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How one chef went from rags to running a culinary mini-empire

"It will be $100,00 per slice!" jokes Jérôme Ferrer.

The restaurateur has just brought his Birks Box cake to a table in Birks Café, his latest (and fifth) culinary venture, which is situated in the jeweller's historic landmark store in downtown Montreal. The size and shape of the cake is a signature Birks blue box, wrapped in a ribbon made of chocolate. "We'll put a yellow diamond on top and jewels down the sides," he continues, as he sits back to contemplate his creation. "It will be worth $1-million." Made of chocolate, it's covered in smooth blue icing coloured with essential oils from fruits and vegetables. "No additives," he enthuses, holding one finger in the air to make his point.

Awarded the prestigious title of Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef earlier this month - there are only three others in Canada and 160 in the world - Mr. Ferrer plans to perfect the cake's design for application to the Guinness World Book of Records. "It will be the world's most expensive cake," he announces, a playful smile flashing across his face.

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"I have lots of ideas," he adds. "It's a problem." He shakes his head and runs a hand through his dark hair. "I go to bed with 10 ideas and I wake up with 20." Dressed in a white chef's coat, he produces a hearty laugh.

The remarkable story of Mr. Ferrer and his two business partners, Ludovic Delonca and Patrice de Felice, started not just with ideas and ambition but also courage and desperation.

Ten years ago, the three men were living a nightmare. Having met at the Vatel Institut, a cooking school in Nimes, France, they had been running a bistro in the village of Saint Cyprien for five years. It was successful, but with its seaside location, thrived only in summer, and the young men, then in their early 20s, longed for more challenge. After travelling to Canada on holiday in 1998 - their first trip to North America - they decided that Montreal would be a perfect place to set up a bistro. When they returned to France, they sold their restaurant for $30,000. But upon settling in Montreal, ready to invest the money in a new establishment, they discovered that the notary in France had absconded with it.

They could have sought employment in other restaurants, "but we were so hurt by the experience, we needed time to grieve," Mr. Ferrer explains, partly in French and English. The group, including Mr. Delonca's wife, who is Mr. Ferrer's sister, and their two-week-old baby, shared a two-bedroom apartment in Verdun. The three men took menial jobs, more than one each. They delivered newspapers. Mr. Ferrer sorted cans in a recycling factory. For four months, they ate only one meal a day to save money.

Returning to France had been a possibility, but they knew that meant splitting up, to get jobs, and they wanted to fulfill their dream of owning a place together again. Besides, "our hardship kept us together," he says. In 2002, with $6,500 in saved earnings, they opened Europea, a space of only 30 seats in the basement of a vacant building on Mountain Street below St. Catherine. With its menu of fresh local produce prepared using classic and modern techniques, the restaurant soon became a hot spot.

"We are never haute cuisine or low cuisine. There's just good food or bad food," he says. In 2004,they expanded Europea to two rooms. Later, they took up the whole three-storey building. In the next five years, they opened Boutique Europea, a small retail food outlet in Old Montreal; Beaver Hall, a bustling traditional French brasserie; and Andiamo, a Mediterranean-style restaurant. Last September, at the request of Birks, Mr. Ferrer and Francis Reddy, a TV chef personality in Quebec, opened the Birks Café, situated amid displays of fine china on the upper level.

Groupe Europea, a private enterprise with no outside investors - the men have refused every offer - now employs nearly 200 people. In 2009, revenue was $7-million, according to Mr. Delonca, who is their financial officer.

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"The thing is to not think too much about it, just to do it," Mr. Ferrer explains, adding that he and his partners do not have a formal business plan. "But it has to feel right here," he says, tapping his heart.

The three partners create the decor of their restaurants without outside designers. In the early years, they painted and renovated the restaurant spaces themselves. "We share the headaches, we share the joy," says Mr. Ferrer, who is the public face of the enterprise and its creative force. Their sterling reputation has drawn the crowds to Birks, a dowdy old lady of forgotten Anglo society. All glassware, china and cutlery used in the café are Birks stock. Delicate chocolates and his brightly coloured macarons (one of his specialties, which he also sells online) are available in boxes from a counter - like precious gems. Customers reach the restaurant space by walking through the large ground-floor display area of the handsome 1894 store. Since the café opened, Birks says, sales of merchandise have increased 150 per cent.

"For me, the business is all about giving pleasure," Mr. Ferrer, 36, says in an unassuming manner. "I take pleasure from giving pleasure." He jokes that his enjoyment of people stems from the fact that he grew up in Tournissan, a French village just north of the Spanish border, where "there were more cats and crows than people."

His inclination to focus on life-affirming goals has been sharpened by tragedy. Last year, his wife Virginie, a childhood sweetheart, died of lung cancer at 38. "We have just one life," he says. "And it's short." He also knows that whatever accomplishments you have, they can be taken away.

Two years ago, the three men, who are "closer than brothers," got their Canadian citizenship, all at the same time.

Mr. Ferrer's explanation? "We were reborn here so we feel we belong here."

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Life columnist

Sarah Hampson is an award-winning journalist whose work started appearing in The Globe and Mail in 1998, when she was invited to write a column. Since 1993, when she began her career in journalism, she had been writing for all of Canada's major magazines, including Toronto Life, Saturday Night (now defunct), Chatelaine, Report on Business and Canadian Art, among others. More

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