Montreal restaurateur Dyan Solomon reveals secret ingredient for added flavor
For more than two decades, renowned chef Dyan Solomon has been building a growing empire that includes the wildly popular Olive et Gourmando in Old Montreal, Foxy in Griffintown and new Italian eatery Caffe Un Po' Di Piu, also in Old Montreal. And while she’s always proven adept at expanding her culinary horizons, picking up a second language has proved to be an equally rewarding skill for her career.
In fact, learning to speak French has been a key ingredient in her success story.
“I wouldn’t say I’m someone who picks up languages quickly,” Solomon said. “It’s taken me 20 years of slowly improving, but I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself. It makes me feel good to jump into a conversation in French and articulate myself.”
A native of Kingston, Ont., Solomon only spoke English when she moved to Montreal to study at McGill University. It wasn’t until after she returned from culinary school in Vermont and started working in the kitchen of famed Normand Laprise’s restaurant Toqué, that she began to immerse herself not only in the French language, but Quebec culture as well.
“I was in the kitchen where everyone spoke French, and I mean everyone. It really opened my eyes to another universe,” she recalled.
Solomon said she learned French mostly by struggling. She made mistakes on the job and picked up words along the way. While her confidence in her French slowly grew, Solomon’s reputation was rising rapidly in Montreal’s competitive food scene.
Motivated by her desire to make a life for herself in Montreal and excel in the food industry here, Solomon continued to work on her French with the many unilingual suppliers, colleagues and customers she engaged with in her everyday life. Bonds gradually developed and strangers eventually became friends.
“What I discovered is people are incredibly generous and forgiving when you’re learning,” she said. “I felt like when I was making an effort to speak in French, I was met with a lot of warmth and a willingness to help. I felt lucky in that sense.”
Solomon can remember countless times when a mistranslation or incorrectly used word made for an amusing situation — and they still happen all these years later — but she’s been able to learn from them and instead of feeling embarrassed, she recalls those moments with a laugh.
“One time I was serving a regular and I wanted him to try a new cookie I had been working on,” Solomon said. “I told him I wanted him to be my guinea pig, but I couldn’t remember what guinea pig was in French so I said he could be my ‘chauve-souris,’ which of course means bat. Then I thought it was a direct translation and said ‘cochon dingue’ but it’s not that, either.
“The look on his face when I said that, and the look of everyone in the lineup, was priceless.”
As her French has improved so, too, has her network of friends and colleagues in the industry. Over the years, she’s developed closer relations with suppliers and customers with whom she otherwise would’ve had trouble communicating. She’s even made appearances on friend Josée di Stasio’s French-language television show.
“People tell me they saw me on TV and that my French is great,” Solomon said. “I don’t think it’s that great, but I try.”
Being on French television is something Solomon would never have imagined when she moved to Montreal from Ontario. Then again, she said nowadays most of her work and home interactions are in French, and even her circle of friends is largely francophone.
With two restaurants in the tourist-heavy area of Old Montreal, Solomon and her team represent the face of the city to those visiting from elsewhere. As a result, Solomon takes pride in serving her customers in French. And while it’s true that many who visit from out of town speak English or another language entirely, they love Montreal’s francophone cultural history and want to hear it for themselves.
Solomon also pointed out that a number of tourists who frequent her shops come from French-speaking countries.
As an Ontarian who came here as a unilingual anglophone, Solomon feels if she could learn enough French to interact comfortably with others, anyone can. Her tip to those who might feel nervous about expressing themselves publicly in a language they’re still learning is to not be afraid to try.
“Yes, it can be terrifying to speak in a language you’re not comfortable in, but let go of the fear of sounding silly,” she said. “If you’re too hung up on how you sound or what people will think, you won’t be able to make the kinds of important mistakes that help you learn.”
Erik Leijon, Postmedia Content Works