Dyan Solomon interview Montreal Quebec tuition hike

Don’t mess with Montreal’s magic

“Chef-restaurateur Dyan Solomon is a big part of what makes Montreal special, but before she fell in love with the city after arriving here from Kingston, ON, she was one of those dreaded McGill students the current government would rather see decrease in number.”

The CAQ government’s recent decision to double tuition rates for out-of-province students attending Quebec universities — justifying it as a necessary move to protect Quebecers from the “threat” of non-francophones coming here to study and “anglicizing” the province — has not only rattled English institutions, but caused frustration and unease among once-upon-a-time outsiders who are now full-fledged Quebecers.

Chef-owner Dyan Solomon is a familiar name to those who love Montreal’s dining scene. For the past 25 years, she’s been the co-owner, alongside her business partner Eric Girard, of three top-rated restaurants in the city. It’s safe to say this savvy businesswoman is a big part of what makes the city special. Most Montreal guides list Olive + Gourmando as a must-try destination, Foxy continues to get rave reviews and Caffe Un Po di Più is a personal favourite of many. 

But Solomon, who along with many other of the city’s chef-owners proudly promotes Montreal’s culinary charms, wasn’t always a Montrealer. Before she arrived here from Kingston, Ontario and fell in love with the city, she was one of those dreaded McGill students the current government would rather see decrease in number. 

Unfair and stigmatizing rhetoric

Solomon is concerned about how unwelcoming the language being used is. She worries that it messes with what makes this city so special. She also doesn’t like being seen as a threat to the French language.

“Non-francophones who come here and choose to stay here are people who truly want to be here,” she says, “because the opportunities are fewer, the economy is tougher here, the taxes are higher and you have to learn another language. People like that are highly motivated. Those are people you want here.”

Her own family is a good example. Solomon’s father, who’s from NYC, came to study at McGill at a time when quotas for Jewish students still existed and when you could get by with not speaking French. “If that was very annoying to French Quebecers, I can understand why,” she says. “There was a stigma attached to speaking the language at the time.” 

But her father wanted to learn French — and he did, later working as a surgeon at the Jewish General. “It was cool seeing my dad, a New Yorker, speaking French all day at work,” she says. “He was really proud to do so.”

Everyone moving here today, Solomon says, knows they have to learn French. “They’re not the ones diluting the language. They speak the language.” 

Appreciating the French factor

Growing up in Kingston, Queen’s was the obvious university choice. But Solomon, like so many young students, wanted to experience something different. She was attracted to Montreal’s cosmopolitan and multicultural scene, and the city’s French factor. She decided to attend McGill, where she completed a BA in English Literature and a Master’s in Feminist Literary Theory before studying at the New England Culinary Institute.

“Even when I did my two degrees at McGill, I wasn’t necessarily thinking I would stay here,” she says. “But once I started cooking and spent my first stage at Toqué!, which at the time was mostly men and all French, I wanted to speak French, I wanted to understand what was going on — I wanted to know these people.”

She quickly realized Quebec was “another culture,” she says. “It felt very different from Ontario. I could get down with the kisses on the cheek, this was so much more fun than straight arms, which is so Ontario. I was drawn to the warmth. When people say it’s distinct here, it is! I get that there’s something to protect. I really do.”

Solomon worries the government isn’t taking the right approach when it comes to protecting French. She believes more investments should be made in culture, and in promoting exciting and more creative ways for people to fall in love with the language. She dislikes rhetoric that alienates and discourages people from moving here, as well as scapegoats those who’ve long contributed to the province. 

“I’ve always felt that Quebecers liked me and were proud of me, so this feels particularly hurtful,” she says. 

Solomon also believes the rhetoric surrounding McGill students living solely in English here is exaggerated. 

“Do some people come and spend four years here and never really leave the McGill Ghetto and never engage with the French world around them? They do,” she says. “The same way some go to Dalhousie or Queen’s and never interact with the locals. That’s a universal thing, it’s not unique to McGill.” 

Don’t mess with the city’s diversity!

But Solomon says student life in Quebec is their first introduction to another language, another people, and this is where the real magic happens in Montreal.

Back in 2020, when the Olive + Gourmando cookbook was published, she described her restaurant as “an organic series of happy mistakes and general fumbling.”

Life is often that way, too. We make plans that don’t pan out, but new ones take their place. What materializes — often by complete happenstance — becomes your new trajectory. Your unintended choices come to define you and the people you meet along the way and the environment you find yourself in ultimately change you. 

People from all over the world come to Montreal and mix with the people already here for generations, and they create this magic that can’t be replicated. Tampering with that fragile formula, trying to socially engineer a different outcome, messes with the city’s DNA and what makes it so special. 

“We can’t just have one type of person living here,” she says. “This type of thinking is dangerous and archaic.”

Friend or foe — which is it? 

“Olive + Gourmando is almost entirely staffed by young students from everywhere,” she says, “and their stories are so unique and beautiful. I fear that colourful rainbow of people would become much more homogeneous, and I think that’s sad. The rhetoric is telling people, ‘You don’t belong here. You’re not even welcome to come and try.’ That feels harsh and isolating. And makes it hard to attract people here.”

Skepticism of “outsiders” certainly won’t do at a time when Quebec’s hospitality and restaurant industry (industries expected to generate $4-billion in economic spinoffs for Montreal this year alone) rely so heavily on immigrants. Especially when they’re just bouncing back from three hard pandemic years.

Two weeks ago, Montreal was voted the third-best city to visit by Lonely Planet for its 2024 edition. One of the reasons for that is undisputedly the city’s vibrant restaurant scene. Solomon and other chef-owners are a big part of what sells this city to out-of-towners. 

“Olive + Gourmando is a bit of a tourist attraction,” she says, “and I’m not complaining.” She says she’s proud to be a part of the fabric of what makes this place a vibrant destination but points out that a tuition hike from $9,000 to $17,000 would have most likely excluded someone like her from ever coming here.

“You can’t use my face at Trudeau airport to sell Montreal,” she says, “if you’re then going to turn around and claim that someone like me, who took my particular path, is the problem.” ■

This article was originally published in the November issue of Cult MTL.

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.