“No modifications” — a phrase any regular restaurant-goer will encounter every now and then. The logic behind it is fair — a restaurant wants to be consistent, so if you don’t like something on a plate, don’t force chefs to garble their recipe for the sake of your tastebuds.
But head out to Hudson — almost an hour west of downtown — and you’ll find one chef, Scott Geiring, who relishes the modication, be it for allergies, or just particular tastes.
“I’ve got people who’ve come in for 15 years, and who have never held a menu. They come in and say ‘I feel like fish today, or tartare’, or ‘I have no allergies;, I want four courses, go for it.’”
Geiring and his chefs then proceed to make something up on the spot. His restaurant, Carambola, has been doing this throughout its decade and a half in business. He co-owns the 40-seat BYOB with his wife, and over a decade and a half in business he’s built it into a local fixture, albeit one that draws some customers from Montreal and Ottawa (another hour and 15 minutes down the highway).
Partly due to the flexible menu, Carambola doesn’t fit into one culinary box (“French”, “Italian”, etc.) — ten years ago, it would have been called “fusion”, says Geiring. Now, “bistro” feels like the best descriptor: Geiring describes items like Argentinian wild shrimp, a salmon tartare with avocado, and a risotto, though he has branched out and featured dishes with alligator or rattlesnake.
Geiring says the whole “making dishes up on the spot” aspect of Carambola was nerve-wracking in the beginning (and still is for new chefs at the restaurant) — but it makes for an enjoyable job.
“At first it’s definitely intimidating, because you’re putting yourself out there on the plate for people...[now] we get excited when we see people who allow us the opportunity to create for them.”
“A big part of cooking is the art factor and I found that customers trust in us to create dishes. It allows us to not become stagnant; stagnancy can become repetitive, making the same menu all the time.”
That said, Geiring admits that the relatively small size of his restaurant is what allows him to shuffle the menu so freely: with more seats, or a more particular fine-dining approach, it would be unreasonable. It’s not without added stress, though: according to Geiring, getting chefs to the point where they can comfortably adjust and create dishes on the fly is laborious.
“It’s absolutely a worry for consistency…in between head chefs I can go up to six months without a day off because I have to train them up to that point.”
But on the flipside, it pays off for Geiring’s chefs — he’s had kitchen staff go on to work at Le Club Chasse et Peche, Garde Manger, and for Antonio Park.
“It’s a small restaurant; it allows them to have responsibilities. In a large restaurant it’s like ‘this is your section and it’s your section for two or three years.’”
But for the most part, it works, as evidenced by Carambola’s longevity in Hudson — but Geiring says it helps that customers who are most interested in going off-menu are more adventurous.
“For the most part people who come in and ask us to create are relatively open-minded.”
Despite the unusual approach, and Carambola’s relative success, Geiring is modest about the whole operation — instead, preferring to deflect credit to his staff.
“The ambiance is humble, but we’ve got some talented people.”
And he wants that crew to stick around.
“I’ve had staff who have been with me for 13 years, ten years. There’s not much turnover. Knock on wood they stick around too.”