The proverbial question for pop-up restaurants that achieve underground success: to go brick-and-mortar or not? For Montreal, that poster child has been Tripes & Caviar, the ephemeral, cult-like food club that made the shift to permanency in Verdun in June 2013.
In Jean-Michel Leblond (John Mike), the trafficker of off-cuts and cocktails still has its foundational, driving force at the helm. The rigmarole of managing a business, however, has not been without challenges as Leblond and company seek to capture — and adapt — pop-up lightning in a bottle. Eater Montreal recently sat down with the Tripes & Caviar founder and maître d' Mélanie Aumais to discuss the restaurant's first anniversary and a host of other topics.
Talk to me about the genesis of Tripes & Caviar.
John Mike: Tripes & Caviar started about three and a half years ago in Montreal. I'm originally from Quebec City. I moved here to Montreal after having travelled all over the world. I had a lot of different experiences in bartending and food in general. My main background is in mixology and bartending. I did this for about seven years; I travelled around a lot to create cocktail menus in places like Turkey and Italy. And so when I came back I wanted to focus on cooking. That was my passion back then because the nightlife lifestyle was going to kill me. [Laughing] I was going to die.
Were you in resort areas in Turkey and Italy?
Oh yeah, in southwestern Turkey, in Alaçatı. That was crazy. In front of the Greek islands. Always a bit dangerous. I came back and I actually decided to work around a bit. So my first job was at Limón on Notre-Dame. I worked there for about six months and then I freaked out. I wanted to go back to the bar world. I was like fuck, this is too hard, this is crazy, the salary is shit.
You were in the kitchen.
John: Oh yeah. So I went back and worked at La Distillerie for a year, a year and a half. And I felt like I had sold my soul to the devil, you know. Fuck it. So I joined ITHQ and I did this year and a half program. I went to La Fabrique, which is just next door to the school and worked there a lot. I did both, working at the restaurant full time and going to school. Then my second semester of three I started Tripes & Caviar.
The idea behind it was a reaction to mainstream food culture. I'm an underdog. I love underground shit in general and I really thrive on making things differently. The other stuff really bores me. Being different is what Tripes & Caviar is all about. So I was trying to figure out something different and there was this food club in New York called The Gastronauts that I was following for a while. I thought it was such a cool thing. It's such a cool thing to be able to gather a lot of people together around a table and exchange ideas, especially around a certain culture or style of food. And that's where the idea of offal came. And so the first Tripes & Caviar event was on December 8 in my apartment with all my friends from school. I cooked this pig - I had no idea what was going on, I had never done this before. I asked my chef how to do it and I was like, fuck. So basically we ate at like 2 in the morning. We were fucking wasted. So we just ate with our hands. We took off our shirts. The girls were in their bras. And I was like, this is picture perfect.
I'm sure I've seen some photos of you with your shirt off on social media.
Melanie: [Laughing] It happens a lot.
John: So yeah, it started on that night. The next morning I woke up with a huge hangover and I thought, this needs to be [disseminated]. This needs to happen more often with a lot more people. So I decided to do a second event and a third … and as time went by everybody was talking about it. My first event, we were twelve people in a small café and I was like, fuck, I'm in the shit! We did a three-course meal and people were taking pictures with their phones and not even listening to me when I was presenting the food. So I said, you know what guys, give me all your phones, give me all your watches and this is it. You've got to listen to me because we got something going on here, bigger than what we think and let's just have fun. The "anti-foodie club" branding came about as a result of that first event. Honestly, all of a sudden, people were very focussed on talking, listening, figuring out what was in the plates.
Being in the moment, in other words, instead of trying to preserve it for Instagram.
John: Of course. And so we decided to control the branding 100%. We hired professional photographers and filmmakers for each event. We knew that was one of the worst business plans to not let people take pictures with their phones. The love was going to spread out but at a very small scale. So we decided to control it and spread it out our way. It still created this buzz but [in a more limited way], through our platform. Three and half years later we're here and we controlled it from the beginning. That's one of my proudest [accomplishments], to say that Tripes & Caviar is how we always wanted it to be.
When people ask me to describe Tripes & Caviar, I'm never sure what to say. You've made a concerted effort to distinguish yourself from other restaurants. Is that fair?
John: Well we never wanted a restaurant. It was the worst-case scenario. Even to this day I'm wondering why the fuck I did it. I understood the hours. I grew up in the restaurant business and I knew what it was all about. So I was like, never. Never. Forget about it. There's not enough money in it. So that's why I started Tripes & Caviar - to do the [food club] events. I understood that and I was good at it. Creating a vibe and a moment. We love it and we're super good at it. That's exactly what we're trying to do now, here in the restaurant. Yeah, it's a restaurant - we have opening hours and closing hours but at the same time, the way that we do it, the way we perform in front of the clients - it's a performance, it's actually like a show. You come here and we really take possession of your life for two, three hours. The menu's designed that way, the music's different, the vibe is different. Of course, it's different from other restaurants but at the same time it's more than that. So that's why it's hard to explain how it is if you've never been. You can only know how it is if you've been here for a night. You'll get it pretty fast. And then you actually don't want to talk about it because "that was pretty damn cool, let's keep it to ourselves."
