Welcome to The Gatekeepers, where Eater profiles the fine folks who manage some of Montreal's most popular restaurants.
[Photo: Randall Brodeur]
Chuck Hughes may be the face of Garde Manger and Le Bremner but even the star of Chuck's Day Off and Chuck's Eat the Street defers to manager/wine director Jessica Midlash. Hughes and the rest of the Crown Salts crew, from Le Bremner chef Danny Smiles to partner Tim Rozon, refer to Midlash as "Jmama."
Midlash got her start in Montreal's restaurant scene as a bartender on the Main and in Old Montreal. A stint at Suite 701 put her on the radar of a relatively new restaurant in the 'hood at the time: Garde Manger. Pretty soon Midlash went from customer to employee and, eventually, director of ops and troubleshooter of problems big and small. Now seven plus years in and Midlash is as much a fixture at Garde Manger and Le Bremner as anyone.
Here, Midlash talks with Eater Montreal about what it takes to run two restaurants, gender stereotypes and challenges and the only time she was ever rendered speechless by a celebrity customer.
Tell us about your bar and restaurant background and how you got your start at Garde Manger.
I was 16, 17 and all I wanted to do was be a bartender. I decided that when I could work in a bar that's what I would do. I worked on St-Laurent for a while and did the rounds of the club scene. Then I decided it was time for a new challenge, more than slinging vodka sodas.
I started at Suite 701 as a head bartender. I worked there for almost two years. I used to go to Garde Manger a lot for a bite and then go back to work at Suite. I became friends with the guys and told them I wanted to work in a restaurant. They were like "Cool, when can you start?" So I gave my two weeks. I started as bartender, stepped into an assistant manager role, then night manager ... there weren't many women doing that job at the time.
What was that like?
There were a lot of challenges. I had so many issues when I first started with clients. "Who is this little girl?" or "Let me speak to the boss." I got that a lot.
I was 26 at the time, this was about seven years ago. One day I got really upset and broke down because this guy was rude to me. Chuck took me aside and said, "You're the boss! Suck it up! We hired you to be the boss."
The day he told me that everything changed. It helped me grow a lot of confidence. I can do this job now with my eyes closed but at the beginning it was challenging. Sometimes clients yell in my face and now I deal with it totally differently.
What is your schedule like at Garde and Le Bremner?
I work one night at each and manage the wine program at both restaurants. I take care of all the day-to-day operations, help guide the direction of the restaurants, gauge the vibe, see what customers order, see if there are problems and personally attend to them. I basically try to take the pulse of both restaurants every day and manage the flow. I don't want to work five nights a week but I want my foot in there. I also start my level four sommelier courses in May.
So there is no typical day for you I gather.
There's a standard day but it deviates. At 8:30 or 9 o'clock in the morning I see what happened last night, what did we sell, why didn't we sell certain things and speak to the chefs about the service. Sometimes I'll get something like, "I think we need a plumber, something broke", or maybe there's banking or updating the wine list. I'm usually at it until 7:00 p.m. There's always something. Office jobs clock in and clock out but this isn't standard like that. I sit down with wine suppliers, set up tastings every two weeks with the staff, teach the staff, get them apprised about new wines. It's a lot of problem-solving. And once you tackle a problem, you're like, when's the next challenge? Once it's done, I'm like BRING IT.
What, in your experience, is the big difference between Garde Manger and Le Bremner?
Bremner is more low key, it's downstairs - both are hard to find but Bremner is harder, more of a hidden gem with more locals. There are so many regulars, it's like everyone knows each other. Both serve seasonal and local but Bremner is lighter, with more fish. Garde is more meat heavy in the winter. Garde Manger is a place where you sit down for dinner, it's dark and intimate and then it gets loud at 9:30 p.m. and people get up and dance. With Chuck's popularity we're blessed with a lot of tourists now at Garde and diverse clients and the staff really participates in the vibe. I've seen the entire evolution of the restaurant and we're so blessed. Sometimes I find myself saying stuff like, "You travelled from where to eat here? Brazil? Wow, that's amazing." The feeling at Garde Manger is always fresh.
How do you handle celebrity customers? Both restaurants get a fair share. Do you have any special protocols that kick in?
Most of the time I know in advance that they're coming. My number gets passed around and I have a heads up. We're so casual in how we treat them, the vibe is low key, we keep it cool. I think they feel at ease - I'm not going to pull out the red carpet, we're not going to turn the place upside down. At the end of the day, they just want to have a bite by themselves. They'll keep coming back because we respect their space. When you think about it, Chuck, Kyle [partner Kyle Marshall Nares], Tim, they have that same kind of mentality - everyone that walks in is the same. I want to make it the best night possible, no matter who you are.
