Introducing Salle Climatisée, a food shop that will one day be a restaurant

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Introducing Salle Climatisée, a food shop that will one day be a restaurant
I recently listened to an old episode of Heavyweight (a Jonathan Goldstein podcast) that told the story of a cyclist that got t-boned by a speeding car. Not to spoil the episode, but neither the cyclist nor the driver was at fault — it was just a bad accident. The victim of the crash awoke from a coma filled with anger, the life he had come to know having been unceremoniously yanked away from him. It made me think of the restaurant industry. Like, here we all were, minding our own business, cooking food and selling wine and then — bang! COVID-19 hits and we’re all instantly screwed. 

There’s a lot to be angry about and no shortage of subjects onto which to cast our ire but that Heavyweight story has another part to it — an unexpected twist. The cyclist, faced with his own mortality, was overcome with the kind of epiphany one can only obtain from a near-death experience. Suddenly, he became more aware of what, for him, made life worth living. Sometimes tragedy provides clarity. 

My telling of the story is far cornier than Goldstein’s but I think you get where I’m going with this. What if being angry is a waste of time? Clinging to an old way of life, one that we may never live again and being angry at the injustice of it all — is it doing any good? I’m reluctant to rule one way or the other. I don’t own a restaurant, I’m just a furloughed restaurant worker with an opinion about food — so who am I to say? But over the course of the past nine months, I have seen what a different way of thinking can produce while operating parallel to grief and anger. Optimism and creativity, it would appear, are far greater motivators. I think of businesses born from pivots that will eventually become stand-alone businesses. I think of the work of chefs like Chanthy Yen and Anita Feng, who used this time to launch projects aimed at celebrating and promoting culturally significant food. Maybe coping with the pandemic isn’t about making lemonade of lemons — it’s about acknowledging that all the lemons are rotten and figuring out what else there is to drink. 

Celery root with seaweed vinaigrette (Salle Climatisée)

I brought these ideas up with a friend of mine, Harrison Sewchuck. Along with his business partners Darcy Gervais-Wood and Brendan Lavery-Breier, he opened a new business last week — you might have heard of it, it’s called Salle Climatisée. The three principles share a background working at Maison Publique, and both Gervais-Wood and Sewchuck have also spent time cooking abroad in Europe. Some might know Sewchuck best as the chef of Tiers Paysage — a popular wine bar in Old Montreal that opened almost exactly a year ago. Between them, there’s no shortage of restaurant industry accolades and experience. As Sewchuck puts it, “We had jobs at some of the [best restaurants] in the city — they were kind of cushy. The work was hard, but my salary was good, [business] was rolling, it [was] busy.” In some ways, their situation was the best you could ask for amid a global pandemic. 

“We all had jobs where we were [cooking for] take-out,” reflects Sewchuck. But of course, as restaurant-folk wishing to make their own mark on the industry, something stirred within. “We were like, ‘Fuck it — we need to be making food ourselves.’” But opening now, during the grimmest days of the pandemic — is it really the best time? Not for a restaurant — that’s for sure. Restaurants that open now have no access to government assistance and the restrictions are at an all-time high. But Sewchuk, Gervais-Wood and Lavery-Breier still left their jobs eager to pursue a project of their own.

“Early on, we stopped thinking about it as a restaurant and we started thinking of it as a shop,” explains Lavery-Breier. It’s such a simple yet elegant solution to the question: How can one open a restaurant without opening a restaurant? You open a store that happens to sell food.

I know, on the surface, this is far from revolutionary. Like, every restaurant in Canada is basically a shop now. But that’s the thing — every restaurant became a shop. Beautifully appointed dining rooms now sit empty with tables lined up side by side as temporary pedestals for orders awaiting pick-up. Chairs serpentine around the room as a way to steer traffic safely from the ordering kiosk to the pick-up station. Banquettes, in which satisfied guests used to recline after a good meal, are now piled high with stacks of eco-friendly take-out containers. 

Salle Climatisée isn’t revolutionary because it’s a shop that sells restaurant-quality food to go  — it’s revolutionary because it’s a “restaurant” completely adapted to a post-COVID reality. It’s fluid. Occupying a small 500-square-foot space, it completely does away with the now superfluous dining room. The beauty is that the concept allows for adaptation and can easily adopt a more traditional restaurant format when circumstances allow. Harrison is already planning for a future that includes dining in.

“Whenever it makes sense to seat people in here and eat, drink, be merry, tell stories, have your anniversary — this will be a nice small space to do that in.”

For now, Salle Climatisée offers a curated selection of affordable wine and beer for takeaway, alongside a menu of composed dishes like a whole trout stuffed with spelt and mushrooms or a quince upside-down cake. “We want to use our talent to get creative. We’re taking risks and trying to offer something that’s interesting to us and that’s hopefully interesting for the client as well.” 

There’s no doubt that restaurant owners, employees and suppliers have been adversely impacted by this pandemic — I’m among them. Furthermore, the government has provided little support to help these small businesses bridge the gap. I’m reminded, however, that adaptability is the name of the game when it comes to hospitality. It’s rare, even in the best of times, that everything goes according to plan. It’s inspiring to know that, even as we’re faced with the darkest days our industry has known, there is still innovation. There are wonderful new projects being opened by interesting people that are worth celebrating, not in spite of Covid, but for their ability to see opportunity even when the world seems bleak. While that might not be a life-altering epiphany — I hope it’s enough optimism to carry us through to next year. ■

For more about Salle Climatisée (6448 St-Laurent), please visit their website.

For more on the food and drink scene in Montreal, please visit the Food & Drink section.
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