn cute, and it’s so damn good!”

Nora Gray future Montreal restaurants
High turnover at myriad Montreal restaurants, including Nora Gray (pictured) is a good case study for the current climate and the future of the industry.

What’s for certain is that things cannot remain, or rather return to how they once were. Restaurants that wish to operate in the traditional way are going to be forced to improve working conditions and that’s likely to mean reduced menus, simpler concepts and ultimately charging more money. While that might be a bitter pill to swallow, Weston reminds us that dining out in restaurants is a luxury. “You’re paying what you should be paying for a luxury experience.” More than that, you’re paying the price of ethical working conditions and human decency. German notes, however, that the burden of those additional costs should not be entirely put on the customer, saying restaurants have a responsibility to make some adjustments, too. “You can design a menu that requires less prep, which means that you can get away with people doing fewer hours.”

All sorts of reasons have been bandied around for the labour shortage in restaurants. Some make the argument that restaurant workers found better jobs, others argue that CERB turned them all into lazy ingrates. In my experience, restaurant workers are the least lazy people I know. What’s most likely is that the time away from restaurant work provided time for introspection. “When you’re really in it and you’re working like crazy and not sleeping and not eating properly and in no way taking care of yourself, it’s really easy not to notice how bad it is. Once you stop and have a minute and you’re eating properly and exercising and sleeping — you notice how horrible it was before,” says German, and I tend to agree. The mark of a good cook has historically been the level at which they are willing to sacrifice themselves in the service of others’ enjoyment. This labour shortage seems to be in direct defiance of that line of thinking.

The parting note of my conversation with Drapeau was poignant if a bit morose. “When you go, there’s only one space in the casket. In the end, you have to take care of yourself — that’s going to make you a better cook, that’s going to make you a better human being.” As for my worries about what’s in store for restaurants, I still don’t know what will become of them and what they will look like or be like next year and thereafter, but it is my sincerest hope that, whatever it may be, it is the product of self-care and putting value in happiness. ■

This feature story on the future of Montreal restaurants originally appeared in the December issue of Cult MTL.

For more on food and drink in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.