When Dyan Solomon, BA’91, and Eric Girard first opened Olive + Gourmando in the summer of 1998, the now-bustling Old Montreal institution was then mostly surrounded by vacancies, dive bars and grubby lofts. These days, the revitalized Old Port is filled with artsy shops frequented by well-heeled tourists emerging from boutique hipster hotels. And for many of them, a visit to Olive + Gourmando is definitely on the to-do list.
Business is thriving for Solomon and Girard. The duo started up fire-and-grill restaurant Foxy four years ago, and, in 2018, added Un po di Più, which offers cocktails and tasty sharing plates. They also recently set up shop in the popular downtown Time Out Market food court.
“It’s fun to be there [as] part of the whole chef community,” says Solomon. “It’s kind of like chef camp over there, we’re running around sharing things, talking to each other, sharing ingredients, telling stories, commiserating together.
“Montreal’s food scene has always been a really great food scene, especially in last 20 years,” says Solomon. “Montreal restaurants are very alive, [they’re] noisy, messy little happy places. People might make [little] money, but they’ll spend it at L’Express eating a steak after [seeing a film].”
Olive + Gourmando is now firmly established as one of those happy little places that Montrealers enjoy visiting. The new Olive + Gourmando: The Cookbook, written by Solomon, offers recipes for the celebrated café’s famed sandwiches, soups and baked goods, as well as a few anecdotes about the celebrities who have dropped by over the years.
We can thank Jake Gyllenhaal for salad #24 ending up on the menu. He had spotted Solomon eating something she had just whipped up for herself, thought it looked good, and requested one for himself – prompting Solomon to rush back to the kitchen (it’s now one of Olive’s most popular items). Bono once stood in line to snarf down not one, but two Cajun chicken sandwiches.
The people she enjoyed writing the most about, however, were the staff who have left their mark on Olive.
“The closest people in my life are all employee-related people,” she says. “You make really strong bonds in kitchens.” She attributes this to the adrenaline charge. “A lot of stuff happens, it’s emotional, people get angry, customers can be terrible. Dealing with the public, it’s a tough business.” The transient nature of the work leads to a generally unique cast of characters. “Artists and musicians and [ex-inmates] and immigrants – it makes for a very interesting environment.”
Solomon had been considering writing a cookbook for years, but never had the time until, ironically, she opened up more restaurants. “I’m not chained behind the counter like I was for 18 years. Until we opened Foxy, I was a labourer in my business. There’s more stress [now], but my schedule’s more flexible,” she says.
Solomon grew up steeped in academia in Kingston, Ontario – both of her parents were medical doctors and adjunct professors. She was the kind of kid whose nose was more likely to be in a copy of Dante’s Inferno than a Harlequin romance.
She often worked as a cook in her youth, spending four years feeding hungry tree planters. While studying at McGill, she baked treats for classmates and for events at ECW Press, run by one of her English professors, Robert Lecker.
“She was very devoted to Canadian poetry and fiction. I could always count on her participation in class and her infectious sense of humour made the forum lively and put everyone at ease,” Lecker recalls.
When Solomon was at a crossroads midway through a master’s degree, Lecker encouraged her to follow her passion. Solomon enjoyed academia, but felt it wasn’t social enough for her, and preferred hands-on, tactile work. Which is how Lecker, who had written a recommendation letter for her graduate program, found himself writing another one, this time for the New England Culinary Institute.
After 20 years of overseeing staff in the food business, Solomon definitely sees a change in work habits. Simply put, there’s a labour crisis. Younger people aren’t so keen on kitchen jobs anymore. Solomon thinks they’re missing out on the soul-fortification that comes from hard, honest work like washing dishes. Once open seven days a week, Olive is now only open for five because of a shortage of staff.
One thing that has improved over the years with a younger generation in place – and partly due to Solomon and Girard making a conscious effort to create an egalitarian environment – is that the men are more sensitive, cheerful and have less ego than in the traditional macho bro kitchen culture of yore.
In earlier days, her male employees would think it beneath them to take their turn washing the bathroom. Now, they’re “delightful,” she says. “You have to be a decent person to work here. You can’t be a sexist pig, can’t be a princess. You have to pull your weight, and it’s a team.”