About an hour after I hang up from my interview with Derek Dammann, he sends me some images to illustrate this post. There is no pristine beauty of Baked Oysters with Mushroom and Marmite, now iconic at the chef’s beloved five-year-old Québécois gastropub, Maison Publique — the dish he mentioned over the phone that began as half-serious, half-joke until they realized it was really fucking good. Also not included is a table full of Sichuan dishes from that place back home in Vancouver that doesn’t look like much but serves some of the best Asian food the city’s immigrant nooks and crannies have to offer. No. He has sent me two images. One is of a wood burning stove for heating not cooking — and the other, a flood-lit house and shed fronting a wood disappearing into the night. Leading to it, a pathway has been plowed four feet deep and is soft with footsteps fresh from the evening’s snowfall. For someone for whom affability seems to come more naturally and fluidly than most, who makes a living playing host to both friends and strangers daily, Dammann has chosen to live of all places out in the woods. “This is home,” he writes, and suddenly I realize he has shared all I need to know in this one text message. I can relate.
He, wife Christina and six-year-old son Felix call the Laurentian Mountains home. They are majestic, primal and not exactly the obvious choice for a man who has built his reputation on creating atmosphere and community at his popular restaurant ensconced in the residential Le Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood of Montreal, just north of the park and mount for which the city is named. As a young chef, Dammann set off to London to work for Jamie Oliver, and these quiet neighborhood streets remind him of his little corner there. The commute is 45 minutes to an hour of rolling, fir-lined roads. Thinking time. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Eating at the bar and the sense of welcome it can cultivate in a restaurant is something important to us at Michael’s Genuine®, a feeling and approach to hospitality that Dammann shares. When we knocked down the back bar in 2014 to make room for the now familiar horseshoe there today, it changed the entire dynamic of the dining room. Everything opened up to the hearth and the energy shift was palpable.
“I love eating at the bar. It’s less serious and more convivial,” he explains. “It takes a lot of pressure off —if you’re on a date, there’s other people to talk to. Things come faster… Drinks come faster…. There should be lots of little things to look at. All the little details. We added angled mirrors above the bar, and they reflect where we are, the street lamps and cars crawling in the snow.”
When he bought the place, there was nothing there except dirty carpets. They ripped everything out and built the whole restaurant based around the bar. They distressed it, made it look really old and lived in. An enthusiast and practitioner of the national pastime, Dammann made sure there was a TV strategically placed so he could watch hockey from the pass.
“It’s something you think about when you get open. You feel out the space, where the best seats are in the restaurant,” he continues. “Bar 1, 2 and 3 in the corner by the open kitchen were saved for walk-ins in the beginning. No one really wanted them at first. Now they’re the most sought-after in the house. There are people that hem and haw about sitting at the bar. Then there are those that the bar speaks to. I’m one of those people. It says, ‘you’re going to have a good time tonight.'”
Next Thursday’s dinner for South Beach Wine & Food Festival will be his first time in Florida, but something tells us he’ll feel at home. He tells of meeting Michael for the first time as his booth neighbor at one of the Alex’s Lemonade Stand chef events last year. They hit it off immediately.
“It’s one of those things that people say,” he notes. “‘You should come and do a dinner’ — and then you don’t hear from them. But three weeks later, I got a call.”
In addition to the Marmitine oysters on the reception menu on February 22, he’s doing Smoked Mackerel with anchovy and lemon, a nod to his travels in Italy and affinity for the country of his mom’s heritage.
“There are things in the flavor profiles you like that you either grow up with or you discover,” Dammann reflects. “My grandmother’s house always had a lot of certain things — good salami, homemade pasta… It always stuck with me, the complex simplicity of it. You can have the simplest spaghetti and tomato sauce and if you finish it with amazing olive oil, it kind of changes everything. Canada is a big country. We don’t have white truffles, but we have insane pine mushrooms… They all go to Japan, they’re that special… We have 95% of the flour going to Italy for pasta. Lentils going to France, mustard sent to Dijon only to be turned around and sold back to us… It’s kind of crazy. This is a country full of prairies and rich resources. Massive space for farming… You can stereotype the cuisine here, but we have a rich, hyper-regional history.”
The thing I find out about this chef is that, like a great bar, he’s disarming the moment you get acquainted. It’s comfortable right out of the gate. He’s also a good listener and answers questions thoughtfully, like he’s hearing them for the first time. It’s like you’ve been friends for years. You want to take a seat, settle in and have a pint. He admits when he drinks beer, though, it’s really rare.
“It’s going to be a shitty after-hockey beer. I just want something cold on tap and don’t care about the next new craft beer. I have people that actually care about that,” he says. “Maybe I’m crotchety, but I know what I like.”
He’s always been in love with the region his family now calls home — and the lake, Lac Barron, in particular. He has fond memories of summers at a family cabin back home. He always told himself that he wanted to live that lifestyle. Now he wakes up some mornings to wild turkeys in the backyard. And there are plans for the place, rebuilding the shed, for one, this summer. He’ll fashion a wood stove inside so he can hang out in there when it’s minus 20 outside. It’s a little piece of heaven he calls home, and that’s something we can toast a shitty beer to no matter what the weather.
Want a piece? Dinner with Dammann, Kapur and Schwartz is almost sold out, but click here for tickets while you still can.