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The Gazette

16/05/2017

Foodchain brings fresh idea to Montreal: raw vegetables as fast food.

Lesley Chesterman, special to Montreal Gazette

The look is efficiency chic. The food is fast and fresh. The concept is original, and the crowds have begun to descend as of its opening Monday, May 15.

The chefs involved – Charles-Antoine Crête, Cheryl Johnson and Jeffrey Finkelstein – are big names, and the designer, Zebulon Perron, is one of the city’s hottest. Are we talking about another branché bistro? A wine bar, taco resto or wood-burning-oven-style pizzeria? No way. The eatery in question is described by its owners as a fast-food concept. But we’re miles away from burgers, fries and rôtisserie chicken. It’s called Foodchain, and what’s on the menu are vegetables that are julienned, grated, minced, chopped and shredded into salads, not one of which contains even a leaf of lettuce. Intriguing.

Located in the heart of downtown, on McGill College Ave. near Cathcart St., the first Foodchain outlet has been in the planning stages for the past year and a half. The principal players are Crête and Johnson (co-chefs/partners at restaurant Montréal Plaza), Finkelstein (owner of Hof Kelsten bakery), Perron and Jean-François Saine (Foodchain’s general manager).

Originally conceived by Crête and Saine, the concept is pretty straightforward: industrial-strength food processors are lined up on a counter, each devoted to a specific salad combination. There are eight in all: carrot-endive, apple-beet, cabbage-radish, mushroom-cauliflower, cucumber-pickle, fennel-daikon, celery-kohlrabi and endive-green pear. Different blades are used to slice the vegetables to best appreciate their texture and flavour. Mix-ins include herbs, a specific dressing (half of the selections are vegan) and a cup of crunchy elements like sunflower seeds, nuts (no peanuts), buckwheat kernels, etc. All salads are completely devoid of animal protein and no substitutions are allowed. Prices are set at $9 to $11 for a portion that could easily serve two. 

Salads aside, Finklestein has invented what they call “Magic Bread,” a croissant-style flaky roll enhanced with caramelized onions, cheese, herbs and spices, as well three kinds of vegan cakes (“they aren’t muffins or cupcakes,” insists Finkelstein).

The fast-food restaurant concept has been enticing chefs for quite a while now. New York chef David Chang of the Momofuku empire launched a chain of chicken sandwich restaurants called Fuku two years ago. In Los Angeles, star chefs Daniel Patterson and Roy Choi are the brains behind the LocoL chain that sells hamburgers and fried chicken, and now boast three locations and a food truck in California. The most successful high-end restaurateur to enter the fast-food game is Danny Meyer, whose Shake Shack restaurants include more than 100 locations in the U.S. and internationally. 

However, what Crête & Co. are bringing to the table (or better yet, the takeout counter) is vastly different. “People are always telling me what they saw here and there,” says Crête at the soft opening of Foodchain last week, “but I’m not interested in what other chefs are doing. I made a hamburger when I worked at Brasserie T! and a hot dog when I wrote the menu for Majestique. Everyone is reinventing the shiitake mushroom burger these days. But we have to adapt to the future.” 

And how would Crête describe his novel concept? “I thought of it a bit like an Asian market,” he says, “with all that action. And I didn’t want any meat, mostly because meat is fragile and has a short shelf life. I wanted to use vegetables, but the same vegetables we order for the restaurant. Quality is important to me; I’ll never make crap. All the dishes are standardized and taste-tested. Our goal was to be corporate but remain human.”

For Saine, whose background is in marketing, the original impetus came for a lack of local chain restaurants specializing in healthy food. “It was surprising to me,” he says, “that in 2017 it was so hard to buy a proper meal for $10. We started out with this concept of dumplings and salads but dropped it because that isn’t who we are. I’m a vegan now and eat a lot of vegetables, so it was a better fit. This group of Charles, Cheryl, Zebulon and Jeffrey was a dream team, and then you have all the service team at Montréal Plaza with all those years of experience helping out as well.”

Was their aim to become the save-the-planet source for great vegan eats?

“There’s no social mission behind this,” says Saine, “we just want to feed people well with better-quality food.” 

As for the salads themselves, Crête says they were created quite quickly, with vegetables available year-round. Eleven recipes were tested and eight made the final cut. Several, like the mushroom-cauliflower salad with feta, parsley and citrus vinaigrette, will look familiar to Montréal Plaza customers. There are no plans for further dishes at Foodchain for now but Crête is open to changing an item if it doesn’t sell. When I suggest a hot dish like soup in winter, Crête shakes his head and says, “My plan was to have no gas burners, no ovens, no dish pit. Our idea was to be able to easily turn a space that was once a shoe shop into a restaurant. No cooks would be needed. We hired young people with no cooking background.” 

Foodchain’s design plays an important role in the concept. Everything is open, airy and spotless. The majority of the space is occupied by the food preparation area outfitted with a large counter holding industrial-strength Robot Coupe food processors (cost: $4,000 a pop). Near the ordering station in front is a display case that holds Finkelstein’s cakes. “Our goal was to design a feeding machine,” says Perron with a smile. “It’s not about creating an alternative experience but to feed as many people as we can, as fast as we can, and in a healthy way. There’s a big gap in the market and we wanted to transmit the idea of quality without making it fussy or elitist.”

The room is framed in plywood with large mirrors, assorted groovy light fixtures and a shiny teal blue wall as a focal point. The rest of the space is outfitted with a row of tables and counters to eat on-site. Passersby can watch the salad-making action through the street-side, floor-to-ceiling windows looking in on the kitchen. Says Perron: “That transparency is what I’m most happy about. There’s no grease here. No ventilation system. It’s clean food where customers can watch all the steps. We have absolutely nothing to hide and that’s what we wanted to build into the design. This first restaurant is being used as a prototype. Our goal is to be able to reproduce that in future restaurants.”