Montreal chef Danny Smiles loves Hudson, but the city is calling

Smiles has reached a deal with Maison Publique owner Derek Dammann to take over the location after Dammann closed the critically-acclaimed restaurant.

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Well-known Montreal chef Danny Smiles came to Hudson for a little country living, but he clearly still yearns for the buzz and excitement of running a restaurant in the heart of the big city.

For years, he was the chef at Le Bremner, celebrity chef and TV star Chuck Hughes’s well-known restaurant in the Old Port that closed during the pandemic, and Hughes and Smiles also worked together cooking up high-end grub for the artists performing at the Osheaga festival.

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Smiles was named executive chef and general manager of the historic Willow Inn on the banks of Lake of Two Mountains in Hudson in the spring of 2021 and a few months later he moved out to the quiet town. Smiles — winner of Iron Chef Canada — loved being out there with his wife and two young boys, River, 2, and Lennon, 4.

But in a conversation this week at the Willow Inn, where he was welcoming a group of high school kids from Gatineau, Smiles said he’s going to be spending a lot more time in the city in the coming months. Soon after it was announced in August acclaimed Plateau eater Maison Publique was closing its doors, Smiles reached a deal with Maison Publique owner Derek Dammann to take over the location.

Smiles will be opening a new restaurant on the same premises on Marquette St. in the heart of the Plateau in February. That’s in addition to another newish Plateau venture for Smiles — Double’s, a designer dive/hamburger joint that he opened in April on Parc Ave. It’s already a popular spot both with locals and visiting celebs, most notably Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, who swung by there after the band’s concert at the Verdun Auditorium in July.

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“There’s something as a chef, I mean I love it out here, but I had an amazing opportunity to take something over in the city, so sometimes you just need to go back and do it one more time,” Smiles said. “I love starting new projects. Taking (the Willow Inn) on was amazing and to watch it grow, that was something really special. And opening up a bar in April (Double’s), that’s really different. That’s focused just on being together. It’s like Cheers. It’s just bar food and having fun. It’s been a real success. It’s been nice. The concept is dive bar, sports bar, everyone is welcome. It’s very accessible. Try to keep the costs low for people to have a good time.”

He was fairly tight-lipped about exactly what he has up his sleeve for the Maison Publique space, but he did reveal a few details.

“All I can say is I’m really excited and I’m trying not to divulge too much information. We’re looking at a February opening if everything goes well. I’m partnered up with three of my closest friends. We’re extremely passionate about food and restaurants and we’re going to do it our way.”

He’s well aware he has some big shoes — or is it frying pans? — to fill following in the footsteps of Dammann’s Maison Publique, one of the country’s most praised restaurants.

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“He’s definitely one of my favourite chefs in the city,” Smiles said. “It’s very tough to think you’re taking over a space that people loved right across the country. People would travel from all over the world to eat there. It was a very special place and I think he was ready to close the chapter and he was happy to pass it along. That’s my duty. To keep it alive and keep his ideology of food. We have the same ideas about quality and local (products).”

Inside a commercial kitchen, Danny Smiles speaks with students while workers prepare food
Chef Danny Smiles, in the blue jean shirt, opens his Auberge Willow Inn kitchen in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue on Thursday Oct. 19, 2023, to 30 high school students to teach them the importance of cooking and eating sustainably. Photo by Dave Sidaway /Montreal Gazette

The students at the Willow Inn on Thursday were from Philemon Wright High School in Gatineau, brought there as part of Cheese4Change, a youth program created by Tre Stelle Cheese to raise awareness about sustainable food. Smiles gave the teenagers a tour of the inn’s gardens, showed them how they worked in the kitchen and then served them a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, salad and tiramisu.

Smiles may end up spending more time in central Montreal in the coming months, but he doesn’t regret for one second moving his home and work out to Hudson.

“I’ve been a city chef my whole life, I always worked in the city,” Smiles said. “It was a nice challenge to take (over) the Willow Inn that’s been here 200 years and there’s a lot of history. … It was a time, in the pandemic, that I kind of needed a breath of fresh air, something different. It’s been amazing. The quality of life, the community, the neighbourhood. There’s a really strong community in Hudson. There’s a lot of great businesses and people that do just phenomenal stuff.”

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