No hell in this kitchen

by Wendy Helfenbaum

Guillermo Russo, BA'05, with his famous boss, Hell's Kitchen star Gordon Ramsey (Photo: Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Guillermo Russo, BA’05, may have a degree in industrial relations and international development, but he’s been keeping busy reinventing a Montreal culinary landmark.

Last winter, rotisserie chicken fans across the city raised eyebrows at the news that their beloved Laurier BBQ was set to become British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s first Canadian restaurant. Longtime patrons wrung their hands, wondering how the in-your-face chef would transform the 75-year-old institution.

Although the retro wood panelling and hunting memorabilia have been replaced by a sleek new bar and glassed-in wine cellar, head chef Russo intends to preserve the spirit of what older clients loved while attracting younger, hipper customers. “I didn’t want people to feel I was taking away something they’re attached to.”

The son of a diplomat, Russo was born in Peru and has lived all over the world, yet he spent much of his life in Montreal, growing up just a few blocks from Laurier BBQ. But how does an industrial relations grad suddenly become a chef?

“Throughout my studies at McGill, I was always working in restaurant kitchens to support myself,” explains Russo. “When I finished my university degree, I realized I’d spent as much time in kitchens as in the library. It became clear to me that cooking was my true passion.”

After finishing his McGill studies, Russo enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa Culinary Arts Institute. He did stints at several award-winning Toronto restaurants, including The Black Hoof and Chez Lucien, and then managed Ottawa’s Aroma before returning to Montreal to become executive chef at Olivieri bistro.

Last winter, Russo was one of three chefs to make Ramsay’s short list for the Laurier job. Russo suspects he got the gig because he was respectful of the restaurant’s past.

“We had to create a tasting menu of how we saw the future of this classic rotisserie,” recalls Russo. “I think [the other candidates] forgot that this institution has been around since 1936, so the menu is not something you can easily revamp. I took some of the classics, gave them a bit of a spin, and played around with rustic dishes. I kept it family-style and very straightforward.”

Since the restaurant reopened in mid-August, Russo has been clocking 14-hour days and managing a staff of 50.

“Kitchen hours are very different from corporate hours,” he laughs. “Being a chef demands a lot of dedication, but I don’t see it as a job; I do it because I love it.” Classic poutine and rotisserie chicken are still the stars of the menu, yet Russo has managed to put his stamp on things, such as buying local and organic whenever possible, and insisting on everything being made fresh.

Russo’s association with the flamboyant Ramsay has launched him into the culinary spotlight; he’s lost count of how many people have asked him if he’s running a Hell’s Kitchen, and admits that some of his boss’s exacting ways have already rubbed off on him.

“Gordon knows what he wants, and he won’t stop until he gets it. I push towards the same standards. Whether it’s 3-star Michelin or pub food, it has to be the best possible.”

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