As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province, embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Mark Gabrieau who brings the diners of Antigonish, Nova Scotia the world on a plate at Gabrieau's Bistro.
All images courtesy of Gabrieau's Bistro.
Life could have easily taken another turn for Mark Gabrieau.
Had the Nova Scotia chef not grown up surrounded by so many restaurants in Windsor, Ontario, he may be carving wood today instead of cuts of meat or vegetables.
“If I got a job working with a carpenter, I might have been a carpenter,” Gabrieau said on the line from Antigonish, where he runs the upscale Gabrieau’s Bistro with his wife, Karen. “I don’t know. But there was a passion for food.”
So much so that when other kids his age might have been playing with action figures or riding their bikes to the playground, Gabrieau was pounding the pavement in search of a job in a restaurant kitchen.
He was determined — almost as determined as his prospective employers were to not break any child labour laws. Gabrieau’s first stop was an Italian restaurant destined to become a second home to an aspiring chef with an unyielding work ethic.
“I used to ask if I could peel veggies,” Gabrieau recalled. “They asked ‘How old are you?’ I said 10. They said, ‘No, no, you’re too young. You need a social insurance number.’”
He got one and returned a year later only to be turned down again. Another 12 months passed before Gabrieau tried one more time.
“They said, ‘OK, you’re persistent,’” he said.
There was an undeniable desire to work with food, even if Gabrieau would have taken a job as a woodworker had one come up first. His appreciation of fine fare was cultivated growing up the son of French immigrants, with a mom and grandmother he describes as “extremely good cooks.”
The Gabrieau clan hailed from Normandy in northern France, known for calvados, chitterling, and coastlines that provided the makings of everything from Coquilles St. Jacques to Marmite Dieppoise. No shortcuts were ever taken in the family’s kitchen.
“We didn’t buy convenience food. We prepared everything,” Gabrieau, 52, remembered.
Still, that first job he landed in a kitchen 40 years ago was as much about necessity as it was his tenacity.
Gabrieau’s father died when he was a baby. His mother had her own demons to deal with and money was hard to come by. Gabrieau took whatever work he could get, earning a few bucks and an understanding of hard work in the process.
“I had a paper route, I cut lawns. I caught night crawlers at night and sold them during the day. We didn’t have much and if I wanted anything, I had to earn the money to buy it.”
The family who owned the Italian restaurant that took a chance on him so many years ago, and set him on a path to becoming one of Nova Scotia’s most decorated chefs, filled a void in Gabrieau’s life beyond economic independence, however.
“They were like my second family. I would go to school, go to work, they’d feed me and I’d go home.”
At 15, Gabrieau had the chance to tag along with friends on a trip down east to Halifax. He left Windsor at the end of the school year and didn’t look back. He landed a job at Le Bistro, part of a quartet of Halifax haunts that included the watering hole Henry House, Geppetto’s, and the tony Grand dining room. But he was met with a familiar refrain when he first put in his application.
“(The owner) said, ‘You’re too young and you have no experience.’ I said, ‘I’ll work for you for two weeks. If you’re happy with me, hire me. If not, you don’t have to pay me. You have nothing to lose.’”
Indeed, those kitchens had everything to gain in a loyal employee willing to put in the time and effort. Gabrieau showed he had the chops, and wound up working in all four restaurant kitchens over the next few years. He went to high school full-time and clocked as many as 10 hours a day on the line.
He hired a tutor to help knock off the last of his high school credits and get a jump start on college. Gabrieau fell in love with kitchen life for the creativity it inspired, the time management it instilled, and the pay it provided.
His coworkers were young and energetic, and he fed off their drive. He connected with the French chefs at The Grand and apprenticed under them.
His appetite for culinary knowledge was virtually insatiable. By the time Gabrieau headed to college, he had put in enough time behind the burner to write his journeyman’s papers. He was 20 years old with 6,000 hours of experience — a milestone that most gunning for a toque blanche don’t hit until they’re 30.
Gabrieau was thought to be the youngest person in Canada to get his papers at the time. Instead of resting on any laurels, though, he set off to New York to study at the Culinary Institute of America. He took 16-week courses in charcuterie and sausage-making, pastry, and advanced Italian cooking.
The next few years would be spent running the kitchen at a seasonal lobster shack on Cape Breton Island, and landing an executive chef’s gig at the storied Inverary Inn in Baddeck. Soon after starting at the resort, he helmed the kitchen through a first minister’s meeting, dazzling the country’s decision makers with his menus.
And then came Antigonish, population 4,364. Gabrieau passed by it on the Trans Canada between Halifax and Cape Breton Island. The neon lights of chain restaurants signalled the halfway point in his travels, and gave the impression the town was little more than a strip of fast food joints.
Friends helped him see the potential of Antigonish, home to the hallowed halls of St. Francis Xavier University. It was a promised land of professionals with refined palates hungry for more than what the Golden Arches offered. “It was a great little community with a lot going on,” Gabrieau recalled. “I thought this was a place I could have my cake and eat it, too. I could do what I want and have an educated palate to do it for.”
He landed at job at a hotel, overseeing two kitchens and a bakery before forging out on his own with a business partner. Though the partnership ended badly, Gabrieau didn’t walk away empty-handed. He met his wife Karen, a sharp business mind, and together they cooked up a plan for a place of their own.
They saved money, borrowed from Karen’s parents and pitched to some of their most loyal customers at previous gigs. They asked them to invest in what would become Gabrieau’s Bistro. Five couples chipped in $25,000 each. Those debts were paid back quickly with interest.
“We opened Gabrieau’s Bistro and 18 years later, here we are, still operating Gabrieau’s Bistro,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about being in a small town. People really rallied around us.”
And in turn, the chef rallied around his adopted hometown, bringing its residents the world on a plate. Gabrieau’s hosts theme nights serving the cuisines of India, Thailand and other far off places. Sushi made with local catches is one of the restaurant’s biggest sellers.
“It gives me a channel to keep learning,” Gabrieau said about putting international fare on the menu. “It motivates my staff and it keeps my customers coming back. The concept was local ingredients, international flavours. We’re in a small community so we need to be all things at all times. It’s tough to open an Italian restaurant and expect people to want to eat there all the time.”
It all complements a seasonal menu driven by the produce Gabrieau grows on his own acreage equipped with a greenhouse, in raised beds at the restaurant, or that he sources from farms nearby. Ever the green thumb, Gabrieau grows enough basil to keep him in pesto all year and harvests upwards of 1,000 spears of asparagus every spring.
Of course seafood figures prominently at the bistro — scallops to go with those asparagus, for example. Everything is complemented by vintages from Nova Scotia’s burgeoning wine industry.
Gabrieau’s efforts at teasing out the best in regional, seasonal fare earned him a star rating in Where to Eat in Canada 14 years in a row. The restaurant received the Award of Excellence from the worldly Wine Spectator magazine every year from 2008 to 2013. Taste of Nova Scotia has also named the red-sided eatery on Main Street the restaurant of the year for chef-inspired fine dining.
Gabrieau does his own pickling and curing, too, even selling a line of products ranging from smoked salmon to salad dressing. Opening the fridge or pantry at home and seeing his name is a gentle reminder of where to go when it’s time for a night out in Antigonish, he said.
It’s also a symbol of more than 40 years of perseverance; one that tells the story of a 10-year-old boy’s doggedness to find his own way in the world with food as his lodestar and small-town Nova Scotia as his muse.
“I’m in my own little piece of heaven here,” Gabrieau said.
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Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.