Brownstein: Family comes first as Maison Publique and Chez Sophie restaurants close

Scrambling with a labour shortage and inflation pressures on rent and food, Montreal restaurateurs are finding it even more difficult to be away from their loved ones.

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The pandemic took its toll on restaurateurs everywhere, but constant struggles to remain afloat afterward are also exacting a stiff price.

News of the closure this week of two of Montreal’s most popular restaurants, the Plateau gastro pub Maison Publique and Griffintown’s Chez Sophie, may have taken diners by surprise but, in retrospect, probably shouldn’t have.

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Since reopening after those dark pandemic days, restaurateurs have had to scramble not only to find staff but also to deal with inflationary issues and fast-rising costs from food to rent. Add to that the angst of too much time away from their loved ones.

It has clearly proved to be too much for some with young families, like Maison Publique owner/chef Derek Dammann and Chez Sophie’s owners, the married tandem of chef Sophie Tabet and sommelier/maître d’ Marco Marangi.

Dammann has decided to close Maison Publique as of Sept. 16. Chez Sophie has been closed since last weekend, but while Marangi says they hope to reopen with a new concept and more family-friendly hours, they don’t know when that will be. Both Dammann and Marangi have attributed their decisions to wishing to spend more quality time with their families.

This is what Dammann posted on Instagram:

“I have made the decision to close Maison Publique permanently as of Sept. 16. The time has come for me to listen to my gut and end things on positive terms. I love this craft, my colleagues and every beautiful person that has walked through these doors. But I love my family, health and well-being more. We look forward to continue spreading MP joy over the next few weeks.”

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The announcement comes as quite the shock. Having connected with famed British chef Jamie Oliver in London, Dammann, originally from Victoria, B.C., ended up working as a chef at Oliver’s acclaimed Fifteen restaurant. Upon returning to Montreal, he became a partner in the highly regarded DNA resto in 2008. But he got the attention of foodies everywhere when he opened the earthy Maison Publique in 2012 with the backing of his buddy Oliver.

What made Maison Publique particularly unique was Dammann’s insistence on relying on Canadian ingredients, including wines. No surprise that Maison Publique would go on to be included on numerous fine-dining lists, including Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants.

Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of Dammann.

A line of stools at a bar and some empty tables with wine glasses on them in a modern-design white room
The interior of Chez Sophie in 2014. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette files

The owners of Chez Sophie have pledged to return, but in a different capacity. Hopefully, the intimacy and enticing layout of the original resto will remain. Tabet, born in Lebanon and raised in Montreal, has a fascinating background, having studied at Paul Bocuse’s institute near Lyon and then having worked at restaurants in Italy and France. She later came over to work as a chef at the superb Primo and Secondo in Little Italy. She and Marangi, whom she met over the course of her travels, opened Chez Sophie on Notre-Dame St. a decade ago. They were also involved with a few restaurants in Lebanon.

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Chez Sophie’s closure, even if temporary, has devastated many of its regulars.

“My absolute favourite restaurant in Montreal,” laments Louise Sidky. “Chez Sophie had everything: exquisite food, service and atmosphere.”

Sophie Tabet, in a white shirt and apron, leans on the counter with Marco Marangi in a suit jacket behind her
Chef Sophie Tabet, right, and sommelier Marco Marangi at Chez Sophie in 2014. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette files

Tabet and Marangi have a seven-year-old daughter. Working late nights and weekends keeps them apart from one another during her formative years.

“For the moment, we decided to close the restaurant for these and other personal reasons,” Marangi says in a phone interview. “I don’t know for how long we’ll stay closed, but when we do open, it will be with a new plan and new hours. It will be a new project. We need time to relax and reflect on what will be our next step.”

Marangi pledges that whatever form the new project takes, diners can expect the same warm ambience for which Chez Sophie has always been known. But any new operation will likely focus more on working during the day, and not evenings.

“We really want to have a family life with our daughter, and working nights doesn’t help,” he notes. “There are other reasons for our decision to close, but that is certainly one of the main ones.”

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Stephen Leslie, co-owner/chef of Tavern on the Square and the Monkland Tavern, empathizes with the plight of his fellow chefs/owners wanting more personal time. Since the pandemic, both his restos have stayed closed for lunch; Tavern on the Square is open Monday to Friday nights, and Monkland Tavern Tuesdays to Saturdays.

“The stress level among all the chefs and restaurant owners I’m in touch with has been way over the top, particularly for those with families,” Leslie says. “Even though many of us have cut back on opening hours, our workload, with severe staff shortages, has been crazier than ever.

“The situation has really become so untenable for many. This has been a real time of reflection. Many of us have really begun to rethink our profession and this business. Is this the way we want to spend our lives, working all the time and missing out on all the family functions that others take for granted? I don’t think so.”

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