That makes us proud, a year later, to be able to say that. We had a slow rise, we never had a big grand opening or a big boom like if we were on a power spot like Mont-Royal or in Mile End or whatever. But at the same time, that's cool. That's super cool because we were not ready for that at the beginning, that's for sure. But we're ready for that now and things are finally starting to come into place at the right moment. It was a rough time for the last year and now we're starting to get the exposure and the momentum.
Have you been able to bottle the excitement of the pop-up and unleash it here in the restaurant to your satisfaction?
John: Of course, of course. We're into details here. So the music, the way the menu's designed - we also have a five-course tasting menu with cocktail pairings. We're recreating the food club vibe. So if you want it, you can have that. We do a lot of groups here - a LOT of groups, so that helps create the ambiance. And because we do so many groups we created this feast option with a whole suckling pig, the way Tripes & Caviar started. We cook it in the back and serve it in front of you with sparklers. People get up and feed each other, feed their friends and it becomes this amazing vibe, with the loud music, the candlelit ambiance. It's pretty damn cool.
We also strongly propose that people put away their phones and watches and just enjoy, you know? Small details like that have been recreated [from the food club].
Melanie, as the person on the floor how do you handle asking customers to set aside their mobile devices?
Melanie: It's not so difficult. People understand. When you explain [the philosophy] behind it, that we want them to focus on the food and on each other, they're super willing. Not having your phone for an hour, personally I find it terrible sometimes, but it hasn't killed anyone yet.
[Photo: Randall Brodeur]
John: It's the way we talk to people too. It's fine to take a few pictures for the first few dishes but then we'll strongly suggest - we're actually going to take it away. There's a way we sell things here. We don't propose. We dictate. So we don't propose that you have a charcuterie plate to start. It's more like "you're having the charcuterie, thanks." When we do events people know the menu and location 24 hours in advance but they have no say. We decide everything. So the way we try to recreate that vibe in the restaurant is to propose certain things in a certain way. Of course there's a menu but Melanie or the other servers will be like "Well you're having the salmon head and then you're having the porchetta." People are like "Really? Okay. Alright." People either like it or they hate it but that's the way we do things. I don't want to have this "it's our way or the highway" vibe but you come here to have this kind of experience and if you can have this here, tant mieux.
Melanie: When people come here they don't know what to expect but at the same time they come to our home - we try to make them feel at home. We make everyone feel like they're family. We party all the time with our customers. It's really a family vibe and you can feel it right away when you come in.
Walk me through some of the ups and downs that you've experienced over the past year.
John: First of all, the day we opened the restaurant I knew it was going to kill the food club and that's exactly what happened. It killed the food club for a good six months because I was so, so overwhelmed with the workload. Which is totally normal. I had to stay focussed with the restaurant so it wouldn't blow up in my face and forget the ego trip of wanting to keep the food club alive at the same time. So to me it was sad - people were sending us emails from New York, Toronto, San Francisco asking us when we were doing another food club event. They were like, hey we're coming in [to Montreal], are you doing an event? It broke my heart, you know? People were hearing about it from coast to coast, in the States and I felt like we're getting bigger [with the restaurant] but at the same time we're killing our creativity. The whole vibe of Tripes & Caviar, as it originally was. That was a hard time for me for a while. We finally did a few events and it calmed me down. Like for our first anniversary we created this event here. It was amazing. I was on a heavy trip but the next day I woke up and it's like "the show must go on." So it's over and over. It's cool. If we can force ourselves to do the events and keep at it, my head and heart will be happy and we can recreate that vibe. It's hard to have this team in the front of the house and the back of the house and run a restaurant. Montreal is so competitive and so crazy that you have to stay on top of your game all the time. If you start to be comfortable for one night you're done. That's my feeling. You have to strive to do things that people are not doing. That's Tripes & Caviar.
Plus before opening the restaurant we were looking for a bigger kitchen because we were starting to get super busy with corporate catering for events with 150 to 200 people. We started doing 'emotional design.' So instead of choosing package A, B or C we wanted to sit down with clients and choose something original and tailored. That became popular - like the food club - so now we're busy with clients like Les Ballets Jazz and Musée des beaux-arts. We do a lot of shows for them. So that's why we needed the bigger kitchen. Then we found it but it was like, what are we going to do with the front of the house? Fuck, let's do a restaurant. Worst idea in the world. But at the same time, the best idea in the world. The restaurant has pushed Tripes & Caviar to a new level. We're shooting for the stars. And our stars, right now, are developing the food club in New York, San Francisco within the next five years. But in order to do that we needed to have the street cred of having a restaurant and having an environment for us to focus, evolve and create dishes. Like right now, we're creating dishes every day. It's all going a lot faster then when we had the food club. Now my head's there, it's in the game.
