You need to treat people with respect, that’s how people stick with you when things are tough, no matter who they might be.
- Article and photos by Dan Aponte, Photographer / www.danaponte.ca
Stuart Abrams – Chef and Owner of “L’Ambroisie et L’Espace Canal”
If you’ve ever walked, biked or had a picnic on the Lachine canal around Atwater market, there are a few Montreal landmarks that simply can’t go unnoticed. The Old Canada Malting Plant (recently crowned with a pink paintjob atop its main tower), the Art Deco Atwater Market building by architect Ludger Lemieux, and of course, the Château St-Ambroise building built in 1882. The impressive structure has been a major source of commerce over its near 150 year history. Gone are the old textile and toy factory days – now, the repurposed Château is the home of commercial loft space housing contemporary industries such as cinema production, marketing and restauration.
Spanning most of the first floor of the building, L’Ambroisie et L’ Espace Canal, is owned by Chef Stuart Abrams. The first thing I must say is that, although this is a business that was employing 40 people before the pandemic, this still very much is a family owned and intimate place. I met with Stuart and followed him during a ‘Covid-adapted’ wedding to see how he’s been creatively adapting to the restriction and regulations. Stuart is always moving – going from the restaurant and kitchen where he speaks to the staff (each by first-name and cracking a quick one-liner here and there and gives feedback on plating), to the eclectic office he shares with his sales director, it was hard to keep up with Stuart’s energy and pace.
After the complete lockdown back in March, like most of us, Stuart thought this would be an inconvenience where he and his team would have to close temporarily and re-schedule about 2 weeks’ worth of events. As of then, a few couples were given the unfortunate news that the day they had planned for so long before would need to be pushed. As the events unfolded and the world held its breath, more and more cancellations were necessary as the lockdown continued to extend.
Stuart and his family got right to work preparing meals and lunches for patrons in the area who still wanted prepared food. Many appreciated this ‘slice of normalcy’, even though the food was being brought home in take-out containers rather than enjoyed in the comfort of the restaurant foyer or the terrace nestle in the wrap-around nook of Le Château. Though Stuart had temporarily let go of staff at the beginning of the lockdown, he and his wife Fanoue enlisted the help of their two daughters to cope with demand. Stuart even jokes that his youngest now has a penchant for pastries – perhaps a future pâtissière in the making.
After things began to reopen, Stuart had to unfortunately continue damage control. He showed me what the 2018 and 2019 calendars looked like, the swiss-cheese that 2020 has turned into, and what 2021 is shaping up to be. Stuart is very happy that they have been able to accommodate most of the postponements, and that couples have been patient and extremely understanding. “Everyone is coping with the inconvenience together,” he says, “and we are stubborn as all-hell, so we will make things work for people and their plans”.
Now that restaurants, bars and larger venues can host larger groups, Stuart and his team have expanded on some of the offerings they already had. The grounds are absolutely lovely – the rustic red brick of the building serve as the foreground to the Montreal cityscape to the north, and the canal serves to enclose the building grounds on the southside. When I was there, a wedding was taking place, with all of the social distancing precautions of smaller numbers, fancy facemasks, and personal hand-sanitizer bottles for every guest. The food – consisting of thick-cut filet-mignon, Mediterranean-flavoured lamb, and garlic shrimp skewers – were all grilled by none-other than Stuart himself donning a Cowboy hat, over a 120,000 BTU grill, reminiscent of those used in Latin-American churrascarias.
Though the heart of the menu is French cuisine, Stuart doesn’t shy away from other foods. In the past, Stuart has customized menus for clients (haggis for a Scottish wedding, tikka masala for an Indian wedding, all vegan menu, etc.) He is very versatile and surprisingly knowledgeable in International cuisine (South Asian, Mediterranean, European, Southwestern, just to name a few). He has hosted a number of multicultural weddings and Stuart finds it important to offer couples and their family the opportunity to showcase their family’s traditional dishes.
After spending time with Stuart and his team, speaking to everyone from the busboys, barmaids and his wife Fanoue, I learned a little of what it takes to persevere and run a successful business in 2020 – tenacity, flexibility, and the help and support of your family and team. Stuart had to temporarily let go of staff at the beginning of the lockdown, but has slowly and steadily called his staff back, who are happy to be working again. Stuart also needed the help of his landlord and owner of the Le Château building due to the extreme financial shock he has and continues to push through. If it weren’t for the healthy relationships he has fostered, he might not have been as lucky today.
“You need to treat people with respect, that’s how people stick with you when things are tough, no matter who they might be. When I first came to meet the owner of the building 12 years ago, I struck up a conversation with a guy shoveling the snow off the steps of the building entrance. Nice enough guy, I told him I unfortunately had to cut our conversation short because I was meeting with the owner about opening a restaurant in the building. The guy told me we’d surely bump into each other soon. I made my way to the main office, sat down in reception and waited until the owner was free to meet me. A few minutes past and the guy who was shoveling the snow outside walked into the office, dusted the snow, looked at me and said, ‘I’m ready to meet with you Mr. Abrams’.”
L’Ambroisie is a wonderful venue, whether you want to have a smaller gathering in the restaurant, opt in for the larger ‘Espace Canal’ hall, or simply keep the whole event outside. They offer various adapted options for 2020 and have over 12 years of experience in hosting events both large and intimate. If you’d like to learn more about L’Ambroisie et L’Espace Canal, or Le Château St-Ambroise, head over to their websites. You’ll be in good hands.
I’d like to thank Stuart, Fanoue and his team for taking the time to show me a little of the ‘behind the scenes’ of their establishment, and what it takes to serve people in the time of Covid.