Goodbye, Bite Me. Hello, Conviction: Marc Thuet’s new restaurant opens tonight, staffed with reformed criminals

Goodbye, Bite Me. Hello, Conviction: Marc Thuet’s new restaurant opens tonight, staffed with reformed criminals

Marc Thuet and Biana Zorich at Conviction (Photo by Karon Liu)

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.

“Fuck off.”

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.”