[Photo: Randall Brodeur]
Ever get starstruck on the job?
Yes! (Laughing) With Freddy Krueger - or the actor who played him, Robert Englund. We get hockey players and other people in here all the time but when I was bartending there was this man who kept coming back - this is six years ago - and he was so familiar I couldn't place it. So Tim goes "Don't freak out, it's Freddy Krueger." I just froze. He asked me, "Is everything ok?" And I told him, "You destroyed my childhood!" Brad Pitt could walk in but he's not Freddy Krueger.
How do you handle difficult customers?
The more confidence you have the more they feel at ease. They can't see panic or fear. Last Friday everyone showed up early for second service at Garde Manger. That's where I tell myself, I'm going to make the time you're waiting the best.
Even a waitress who's like (shyly, with hesitation) "Hi my name is so and so", you're finished, you're toast. When you walk up with confidence and kindness they're putty in your hands.
Do you have a crazy or outrageous service story?
Not that long ago at Garde an awesome dinner service ended and everyone was chilling and having fun. Then a busboy said "There's a situation." I looked at the floor and there was water at my feet. There was a client in the washroom leaning on the pipes, totally intoxicated and he snapped it. There was water everywhere. The client got scared and ran out. It flooded the basement - this was after midnight - but the kitchen guys were still there luckily. Chuck had to swing by. I literally needed seven pairs of hands to mop it all up. But nobody left! It was so stressful but the clients weren't phased at all.
What is the most important quality that helps you do your job well?
You have to be passionate and you need to want to do your job. This is my career - that's how I approach it. I want to go far and learn as much as I can. You need to be motivated. Because it is long days but you can't hedge or count your hours. Garde Manger is my home. I'm in at 9:00 a.m. and out at 4:00 a.m. sometimes and it doesn't bother me at all. You need that drive because it can get really rough. If you're in a job for that many hours and don't have enthusiasm it's over.
We're blessed at Garde Manger because it's always busy. There's no quiet time really. I can't go on vacation when the restaurants are open. Two weeks in January when we close is my only time to chill out. I went to Costa Rica this year and even there the wheels were always turning. The other night I had a dream - there was a problem at Bremner that I solved and I woke up and told my boyfriend "Oh my God this just came to me in my dream, I have the solution!" He was like "Really?" You talk it, live it and dream it?"
Where do you like to eat and drink on your days off?
Everywhere. Last Saturday I had the day off. I popped into Bishop & Bagg to see an old bartender and I went to Sel Gras. I went to see David Chano at Anabel and went to Le Chien Fumant.
When Le Vin Papillon opened I went there three times a week. Or Stephen Leslie at Tavern. I like to support my friends. When a new restaurant opens I'll go check it out. I like to go out for dinner. It's important to not only support but to see what's going on in the city. For sheer amusement and to learn about different wine agencies, I'll go to Nora Gray and Ryan Gray will have me taste something I've never tasted before. I hate the word foodie but I love going out to other restaurants.
How do you approach the wine lists at both restaurants?
Bremner has a small list. Danny [chef Danny Smiles] experiments a lot so I like to experiment too. Not in a geeky way necessarily but with wines that create a conversation. I'm not big on natural wines. I try to keep it mainstream - natural doesn't always mean it's made well. You can have an amazing biodynamic wine that has some sulfites. Just because it's natural doesn't mean it's the best. It's hard to judge unless you taste a lot.
How do you approach wine service?
I like to ask a lot of questions. Just because you're having beef short ribs doesn't mean you go with a certain wine. The list at Bremner is four pages and at Garde Manger, 12 pages. There's a lot of choice there.
It's so fun to get a blank slate and a customer who's open-minded. And there are always tweaks to the menus. I never do a huge revamp but every week I'm adding new wines. I need to keep myself, my staff and the customers interested.
The excitement for the job is still there, obviously.
This might sound cheesy but I'm in love with Garde Manger. After eight years, I'm so proud. It's an awesome place to be. Bremner is my little baby but Garde Manger from day one has had this incomparable vibe. I have some waitresses that have been around for four years.
One thing we all need to remember is that the clients determine what we do. I really want them to have the best night ever. You have to paint their evening for them. Sometimes you take the menus away and say "Do you trust me?"