Running a restaurant in Montreal over the last 16 months was, by many accounts, a gruelling exercise. Opening one was all the more arduous. But having to do both of these for the very first time was exceedingly more difficult than chef Helena Han Lin, the owner of young Pointe-St-Charles restaurant La Canting, says she could have ever imagined.
Lin and her then-business partner Benjamin Serapins were forced to open La Canting last November, offering takeout only, given the ongoing public health regulations at the time. She had devised a menu that encapsulated the lattice of flavours that defined her youth, spent in Taiwan and Shanghai, and came armed with years of experience at some of the city’s most reputed spots, places like fine dining bigwig Bouillon Bilk and incontestably cool Elena. But even with this foundation, a solid grasp on her vision, and some lessons gleaned from an eCornell course on how to open a restaurant, she says she was missing something crucial that could have made it markedly easier: a mentor.
“Mentorship is generally lacking in the industry, and it’s something I really, really believe in,” Lin says. “I wish that I had a mentor and I’ve spoken to a lot of other women in the industry who agree with me and think, ‘If only a restaurateur took more interest in me when I was just starting out. Maybe I would have been better off when I started my own business, you know?’”
Having just recently felt that absence herself, Lin has decided she wants to become that figure for others considering opening their own restaurant. Early next year, she plans to open Jus, on Saint-Denis, an incubator of sorts where chefs can test their ideas for six months before taking a more permanent plunge.
“I would be there to teach them the ins and outs of owning and operating a restaurant. How to do your payroll, how to manage staff, how to do the pricing, and everything in-between,” Lin says, adding that if a given pop-up is a success, she hopes to be able to invest in them via a new hospitality group that she is forming. “And if not, they learned a valuable lesson on how to operate a restaurant and then they can always try again later.”
Over the past nine months, Lin says she’s so far stemmed the economic maelstrom brought on by the coronavirus, navigated a split with her business partner, and learned that she wants to be the kind of owner who puts the needs of her staff before the immediate success of her business — which is not the status quo, she notes.
“If you had asked me a year ago, why I was opening a restaurant, it definitely would have been the typical ego answer: I want to do my own thing. I’m a little tired of working for other people, that kind of thing,” Lin says. But now that’s changed. Lin has focused her efforts on her employees, offering healthcare as of next month, paid leave and vacation, and opportunities for growth within her establishment — and she wants to ensure the next crop of fledgling business owners starts thinking of these things early on, too.
Like many other projects borne of the pandemic, Jus is decidedly hybrid. But rather than a hyphenated café counter and grocery store, it is a wine and sake studio run by Asma Ben Tanfous, of online shop Déserteur, that will join the forthcoming Plateau restaurant. Ben Tanfous is considering using the space as a brick-and-mortar, where she can host wine tastings, sake workshops, and arrange pick-ups for her mixed cases.
An exact timeline for the restaurant pop-ups set to takeover Jus is still in the works, but Lin says she’s already talking to potential participants, including Marc Swiednicki, who appeared on the Food Network’s Wall of Chefs; Jongwook Lee, who currently works at Quartier des Spectacles wine bar Cadet and has an idea for Korean-style koji-marinated tonkatsu; and the mother-daughter team behind self-proclaimed “Vietnamese street food dealer” and noodle-soup purveyor Pasthyme.
At the moment, Michelle Vo and her mother, Trần Thị Cẩm Vân, run the Instagram business on a part-time basis, dishing out one option per week — always a large bowl of richly flavoured noodle soup — that sells out nearly as fast as one can slurp it. On offer this week is bún bò Huế, a spicy beef noodle soup made fragrant with lemongrass and fermented shrimp paste and dressed up with beef shin and pork hock. The soup hails from central Vietnam, where Vo’s father is from, but her mom, from the country’s southern stretch, makes it much better, Vo says, laughing. (Her father doesn’t cook, she clarifies.)
With Jus, Pasthyme’s fans wouldn’t have to wait until Sunday for a taste of what Vo calls her “real, raw, uncensored flavours,” nor will they be resigned to the one dish on offer — though, for regulars, that format has become a large part of the fun. The menu would still need to be short, though, featuring two to three soups, a few appetizers, and her raved-over chilli crisp. Vo says: “It’s not like, ‘Hey, make me an avocado toast, and it’s done. No, it takes time to make a soup. Like, it takes several days.”
Currently managing a dental clinic full-time, Vo says her end goal is to someday own a restaurant — an idea buoyed by the success of the Instagram business she started in the early days of the pandemic. “It’s been growing exponentially ever since,” she says. “But I’ll be honest with you. A lot of people in the restaurant industry right now are not encouraging me to go in that field, mainly because the pandemic happened.” A model like Jus’ would offer her the opportunity to test the waters under less pressure.
“I never thought that I’d be giving the average Montrealer the opportunity to explore Vietnamese dishes that they’ve never seen before,” Vo says. “Don’t get me wrong: pho and banh mi are by all means wonderful dishes, but I think there are other things that we can be showing.”
With a pop-up at Jus, Vo and her mom could do so on a more steady cadence, referring to Lin for guidance and supporting her in the launch of this unconventional second venture. “We’re always encouraging each other a hundred percent because, look, we’re both Asian women, and we’re both trying to have a positive impact on this industry —maybe even in the city,” she says.
Jus is slated to open on Saint-Denis Street in early 2022.
Update: July 29, 2021, 5:00 p.m.: This post has been updated to clarify that Asma Ben Tanfous’s plans for the space are still tentative.