“To really get to know someone, you have to share a meal with them,” says Maria-José de Frias, the chef-owner of pan-African, sub-Saharan bistro Le Virunga, situated a stone’s throw from Parc Lafontaine. De Frias’s journey from the Congo to Montreal and the story of how she made her life here is featured in the fall edition of the Phi Centre’s Soundbites, a multisensory experience that layers music, a three-course meal, and a French-language narration of a restaurateur’s life story.
Soundbites was born in the first wave of the COVID-19 lockdown as a way for the Old Montreal museum to bring culture to Montrealers stuck at home. “With the gallery closed, we thought: What do people need? Food. It’s something we can experience together; it’s a bridge,” says Marie-France Barbier, a content producer at the Phi Centre. “Every chef is an artist, and we wanted to immerse the public in the diversity of Montreal cuisine. We started from the premise that everyone has a story; through that we would be able to reveal the people behind the food.”
Two months after the start of the March lockdown, the Phi Centre had signed chef and local media personality Danny St-Pierre for Soundbites, which Barbier says was itself conceived as a three-course meal: the story, the music, the food. St-Pierre’s introspective, high-energy audio romp recounts growing up in Laval in a food-obsessed family, turning his Sherbrooke restaurant Auguste into a runaway success, his road to sobriety, and how he is defining his voice in the kitchen. Accompanying the podcast was some cold-smoked trout with bagel dust, thick ribs with pickles, a Danny-style smoked meat pizza, and a pudding chomeur, touching on St-Pierre’s family background and his love for Mile End’s culinary history.
The recent round of dining room closures has led the Phi Centre to revisit Soundbites, known in French as La fourchette et le micro (The fork and the microphone). Until the end of January, St-Pierre will be joined by Le Virunga’s de Frias and Akim Acacia of the Caribbean comptoir Pikliz. Diners have the option of ordering meals with or without the audio experience — perfect for Zoom dinners or gifting through the holiday season.
Akim’s story is one of adaptability, determination, and resilience. When he was seven-years-old, his family left Haiti and arrived in the far (white) suburbs of Montreal, just outside of Deux Montagnes, where they were the only Black family. When his parents divorced seven years later, Akim returned to Haiti but finally made his way back to Montreal at 17. He resolved to have a few years as a carefree teenager, but life served up unexpected challenges from his family, a 10-year stint at a Rogers call centre, and a slew of side hustles. Akim’s relationship with his brother Abdel (now his business partner and chef at Pikliz) plays a big role in the story, as does the the music always playing at the comptoir: local artists Rara Soley, Kelly Krown (Ft. Jet Blvck), Benny Adam and Täbï Yösha.
Akim’s love of Montreal shines in his story. “I’m a first-generation Québécois, the son of Haitian immigrants,” he recounts. “But I know what makes Montreal so special: the diversity of people, culture, and food.” When he was growing up, Akim would eat jerk at one friend’s house, couscous at another’s, and always sought out his favourite goat roti on Victoria in Côte des Neiges. He knows that culinary diversity appeals to Montrealers as a core value: More than 85 percent of his clients are white, he says.
This commitment to culinary diversity is baked into the cuisine at Pikliz, too. “Haitian food has all the influences of French, Spanish, and West African traditions,” Akim says. “We put a lot of effort on being a Caribbean comptoir, with fresh food made from scratch. We want to break with the notion that the food is only suitable for a snack bar.” The Pikliz Soundbites menu starts with a Haitian savoury feuilleté; then a choice of pulled cod with onion and tomato or griot, marinated and fried pork cubes; and finishes off with side dishes and a daily dessert.
The Phi Centre connected with Akim through Vincent Toi, an award-winning Montreal filmmaker born in Mauritius. The lead creator and art director of Soundbites, Toi was a customer at Pikliz and wanted to share his love for the restaurant, its food, and Akim. Along with storytelling coach Leigh Kinch-Pedrosa, Toi and Barbier embarked on a months-long series of discussions with the restaurateurs to unpack their personal histories, culminating in compelling recordings which could easily stand alone as podcasts among the likes of This American Life and The Moth. But Barbier says the intention was to create an immersive experience that would also support local Montreal chefs, musicians, and artists with a 360 lens. The choice of two Black-owned businesses was intentional, risen from the summer’s focus on Black Lives Matters in the US, Montreal, and around the world.
“When we immigrate, we choose a country. And just like in a family, not everyone is perfect — and no one place is perfect,” says Le Virunga’s de Frias. “Our business would not survive without the openness that I have experienced in Montreal.” De Frias’s poignant story follows her journey from an idyllic extended family life in Congo to Belgium, where she found herself stranded with two young children during the civil war in her home country. Finally finding acceptance in Montreal after 16 years in Europe, de Frias’s story starts with the sound of the pounding of manioc leaves to create pondu, a Congolese national dish.
Immigrating with three children — her middle child, Zoya, is now her business partner — de Frias and her family have planted their Portuguese and Congolese roots deeply into Québéc society. The duo’s history, a tale of loss and discovery, is interspersed with music specially created for the recording by a friend, Montreal-based, Kinshasa-born artist Moridja Kitenge-Banza, providing a lilt to this tale of transformation.
De Frias’ Soundbites menu embraces pan-African ingredients and classic cooking techniques learned while studying at Collège Lasalle, and showcases her love for Montreal and commitment to culinary innovation. De Frias incorporates locally-produced organic vegetables, meats, and fruit with traditional African ingredients: pondu with peanuts; ginger-infused ratatouille with Fraisdel farms’ tomatoes on Ivoirian attiéké, a cloudlike manioc couscous; 20-hour braised beef shin on the bone (including beef marrow) from St-Chrysostom; and a deconstructed apple and mango crumble with coconut, described by de Frias as “just like me, where Québéc meets the Congo.”