McKiernan bills itself as nothing more than a humble luncheonette. The simple canteen – it opened in mid-September and was the most anticipated restaurant opening in Canada this year – is meant to feed the various employees of the offices it shares a building with in a modest, obscure corner of Côte-St.-Paul in southwestern Montreal.
Plain, cafeteria-style bench seating is lined up in neat rows in the large loft space. Strings of common outdoor lights hang from the ceiling. Ordinary industrial windows overlook a stretch of the Lachine Canal, where teams hold dragon boat practice.
So far, so standard. So, why all the fuss? Behind the restaurant’s unassuming façade is a powerhouse of some of Canada’s most talented and successful restaurateurs. The team behind the Joe Beef empire, Frédéric Morin, David McMillan, Allison Cunningham, as well as Marc-Olivier Frappier and Vanya Filipovic (Mon Lapin, Vin Papillon), Chris Morgan and James Simpkins (Liverpool House) have teamed up with chef Derek Dammann (Maison Publique) to create a kind of culinary supergroup – the Traveling Wilburys of rotisserie chicken.
We’re conditioned to see the restaurant industry as a cut-throat operation with razor-thin margins and stiff competition for the best staff, location and spaces. Signature recipes are meant to be treated as holy writs kept under lock and key on pain of death by maniacal chefs, but the reality, at least for a certain type of like-minded restaurateur, is quite different.
Even if the myth propagated by American Express in a famous commercial, that 90 per cent of all restaurants fail in the first year, is inaccurate – the real number, according to a study commissioned by Cornell University, is closer to 26 per cent – the industry is not without its challenges. Profit margins are on average extremely tight, about 2 to 3 per cent, and by the National Restaurant Association’s own numbers, the staff turnover rate is a whopping 72 per cent.
Somewhat counterintuitively, then, comradery, and perhaps a survivors' bond over having made it in an industry known to chew cooks up and spit them out, is bringing chefs together. McKiernan is just one example of chefs partnering with their would-be competitors to open places where the whole is, hopefully, greater than the sum of its parts.
We’ve seen it already in Toronto when the Chase Hospitality Group, the restaurateurs behind places such as Chase, Colette Grand Café and Kasa Moto, paired up with chef David Lee (Nota Bene) to open the fast-casual vegetarian restaurant Planta. Chef Grant Van Gameren (Bar Isabel, Bar Raval) has also partnered with chef Chris Brown (The Stop Community Food Centre, Perigee) to open Victor Dries.
This summer in Vancouver, a group of four chefs, Angus An (Maenam, Fat Mao, Longtail Kitchen, Sen Pad Thai, Freebird Chicken Shack), Rob Belcham (Campagnolo, Campagnolo Roma), Hamid Salimian (formerly Diva at the Met, Culinary Team Canada captain) and Joel Watanabe (Bao Bei, Kissa Tanto) joined together to open Popina in a shipping container on Granville Island.
It might seem like a lot of culinary firepower for a humble container serving fresh seafood and imaginative salads, but An insists the partnership is mutually beneficial. “In Chinese there’s an old saying, ‘One chopstick is not as strong as many,’” he explains. “I think any one of us could have done this concept by ourselves, but what makes it cool is that we did it together. There’s joy in working together and supporting each other.”
Back in Montreal, chef David McMillan agrees. “A lot of us in this business have the same thing in common, in that we work in these terrible spaces. Liverpool House is a hellhole. It’s a great restaurant with very bad working conditions for the back of the house. Joe Beef is like a top 10 Canadian restaurant with arguably [one of] the top 10 worst working environments in Canada. It’s a 400-square-foot room with three six-burner stoves and a deep fryer and it’s been good for a decade. Derek is again maligned with the same situation, terrible kitchen, brilliant cooking. We are many people who cook well, but don’t have these kinds of opportunities to build something out from scratch like this with a large kitchen full of toys.”
McMillan, Damman and the rest of the partners envision several distinct concepts for McKiernan. Their first priority is to simply feed the tenants in the building and anyone else who wants to make the trek out to Côte-St.-Paul for gougère sandwiches stuffed with smoked salmon and pickles, blistered pizza with fresh corn, curds and chili and rotisserie chicken. In its other capacities, the restaurant will operate as an event space doing one-off special events: Schnitzel night, Italian Sunday gravy night, kids’ night and special guest nights that will allow them to collaborate with even more chefs they respect and admire.
McMillan and Dammansay say they have always wanted to have a roster of guest chefs come in to their restaurants, but the logistics of stopping a restaurant such as Joe Beef or Maison Publique in its tracks to take a new menu from a visiting chef, redo the whole mise en place for one dinner and then reset the whole thing the next day is just an insane amount of work in an an industry that’s already a lot of work. The space, the setup and the kitchen the team has at McKiernan affords them the opportunity to finally host those kinds of events.
Additionally, the team will operate McKiernan as a catering facility and a private event space for weddings, group parties and the like, but not only for themselves. “This place is available for my colleagues and peers to host their own events with me out of the picture completely," McMillan says. “Take the keys, bring your team, I’ll tell them, ‘This is the kitchen, you see how it’s clean now, leave it this clean when you leave.’”
For An in Vancouver that attitude is natural and shared. “I don’t really see these other chefs as my competitors,” he says. “I see them as my fellow independent restaurateurs who are trying in a really competitive market to fight against multi-units and big, big chain restaurants. We’re in this industry to not only improve our businesses, but to improve the industry in general. Being able to work together really allows us to think differently, to learn from each other and I think that has helped all of us immensely.”