Montreal is rivalled by few other Canadian centres for its pride in homegrown talent. And perhaps with good reason; when it comes to the big Canadian names in culture and the culinary arts, so many of those who reach the international spotlight call the French port city home.
Despite the fact that chef Chanthy Yen is not a native of Montreal, it did not take him long to find his niche in the local restaurant scene with his own prestigious dining establishment, the artfully-crafted Fieldstone. No longer the outsider, Yen was embraced by the highly competitive Montreal Eater Awards in 2018 with the title of Reader’s Choice Chef of the Year.
We recently spoke with Yen about his personal journey in the culinary arts and the road to establishing one of rue St. Laurent’s trendiest foodie hotspots.
You worked in a variety of prestigious restaurant kitchens prior to opening Fieldstone in Montreal. Which establishment proved to be the biggest learning curve for you, and what were the lessons you walked away with?
I would say that two establishments provided the largest learning curves, but also the greatest lessons.
The first experience, working at Mugaritz, helped me exercise my creativity. It taught me to run with my mind as well as my feet. Living directly above the restaurant and with people from all over the world also allowed [me to] step out of my own world, become more social, and learn from their experiences.
Working with Ferran Adria at Bullipedia was probably the toughest experience and the biggest learning curve in my career. It was a very multi-disciplinary environment, so I was surrounded by culinary professionals, artists, anthropologists, who exuded a level of education and confidence and challenged everything that I thought I knew about the industry. Working there was extremely inspiring and taught me that creativity and knowledge go hand in hand.
You opened Fieldstone with co-owner Emiliano Rivera. How did the two of you meet, and what made you decide to dive into this venture together?
Emiliano and I worked together at Secret Location in Vancouver. We had been building concepts together for various cities over the past several years, and then the concept of Fieldstone crystallized when I first moved to Montreal and began exploring the markets and food culture of this city.
You both come from very different cultural backgrounds; Rivera has Mexican roots, while yours are Cambodian. How have your respective heritages worked together when designing the menu at Fieldstone?
When designing menus at Fieldstone, I like to draw from a kaleidoscope of cultural influences. I became familiarized with Latin American ingredients having spent 4 years working with a Venezuelan chef in Vancouver, Jefferson Alvarez, and the time spent in Spain familiarized me with Spanish food culture, both traditional and modernist.
My Cambodian roots come from my grandmother, a refugee to Canada, who instilled in me an understanding of traditional flavours and techniques, but also a curiosity for adapting based on what was available in this country. For example, growing plants that don’t normally grow in Canada (lemongrass, tamarind, kaffir, ginger), or using Aunt Jemima pancake mix to make savoury bacon and chive pancakes that reminded her of dishes from home, or fermenting vegetables from our garden, like mustard and chilis.
You were very new to Montreal when you opened Fieldstone. After only being in the city for just over a month, how did you have the confidence to understand your clientele and the neighbou=rhood you were catering to?
Shopping at local markets like Marché Jean-Talon and Atwater helped me familiarize myself with the local produce and allowed me to get to know local farmers.
The confidence to open Fieldstone came from my desire to open a chef-driven restaurant to see if people would be receptive to some of my ideas. Passion and creativity can be risky in this industry because you will only reach a small percentage of diners, but we were a small and nimble operation, so we ran with it.
What has been the process of immersing yourself in the foodie scene of Montreal? What have you learned from running a restaurant in a city with a culture so different from those of the other restaurant hubs in Canada?
I find the chef community in Montreal to be quite open. I started out in Montreal working with Chef Kevin Ramasawmy of Bar George, and he would take me to various restaurants in the city and introduce me to other chefs. I also reach out to other chefs to do collaborations and try to be as involved as possible with fundraisers to help make the community stronger. As for the culture, Montreal is a city that holds on to its European roots more than Toronto or Vancouver. This differentiates it from other restaurant hubs because it has adapted those European roots to the climate and available products, creating something unique. Thankfully, though, people here are still open to new restaurants that try something different!
Fieldstone has strong ties to Quebecois history, given that it was a material used to construct many buildings within the province. How did you come to decide on this name, and why was it the right choice?
My partner and I were walking through the city thinking about ideas for a name and came across a church made from fieldstone. I was inspired by the imperfect sizes and lack of standardization that came together to form a structure that manages to withstand the test of time, even in Montreal winters! I believe this was the right choice for a name because when people think of Fieldstone restaurant, they think of unique and original dishes that come together to form something definitive.
Fieldstone features some very impressive presentation — there’s a definite artistry to the food on your menu. Do you have a particular thought process when it comes to plating each unique dish?
I like to start creating my dishes by sketching them out with a pencil and paper. This is how we created our conceptual maps when working with Ferran Adria in Barcelona, and I have adapted that practice to draw everything that I create.
Similarly, what’s your approach to experimenting with the food itself when it comes to creating a new menu item?
Sometimes the best ideas come when you least expect it, so when I have more experimental dishes, I will only make a small batch and offer it to the public. There are so many dishes that don’t make the menu because it either is not the right season or I worry that people may not be receptive to them. We want to reach a clientele that enjoys experimental and thought-provoking food, but still want people to take comfort in what they’re eating.
Has co-owning a restaurant and having to find balance between the business side of the industry versus being solely immersed in the creative side changed your approach to your work in the kitchen? How do you manage the pressures of wearing multiple hats?
I have yet [to find] the right balance between business, creativity, as well as life. I truly love what I do, and I love to be busy. I have a very unique approach to my work in the kitchen, it being very personal because I am often alone prepping and cooking. I manage the pressures of wearing multiple hats by constantly challenging myself to learn new things. If not about food, it’s wine, or something else!
What’s something our readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I have multiple creative outlets building furniture, designing aprons, painting…and karaoke!
Photos courtesy of Chanthy Yen.