"A lot of locals still walk by here and are shocked that it's not a 'tits-and-toast' place anymore."
Omar Zabuair, chef and owner of Le Coq de l'Est, is referring to his restaurant's past life as a den of inequity.
In the Montreal neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Mercier, strip clubs are illegal. But as in most cases of puritanical regulation, locals have been able to find ways around it. The former owners of Coq de l'Est managed to attract customers by offering a Montreal culinary classic—rotisserie chicken—served by topless and occasionally fully-nude waitresses.
"Based on stories that I've heard from people in the neighbourhood, backdoor poker games were going on here," Zabuair says, "and apparently, the cops showed up a couple of times because the girls were doing more than just serving food, and there was some drug-dealing going along with all of this."
Once upon a time, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve was a thriving working-class borough, but decades of factory closures slowly morphed it into an area notorious for high crime rates, population exodus, and welfare, especially in the Mercier-Est area where Zabuair has rebranded one of its most infamous restaurants.
"The immediate neighbourhood is fucking sketch," he says. "It's all welfare bums and degenerates. You see at the beginning of the months that there are line-ups at the bars with VLT's. It's a giant welfare state here."
All of which begs the question: why would a chef with the pedigree of Zabuair's set up shop in one of Montreal's toughest and poorest neighbourhoods?
The first factor is pretty straightforward. After years of legal troubles and suspended liquor licenses for Coq de l'Est, Zabuair was able to pick it up for a song, at least by comparison to the downtown rent prices that he was used to. "I opened this spot kind of out of desperation, I saw the price and said, 'I can't work for anyone anymore, so I need to buy myself a job, and I can afford this place.'"
"I looked at the equipment that I have here, and it was honestly, 'What food can I make with what I have here?' Then I looked at the neighbourhood and said, 'What are these people going to eat? Cutting-edge Indian modern?' Obviously not."
What Zabuair decided to do with said equipment was infuse it with the techniques of the East. Whole chickens are cooked on the rotisserie and naan bread is baked in an old Vulcan pizza oven left behind by past owners.
"My chicken is basically tandoori meets rotisserie. It's all of the techniques that you would use for tandoori chicken but I throw it in a rotisserie oven at a lower temperature instead of doing small pieces really fast at high heat. The spices, the aromas, and flavours are all there. It's not a curry dish, but the influence is definitely there."
The other factor that drew Zabuair to Hochelaga was getting away from the tightly knit chef community in Montreal that he was a part for a long time.
"For me it was about getting away from the high school down in the city. I can't do that. I like a lot of them on their own, and individually, but when it's a big group like that, it's a bit of a bro-fest, even though there are some women in there too. It's just a big clique. It's the same reason I hated high school. It's just a game that I refuse to play."
Zabuair was born and raised in Toronto where he went to culinary school. Shortly after, he cooked in Italy for a year and ended up back in Toronto working for chefs the likes of Susur Lee, who remains a big influence. "It was intense, Susur really showed me how you could take ethnic cuisine and completely reinterpret it."
After a booze- and coke-fueled stint cooking at a major Caribbean resort, he decided to follow his wife Vanessa back to Montreal. "They were grooming me to become chef for a big company but I had to walk away, because my liver couldn't take it."
It's with all this culinary baggage that Omar arrived in Montreal, where he ended up working at Joe Beef and becoming chef de cuisine at sister restaurant Liverpool House. For the time being, Omar is the only employee of Coq de l'Est, but he's hoping to grow the business into a neighbourhood spot for locals who care about good food.
"Our customers are mostly French-Canadian and they're really adaptive. I get the brown card—they usually assume right off the bat that I don't speak French [laughs]. I try, but they see me struggling."
And even some of the restaurants old staff has dropped by to see the reworked Coq de l'Est. "One time, a bunch of the old servers came by here and asked if we were interested in hiring, but I told them I was the only person on staff for now. Back in the day, some of them even cooked topless! It takes a very special kind of woman to do that."
Zabuair is working hard not only on his French skills but also on offering a menu that caters to a forgotten area.
"I'm applying everything that I've learned over the last 20 years," Zabuair says. "They're so desperate for good food around here. This area is forgotten. I'm winning people over one chicken at a time."