How often do you change the menu at the restaurant?
John: I feel like chefs are a bit too stressed about changing menus. We change it often but not as much as we used to. We'll change an item or two and every three or four weeks we'll change the whole thing. And keep some bestsellers. But we're not changing with the seasons or anything. I just try some stuff - we'll have a special and if it sells well, it goes on the menu the next day, for sure. I thrive on changing the way people see certain ingredients. For example, our salmon head has been a staple since we started Tripes & Caviar. We just changed it recently. It's still a salmon head but it's not hot-smoked and confited in maple syrup with horseradish crème fraiche anymore. Now it's Thai-style, summer-style, we want people to drink a lot of beer and have their mouths on fire. It's green curry, coconut milk, chiles. So people come here and have their salmon head but it's different.
It's almost summer here so we're working with some great producers. All our beef and pork is coming from Marieville. We work with 100% Wagyu and Berkshire pigs. That's what we do. We're working with the Cadillac of proteins. And a lot of offal, of course.
[Photo: Tripes & Caviar]
What about the cocktail side of the equation?
John: I'll let Mel handle that. She's the head mixologist.
Melanie: Because they're doing such crazy food I can't just do gin and tonics. It's so boring. That's not what we've been doing in the past. So I just try to go crazy with my drinks. I try to focus on using ingredients that they're using in the kitchen. We work closely together and do a lot of pairings. I have a short wine list - five red, five white, a [sparkling]. That's it. A few beers as well. But we really want to push the drinks because that's where we are. People need to start ordering drinks with their food. It's the most logical thing for me. You can get the closest pairing -
In terms of matching flavour profiles?
Melanie: Of course! Wine is amazing but the closest pairing [possibilities] are with cocktails.
John: I had my mind blown a few years ago. We went to [former Montreal and Au Pied de Cochon chef Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly's] Fedora in New York. It was the first time I saw so many cocktails on the table. The customers were drinking cocktails and eating a lot of food. I was like, what don't we get [in Montreal]? That opened my mind. That triggered Tripes & Caviar's cocktail culture. It was because of that night. I still think about it. At the time I thought, there's no way Montreal can't have this [pairing] of cocktails and food. What Mel's saying about the pairing is true. We're not wine enthusiasts. We're cocktail enthusiasts. We do cocktails in life. We order very cool, funky wines, private imports, but at the same time if you want to expose yourself to the Tripes & Caviar experience, we'll make you a mean cocktail to go with that dish.
What approach do you take when you devise the cocktail list? Do you look to reinvent classics or come up with new stuff?
Melanie: I think both. When I was at the ITHQ I was in the bar program and it was terrible. We were learning these really old drinks and I thought, what's the point? Nobody's going to order that. But now that I'm creating cocktails all the time I understand why we learned that. And taking all that stuff we learned at first - I read so many books and watch cocktail videos all the time - and coming up with new stuff, while remembering the basics of bartending.
John: The idea of a cocktail program in a restaurant and a bar is totally different. What we need to understand is that it's harder than we think to create a cocktail program in a restaurant. We're looking at pairing cocktails with food. We're looking at people who are eating for a few hours. We're going to change the way we approach the cocktails. It needs be less strong, with more bitters, at first. We use most of our fruit and veg peels to make infusions and syrups to put in the cocktails and create pairings. It has to be a slow build. You don't want to kill people. We won't serve a Manhattan on the third service. That's not necessarily the best way to pair cocktails with food. People are going to drink four to five cocktails on the pairing list. You don't want people to roll down the window and [mimics retching]. You want people to still drink and wake up the next morning feeling like they had a great experience.
You're one year in now. What's in store over the next year and beyond?
John: Well my first thought was I hope we make it, I hope we make it to one year. And if we make it, I promised myself to bounce back and do a lot more events. I owe it to the food club. The corporate catering is so big that we need to expand. In the fall we're going to change the schedule - we're going to open for lunch. There's going to be a program for the restaurant, for the food club and for the catering. So we're going to expand and triple in size and employees. You either do it or you don't. And you can't do it with a small staff and kill your employees. So we want to bounce back on the food club scene here in Montreal before we take it down south to Boston, New York and to Toronto. The idea is honestly to take it coast to coast within the next five years. It's doable. With a concept like this and a professional staff like we have, the sky's the limit.
I get the sense that while you enjoy the restaurant your heart is in the food club.
John: [Laughing] You're right.