Down and out in Paris, not Toronto
I have been down this restaurant-building road before. I arrived in Paris with a holiday visa and an opportunity to run a kitchen in a new restaurant. It was so new that I helped build it for the next four months. It won’t be like this with Union. It just can’t be, or I might as well call it quits right now.
The place we were building was a restaurant-lounge with a DJ booth—kind of inspired by the Buddha Bar. Putting a restaurant together in Paris is no easy task; we all went to work to help the two carpenters, the architect, the metal guy and the painters. Mind you, we would also go to some cheap brasserie and have two-hour lunches and drink carafes of wine and wolf down plats du jour—jarret de porc with lentils or bavette frites or whole baguettes with saucisson and butter and cornichons—then go back and start up power tools and try not to get injured or die. We the (unskilled) help were the guys on the front line, the guys looking up with arms above their heads, waiting to grab and steady a 15-foot, 500-pound painting being lowered from a six-storey building. We were the guys scrubbing and varnishing and inhaling chemicals that would be banned in Canada. We were the guys going up the ladder to cut a wire that may or may not be live.
With all the French laws and permits and other annoying things they hit you with, the opening was four months late. As anyone in the restaurant game will tell you, that just ain’t a good way to start. The budget was blown so badly that corners were cut, mostly in the kitchen, located in the basement. Heat poured off the two walk-in fridges, the icemaker, the ovens, the burners and the grill. Combine that with poor ventilation ducts that had to run four storeys just to get to the roof, and you’ve got a humid, awful trench of a kitchen that would have made Orwell weep.
And that’s where I paid my dues, banging out slabs of faux filet and confit and seared foie gras and terrines. We were close to the Paris Bourse—the stock exchange—so we had a lot of suits with big appetites coming in for lunch. We also got a lot of French mesdames eating tuna sashimi every day. I cooked for four and a half years with Guatemalans, Australians, Americans, Swedes, Brits and Irishmen, and we managed to make really good food come out of that hell. The first time my aunt and uncle, fresh from Vancouver, saw me, they had just ordered dinner. They asked my cousin if I was doing drugs. Apparently the only thing looking good coming out of that kitchen was the food.
Again: Union will not be like this!