The magic started when Win Butler blew up the PA system.
Last August, the Arcade Fire frontman was enjoying food and drinks with the band at Toronto's Rhum Corner. Butler decided to ask restaurant co-owner Roland Jean if he could play some rara, a type of Haitian Creole festival music. Jean loved it – right until the speakers gave out.
Almost immediately, Butler's wife and bandmate Régine Chassagne and some Arcade Fire percussionists made up for lost music, keeping the rhythm with glasses and other objects on the tables.
"It was magic," says Jen Agg, Jean's spouse and matriarch of a mini-empire of Toronto restaurants that includes Rhum Corner, the Black Hoof and Cocktail Bar.
Bonding quickly that night, the two couples eventually shared their respective dreams of creating a Haitian-influenced space in Montreal. That was that: Crossing a provincial divide of nightlife, food and culture, their venture, Agrikol, is set to open this summer.
Featuring Haitian cuisine, music and visual arts, the space will build on the cultural advocacy work that Chassagne and Butler have demonstrated since Montreal-based Arcade Fire started raising funds for Haiti in 2005. For Agg and the Haitian-born Jean (who is also a painter), it will be a chance to take their signature, convivial restaurant style beyond Toronto's Dundas Street West.
They could not be more excited. Here's what both couples had to say about the joint venture.
How did this collaboration come to be?
Jean: I wanted to open something cool in Montreal but I never had the opportunity or the partner that I wanted. And one time Régine and Win came to Toronto and they said, "Let's do something." And that's when the magic started.
Chassagne: Win and I have always been dreaming of a Haitian place in Montreal. And we met Roland and Jen and we started talking and …
Agg: … and it happened so fast. It was a whirlwind.
Chassagne: We said, "Let's stop talking and let's just make it happen."
How has the concept for the restaurant developed?
Butler: It's more of an art project. The idea is that it's a cultural space. The thing that we were really impressed with at Rhum Corner is that it's this space for Haitian and Caribbean culture and it's really cool and contemporary. Régine's family moved to Montreal from Haiti, like a lot of Haitians, and moving to this tundra, you know …
Chassagne: … you miss the warmth.
Butler: Yeah, you miss this cultural warmth. It's something that I felt at Rhum Corner and it's something that I know that we can do in Montreal.
Jean: We will make carnival every day.
What can you tell us about the food?
Agg: Jesse [Grasso], who is our head chef at Rhum Corner, is able to pick up on another culture's food so well. He went to Haiti and did all his research.
Jean: My sister came and worked with Jesse. He is such a talented chef, and he upgraded her Haitian food.
Agg: It will be presented slightly differently, but the food and flavours are really authentic. MSG is used in Haitian cooking in a real way, and we want to get rid of the stigma. It's a movement in the world of food. We use it at Rhum, just a little bit; it's just like salt, just a seasoning.
The really nice thing about Montreal is that we have access to all these things, like djon djon mushrooms. It's going to be fun because there is just a much larger community, so we have access to ingredients that we don't have in Toronto.
There aren't a lot of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs willing to innovate in both provinces. Any ideas why that is?
Butler: The Dominican Republic and Haiti don't have much crossover either, but they're on the same island. It's just a language and culture thing. Cuba doesn't know that much about Haiti and you can almost see Cuba from Haiti. It's the same thing here. There are similarities, yet the cultures are isolated.
Jean: Language is a big thing.
Why is now the right moment for Agrikol to bridge these cultures?
Jean: There are nearly 200,000 Haitians in Montreal, so definitely I think that Agrikol is something we need here. It's a celebration of culture, and that includes food.
Agg: It's crazy that there hasn't been a place like this yet. We're going to build here and we're going to move here. It's a big life change – and I'm going to learn French. It will be great.
Chassagne: You can't explain how beautiful it is! So now I think we have an opportunity to try to make a place for it in Montreal.
This interview has been edited and condensed.