Goodbye, Bite Me. Hello, Conviction: Marc Thuet’s new restaurant opens tonight, staffed with reformed criminals
Two days before the opening of Conviction, chef Marc Thuet’s latest restaurant venture, the dining room has no tables, a fat orange cat is knocking over empty bottles on a scratched coffee table, and the staff is eating Chinese takeout in the gutted kitchen, which has only a deep fryer installed.
“When do you think we’ll get the ovens?” asks Thuet, slouching in the only chair not stacked in the corner of the small dining space.
“Monday or Tuesday,” replies his wife and business partner, Biana Zorich, as she texts a reporter who wants to know what brand of cigarette her husband smokes.
The candid restaurant power couple, who cannot have a conversation without finishing each other’s sentences, is taking a day off from the taping of a TV series about the restaurant’s opening, on track for tonight. What makes them and Conviction worthy of a show (the working title is Criminal Dinners, scheduled to premiere on Citytv in the fall) is that the 13 new staff members who will be running the kitchen and the front-of-house are freshly paroled ex-cons.
Eighteen months ago, the Montreal-based production company Cineflix (Colin and Justin’s Home Heist, Property Virgins) came up with the concept—giving former prisoners the chance to start a new life by working at a restaurant—and approached Thuet and Zorich. The couple wanted to try something outside their comfort zone and came up with the idea of working in a penitentiary kitchen, teaching skills to prisoners about to be paroled. A prison in the States gave the green light, but Thuet wanted to stay in Canada. Up here, though, he was turned down due to safety concerns.
Combine that with the logistics of opening a new restaurant in the city—Zorich says dealing with licensing, permits and zoning laws takes three months—and the couple decided to close Bite Me (at 609 King Street West) and revamp the space with a new kitchen, dining room and Mediterranean-inspired menu. And, of course, the new staff. About a month ago, they started with 24 ex-inmates—12 men and 12 women—and eventually whittled the group down to 13.
“For a lot of people, nobody wants these guys or will hire them. They’ll hire them part-time or give them a shit job. So we thought we should open a restaurant for them,” says Thuet, who has overcome drug abuse (painkillers, opiates and the occasional use of cocaine). In a famous incident in 2003, he was escorted out of The Fifth by a security guard after being fired as the chef. “Restaurants are what we know best, and it’s a business where you can teach people who are passionate. These are passionate and good-hearted guys and ladies who don’t want to go back to their old lives.”
On the first day of shooting, one of the potential staffers threatened to kill Zorich after she said he needed to cut his hair if he wanted to work as a server. “That was the only time the safety issue crossed my mind. In this industry, you see so many strange and wonderful things,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve worked in bars where I was threatened by drunk guys, so this was just another angle on it. And I’ve worked in bars where there were shootings, and I’ve worked with people who had immense drug issues, so I can relate to these guys’ stories.”
Twenty-five-year-old Devon Sims moved to Toronto from the west coast last winter after his fiancé and baby were killed by a drunk driver. He and his 26-year-old brother, Brad Lambert, have been in and out of jail for several years. The two heard about the Criminal Dinners open call while staying at a shelter.
“I wasn’t used to it in the beginning; it was too much of a classy environment to me,” says Lambert, who is now working as one of the six servers. “I was used to the streets of B.C., where there was violence, drugs and crime.”
The brothers and the rest of the staff-in-training were given various tasks and challenges in the kitchen and at the front of the house, where Thuet and Zorich assessed who was best suited to the server and kitchen jobs.
“Half of us don’t know what half the stuff in the kitchen is called, but if I ask for the purple carrot—I know now that it’s called an heirloom carrot—they’re not going to look at me weird, like someone with lots of experience might. They’re just going to pass me the purple carrot,” says Sims, who worked in the prison kitchen while serving time. “We’re all inexperienced, and we’re all just working together. Marc and Biana are giving us a shot. If we fuck it up, it’s shame on us. But most importantly, they’re giving us a chance.” Sims’s favourite dish to prepare is carpaccio.
Server Jamie Maynard, who also heard of the show while staying in a shelter, had no restaurant experience save a week at McDonald’s (“I was fired because I messed up on an order for a mystery shopper”). He was “scared shitless” upon meeting Thuet and Zorich for the first time and remembers running out of the kitchen crying during one of the initial cooking challenges.
