Mark De Cank and stepson Olivier de Montigny make no attempt to mask their aversion to contemporary restaurant trends. In de Montigny's words the industry is "a wheel that turns and turns." If the co-chefs at La Chronique feel any pressure to conform to the times, they aren't showing it.
De Montigny admits, half in jest, that he feels like "an imposter" with his tattoo-less torso covered in chef's whites. De Cank, for his part, is suspicious of the tendency to look elsewhere, be it Nordic Europe or the United States, for culinary cues and affirmation. And while the Belgian chef is not exactly enthralled with the current state of Montreal restaurants, he urges constancy and thinks "there are plenty of people in the city with talent." On the occasion of a momentous anniversary, both De Cank and de Montigny sat down to discuss how La Chronique has managed the tricky high wire act of refinement and relevance for so long.
La Chronique is 20 years old. It's an exceptional run.
De Montigny: Especially these days.
Is this particular occasion, 20 years, emotional? Or is it business as usual?
De Montigny: Well it evokes a certain sense of pride, since as you said to get through five years is good. But to do 10, 15, and now 20 is an important accomplishment for different reasons. For sure there is a great sense of pride in this, for having toughed it out all this time [laughing].
What plans do you have for the anniversary?
De Montigny: Since the clientele is very diverse, we will try out different events—spontaneous events which could be [snaps fingers] last minute impulses. Special menus for our clients who were with us all these years, at affordable prices.
“A lot of regular customers come to us nostalgic for older dishes.”
De Cank: Like for instance, every last Wednesday of the month, we hold an event called 'chef et sommelier', which we started 5 years ago. This year we will change it up and feature 10 'episodes' with recipes from the past 20 years.
De Cank: Retro recipes. And the prices will stay the same.
De Montigny: Five courses with wine for $99.
De Cank: A lot of regular customers come to us nostalgic for older dishes. Dishes we don't even think about anymore. So we had to look at menus that we had over the past 20 years.
De Montigny: We plan to revisit some of the classics but with updates. Cuisine evolves and you have to stay current. But without sacrificing who you are.
Cuisine evolves and clients evolve too. How has the scene here changed over the last two decades?
De Montigny: Clients come and go in waves. Sometimes you're the favourite and then it changes. But we do have clients who have supported us from the beginning, from ten or five years ago who have since become regulars, whom we recognize and have immense pleasure in serving. And certainly the neighbourhood has changed. There used to be a lot of offices, a lot of professionals.
“Sometimes you're the favourite and then it changes.”They seem to have moved now to Old Montreal or Griffintown. Five, six years ago it was Mile End that was in style. Now it’s Griffintown. It changes all the time. Our goal is the same no matter what. As the expression goes: happiness is in the plate [Le bonheur est dans l'assiette]. We prioritize what is in the plate. Which is important because people come to the restaurant for what? To eat [laughs].
De Montigny: Yes, but there are some who forget that! Often people tend to think we are a restaurant for special occasions but we're not more expensive than a lot of restaurants in the area. But people don't necessarily see La Chronique that way.
De Cank: The ambiance...
People maybe have false impressions.
De Montigny: Exactly. So we're trying to democratize things for our 20th anniversary. For example, we have a $20 lunch special until the end of March. And we're launching a series of mini-promotions—20% off here and there—to celebrate and thank our clients.
“We're pigeonholed as an expensive restaurant, which is not necessarily true.”
De Cank: So people remember us and keep us in mind. People have habits when it comes to restaurants. They go to the same places. For example, someone who lives in this area probably gets croissants at Guillaume. But maybe Hof Kelsten's croissants are better. But Guillaume is closer. We inculcate these habits. Maybe after a few years the person tries a croissant from Hof Kelsten and likes it. But he probably goes once and then returns to Guillaume out of habit. People are like that with restaurants too. They're anchored in their habits. We're pigeonholed as an expensive restaurant, which is not necessarily true. But people have their habits. They'll go five times to another restaurant before they come here. Then they eat at La Chronique and say, 'Why don't we come here more often? It's better.' But then they go back to the other restaurant.
De Montigny: Before OpenTable, and before everyone had a cell phone, we used to see a lot of 450 numbers in the reservation book. Now people from the South Shore and North Shore don't cross the bridges on the weekends. For different reasons. The Plateau has a bit of a bad perception now because of our friend, [borough mayor Luc] Ferrandez, whose priority is residents. Except he forgets how much merchants pay in taxes, which go directly in the borough's coffers. So we have to continue to do as we do, and do it well, because we love it. Otherwise we would do something else, you understand? It's our métier, after all.
What does it take to attain this kind of longevity in such a difficult industry then?
De Montigny: Patience and consistency. A certain work ethic. And passion. Because the restaurant business is a roller coaster. The pie needs to be shared more and more, since the population is not increasing. We won't sacrifice quality but as you know, the price of food goes up for everyone. We haven't raised our prices in the last five years because people have limits. It's critical to stay passionate, to love what you're doing and to reflect that in the plate.
“We haven't raised our prices in the last five years because people have limits.”
De Cank: It's management too.
De Montigny: A good restaurateur is a good manager. It's easy to buy, buy, buy but you have to sell it and turn over your inventory. But it's hard, because as we say, our first job is to cook. It's not HR. We have our problems and we carry our staff's problems too.
Which you're supposed to leave at the door.
De Cank: That's how it's supposed to be.
Neither of you seems to court a lot of publicity for the restaurant. Is that accurate and, if so, is it deliberate?
De Montigny: We do zero of that. We never did any kind of publicity in 20 years. We'd rather put our money in the plate. We've always operated by word of mouth. There are plenty of restaurants that hire publicists that don't last five years.
“There are plenty of restaurants that hire publicists that don't last five years.”
De Cank: We're cooks. We've been here 20 years and gone through ups and downs. We have enough experience to know not to panic. If we need to make adjustments here and there, we will. A lot of newcomers enter the scene without any experience and they go out [snaps fingers], out [snaps fingers], out [snaps fingers]. [Long pause] But we're still here.
De Montigny: It's not my wish to be on television or to open 25 restaurants. Some can do it, they can do it because they surround themselves with great people. There's a lot of money but it's investors that are behind it and not everyone knows who's behind the scenes. The beauty of this thing that Marc and I have is that, one day, if we don't feel like opening, we just don't put the key in the door. We have no one to answer to, we close one day if we don't feel like it, or we close on Easter Monday to have a family dinner.
“We are chefs, not made to be on television. But to be in the kitchen.”It's a family business. When we're open, one of us is always here. We are at the stoves. Well, not always behind the stoves because we don't want to make believe that it is always the chefs that are cooking, but we are involved. When we are open, we are involved. We know what is going on, we know what is happening, what's in the plates and in the fridge. We are chefs, not made to be on television. But to be in the kitchen.