One of Montreal’s top chefs, Derek Dammann, will be opening a new restaurant on the Plateau Mont-Royal in mid-September. To be called “Maison Publique,” an OLF politically correct play on the English term “public house” (informally known as a pub), Dammann’s 40-seat establishment will no doubt earn accolades for its Brit-centric gastropub menu. And yet the lion’s share of the buzz will probably come from the name of Dammann’s partner in the endeavour: Jamie Oliver.
“For years, Jamie and I have been talking about collaborating on a low-key, welcoming, neighbourhood place,” says Dammann. “I thought Canada would be ideal for him because it’s more off-the-beaten path than countries like the U.S. or Australia. After two years of talks, it’s becoming a reality.”
A mega-celebrity famous on both his native British and the international food scene, Oliver is not only a chef, cookery show host and cookbook author, but an activist who has championed causes including improving school lunches, teaching people how to cook, and with his Jamie Oliver Foundation, helping underprivileged and troubled youngsters find employment through cooking. He also has several restaurants on the go in the U.K. including Jamie’s Italian, Union Jacks, Barbecoa, and Fifteen.
Fifteen counts three outlets, and the original location in London is where Oliver and Dammann first met 12 years ago. Within four months of Dammann’s arrival, Dammann, a Victoria native, became the sous-chef at Fifteen, and six months later, when Oliver took a step back, Dammann was named chef de cuisine, a position he held for two more years before his work visa expired. “It was a fantastic experience,” says Dammann. “The style was rustic Italian done with the best products. There were good kids working there. They called me The Canadian.”
Dammann and Oliver have been friends ever since. While interviewing Oliver in 2008 in Toronto, I asked him whether he had ever been to Montreal. He answered, “No, but I have my good mate Derek there, so I really should come one day.” That day will come this fall, when Oliver is booked to visit his and Dammann’s new restaurant, which will be at 4720 Marquette, on the corner of Gilford St., in the space formerly occupied by the popular bring-your-own wine restaurant Yoyo.
Unlike projects like the one in which Gordon Ramsay was hired to revive and rebrand Laurier BBQ last summer, or the one in which French-born New York chef Daniel Boulud accepted a contract to open a restaurant at the Ritz in Montreal, Oliver is an investor – the only one besides Dammann – at Maison Publique. The partnership with Dammann will be Oliver’s first restaurant investment in North America. Yet unlike the Ramsay arrangement or the swish new Boulud project, Maison Publique is no star-chef show. The food, decor and concept are all Dammann’s.
“I will be developing the menu and cooking,” says Dammann. “I have full control of the food, but we will be collaborating on ideas. We work well together and see things the same way. Jamie said, ‘if I can help you, I’d be more than happy to.’ He trusts me. This is really about two friends working together. We didn’t want a flashy place. Just an honest locale. It’s not going to be branded a ‘Jamie Oliver’ restaurant. You won’t see his cookbooks in the window.”
So with no Jamie Oliver signature dishes on the menu, should we expect to see the sort of nose-to-tail/Italian cuisine Dammann was renowned for as chef at DNA restaurant, which closed its doors on June 2?
Not quite. Says Dammann: “We’re doing an old-school, British-style tavern.” The space will feature an open kitchen, a 12-seat bar, a large beer fridge, and a private dining room in back. A street-side terrasse is planned for the 2013 summer season.
However, don’t expect a chef as skilled as Dammann, famous for his charcuterie and dishes like lamb tartare, seal-lami (salami made with seal) and duck testicle pasta, to limit his offerings to gammon steak, Scotch eggs and ploughman’s lunch. “There won’t be fish and chips,” he says. And as for the service style, “it will be like a Chinese restaurant in the sense that dishes will come as soon as they’re ready. I want to encourage sharing, too, and for people to simply relax and have fun.” Naturally, the focus will also be on Canadian ingredients, which Dammann has long favoured.
Unlike many of the restaurants in its neighbourhood, Maison Publique is looking into serving alcohol, such as cask ale and custom-made beer and cider from the Gaspé sourced by Quebec ingredient specialists and suppliers Société Orignal. Plans include a short wine list featuring primarily Canadian wines, but Dammann waves off the idea of this being a restaurant for wine snobs. “There won’t be a sommelier,” he says. “There will be zero pretension.”