“They wanted me to cut open a pig’s head, and I didn’t deal well with that,” says the Montrealer, who will have two family members and a long-lost friend at Friday’s opening. “The chef came out and talked to me, and I came back and helped my team win. They didn’t have egg whites in their dressing, so I fixed it and the chef said I saved the team.”
But Thuet is quick to say that the show is nothing like Hell’s Kitchen, and he himself is nothing like the equally blonde and European Gordon Ramsay.
“There’s one thing I don’t want to be compared to, and that’s Gordon Ramsay. First of all, his show is staged. The guys they hire are actors. You don’t get actors here. To me, he’s a fucking joke. He’s a fucking idiot.”
Still, Conviction has kept a low profile; the pair say they haven’t heard any reaction from other chefs in the city.
“As for customers, most of them are supportive,” says Zorich. “A little bit surprised, but they always end the sentence with, ‘Knowing you and Marc, who else would do something like this?’ So I suppose that’s a good thing. I hope it’s a good thing.”
15 thoughts on “Goodbye, Bite Me. Hello, Conviction: Marc Thuet’s new restaurant opens tonight, staffed with reformed criminals”
Hi, I have a criminal record and i find it very hard hard to find a job. I love cooking and respect people I love this idea you have. I would love for you give a chance to work for wonderfull cause ALL I WANT IS A CHANCE.please email me to let me know what I should do.Thank you Wesley Atkins.
Devon Sims is a fraud yet again. His ‘fiance’ and baby SON were NOT killed in a car accident. They are alive and well living in BC. He has been give SEVERAL chances at a new start and has screwed every single one of them up.I agree with giving people chances in life, but I feel someone who actually deserves one and will be serious about it should get the chance, not a lifer like Devon. Devon has no brother either.
I think the public needs to know the truth.
whom ever says that my sister hasn’t died is low i am rebecca’s sister, who although was not devons fiancee they were together.. i know he has pissed alot of people off it is wrong to attack that aspect….
My wife and I had dinner there last week. Service was excellent, food was fantastic, wine was superb. Definitely on-par with the best Toronto has to offer in all respects. Be sure to check it out!
Thuet is a fucking idiot.
Do you actually think he gives 2 shits about the people he’s “training”. He’s a fucking thug and a cocaine addict himself. Some role model.
Fuck him and his bullshit show
I know 2 of the staff and they believe that the owners are sincere about helping them. I have met them also and believe they want to help give them a chance.
What a low blow Wendy. You must be jealous. I am a Chef in the States, Colorado to be exact and I would love the opportunity to do something like this. I think this is a great idea. So many ex-cons have such a hard time finding work after release it’s very sad. Restaurants are pretty well known for hiring people with a criminal record as most are just looking for a body at times but to train people to do something to be proud of themselves for is a great idea. Working in a restaurant isn’t like staring at a cubicle wall all day it’s hard work and some people don’t have what it takes but if you apply yourself you may find your niche somewhere in the restaurant. Chefs are hard on their staff, the expect perfection. Consistency is number 1 and if you can teach a bunch a ex-cons who’ve never had that in their lives, they might just make out in the real world. Love the show so far. Congrats and good luck.
Ive worked with Marc Thuet for a short stint during my 2 yrs in Canada. (just before he left Centro)He is a big hearted guy and a genius at his work.he has trained so many youngsters like Jason who have made it to the top.
I wish the very best to Marc Thuet on his new venture.
I work in a large rehab down under now and know how difficuilt it is to train clients with disabilities.
It is brave on Marcs part to dive in and do his part.
Who cares about Marc’s past, name one chef or line cook who didnt spend there nights after 16 hr days in a hot kitchen doing blow and drinking after hrs in China town, I have some cold tea thanks, get a life. Marc is a god and probably the best chef this country has ever seen or ever will see, Thuet is GOD in this industry.
I love your show watched every episode im a recovering addict
with 2yrs clean i can relate to the show and the cause
keep up all the good work you guys do for other ppl
if even half the ppl on earth cared and gave ppl a chance
like you guys do this world would be a much better place.
I would love to meet the two of you some time
but just dont know were to begin on that :)
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