When the restaurant Minh Phat led as chef closed its doors after seven years, he grappled with the loss by channelling his attention to a new project. The result of that coping strategy has now taken shape as Mui Mui, meaning “little sister” in Cantonese, a restaurant that pays homage to the spot that gave him a shot: Orange Rouge.
“I wanted to build a little sister for Orange Rouge because that restaurant is part of me; it gave me my first opportunity and I feel that it is important to highlight that,” Phat says.
Until COVID-19 hit, things were going well at Orange Rouge, where Phat began as a sous-chef and ascended the ranks to chef at just 24 years old. But once the Chinatown restaurant had to flip to takeout in the spring, things veered off course; the team decided to cut their losses before it was too late. Orange Rouge announced its closure on June 25.
“But I didn’t want COVID to kill my passion and desire to cook, so I looked for another place for about two or three months, and then someone sent me the post about Jiep Jiep on Instagram,” Phat says.
This is when Phat’s timeline intersects with Shammy Chan’s, the celebrated, self-taught chef of Mile Ex favourite Jiep Jiep. Chan had suffered almost-terminal brain damage, resulting from injuries sustained from a fall in January while in Vietnam. She was in a coma for weeks before going to Hong Kong, where her sister lives, to undergo rehabilitation treatment. Jiep Jiep on Jean-Talon has sat vacant ever since.
On August 12, Chan posted on Instagram that she was looking for someone to sublet her space, so she could take the time she needed to heal. “Please help me, so I don’t lose this restaurant, it’s my baby,” she wrote.
The space is on that liminal stretch between Villeray, Park Ex, and Little Italy, and Phat has decided to take it on for a one-and-a-half-year sublease. “We are thinking about Mui Mui as a pop-up, since we aren’t sure what will happen after that. All I know is that as much as I am helping her, she’s also helping me, because I don’t have to put this huge cash down to build a restaurant from A to Z.”
To start, Mui Mui will boast a 12-item takeout menu, featuring dishes like a beef tataki salad imported from Orange Rouge but slightly refreshed with charred pepper vinaigrette and parmesan crackers. Others, like the barbecue pork spare ribs doused in a gochujang, soy glaze sauce, will remain unchanged: “If the recipe works, why would I change it?” he says.
Phat was born in Montreal to Vietnamese immigrants of Chinese descent. His menu reflects these disparate inspirations — and others still. “I don’t stick to one thing, and I don’t feel like I can call my food Chinese or Vietnamese or French because I’m not really trying to make authentic food, and to be honest, I’m not even sure what that would look like. I just make food that I want to eat. I guess it sounds like it could turn out weird, but in the end it’s great,” he laughs.
After working in Chinatown for seven years (and before that with stints at Club Chasse et Pêche and Le Filet, in Old Montreal and the Plateau, respectively), Phat is glad to be working further north on the island, closer to where he grew up, and where many of his friends — some now his business partners — live. “Without them, I’d be in a very dark place,” Phat says.
When Orange Rouge shuttered, Phat approached his friends, Alexandre Desrosier, Millie Maude Desgranges, and Thierry Justin about doing something together. “They aren’t restaurateurs or anything. One is an engineer, and the other two are accountants, but they didn’t hesitate, even when I explained how risky an investment it would be.” For Phat and Desrosiers, the idea of opening something together dates back to their childhood. “Now, at 31 years old, that childhood dream is actually becoming something. It’s crazy,” he says.
As Phat navigates the exigent demands of opening a restaurant for the first time amid a pandemic, he says having a pair of accountants and an engineer on board certainly helps. “I had no idea how complicated this was all going to be.” His gratitude extends even farther back, to his former partners at Orange Rouge: Antoine Lapointe, Patrick Dumont, and Claudia Barilla.
“They taught me how to be a chef, but also how to be a better person,” Phat says. “At the beginning at Orange Rouge, when I was stressed and tired, I sometimes became a person I didn’t want to be. But I know better now, and I owe them a lot. I was still a teenager in some ways when they took a chance on me.”
Mui Mui is a nod to Phat’s time at Orange Rouge in more than just its name and menu. Much of the Chinatown restaurant’s staff will also be reprised. “Actually, the entire team is made up of people I worked with from Orange Rouge,” Phat shares. And, if all goes according to plan (and with restrictions on nonessential services currently in place across the province, he isn’t sure), they’ll all be back at it by the end of the month.
“It might not be the best time to do this, but is there ever a good time?” Phat asks. “At least this way, in 10 years, I’ll be able to say, ‘I fucking opened a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic.’ I think I’ll be proud of that.”
Mui Mui will soon be open for takeout at 149 Rue Jean-Talon West.