© 2019 Beyond the Plate by Heidi Small.

This is the first instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This week: Dyan Solomon (Olive et Gourmando, Foxy).

Co-founder and owner of Olive et Gourmando (Old Montreal) and Foxy (Griffintown)

Dyan Solomon says her early start in the culinary world seemed like “just luck” to her. Speaking about her life recently and about the road that led her down the culinary path, she makes it sound more like fate.

Solomon grew up in Kingston, Ont., with her mother and younger sister. Most kids in the area started off with part-time jobs at Baskin-Robbins or Tim Hortons, but Solomon’s mother steered her in a different direction. She arranged for the 14 year old to work with a catering company that dealt directly with local organic farmers and sourced only the freshest seasonal ingredients.

Solomon says she fell in with “people who were doing the food that I enjoy doing today.”

After Solomon graduated from McGill University with a BA and master’s in English literature, she set her sights on a career in the kitchen and attended New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. Needing a stage during her first year of culinary school, she came back to Montreal and secured an internship at the legendary Toqué! restaurant, under the guidance of fabled chef Normand Laprise. Upon receiving her degree, the then 27-year-old Solomon was asked by Laprise to return as chef de partie of Toqué!; after two years, she was promoted to head pastry chef.

Still proud of the responsibility bestowed upon her, Solomon says, “I went back to work for Normand after I graduated from culinary school. … I had a little team of four people.”

While leading this team through the heat and hurried pace of a world-renowned restaurant’s kitchen, Solomon met her love and future business partner, Eric Girard.

Solomon reminisces, “We fell in love while working together, and he talked me into opening Olive et Gourmando.”

Within three years from her start at Toqué!, she and Girard left and opened the celebrated brunch and lunch spot on St-Paul St. in Old Montreal. Girard also wanted a nighttime restaurant, and although this was not her dream, she joined the mission.

“Eric had been wanting another restaurant for years; it was always me standing in his way, trying to protect our relationship.”

After opening Foxy, Solomon and Girard broke up but managed the near impossible, as she candidly shares. “We broke up, survived and became even better business partners.”

Today, both Olive et Gourmando and Foxy (a nighttime restaurant that cooks only with wood fire) have become very successful restaurants on the Montreal and international scenes. With awards from Air Canada’s enRoute magazine and Canada’s 100 BEST, it is evident that Solomon and Girard have emerged in fine form. Together with their commitment to fresh ingredients and working with local farmers, they create tantalizing menus.

Considering our weather, working with seasonal offerings can be a challenge in Montreal, but as Solomon explains, “The connection with farmers is very gratifying.” Indeed, she prides herself in cultivating strong relationships with local farmers. Which brings us to our food adventure.

I accompanied Solomon to La Ferme des Quatre-Temps, a supplier with whom she and her Foxy team work closely.

The farm, located in Hemmingford, is run by organic farmer and sustainable agriculture advocate Jean-Martin Fortier. Fortier wrote the bestselling book The Market Gardner: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming, which caught on among the organic farming community. The 40-year-old is known internationally for having achieved profitability and productivity using biologically intensive cropping systems.

In a phone interview, Fortier says, “The book is a huge magnet for people who are hopeful for something better.”

During the visit, it’s clear Solomon has a deep affinity for Quatre-Temps, in part because of how it operates, which dovetails nicely with how she operates. She adapts the menus at Foxy and Olive to the farm’s seasonal offerings.

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

“Spinach is the first ingredient we work with, followed by the mixed lettuce,” Solomon says. “We are cued by the farm (as to) what produce is coming in order to quickly scramble and integrate (it) into our menu.”

It is also a good practical fit, Solomon says. “It is rare to find an organic farm that handles everything. Not only does the farm grow fresh organic fruits and vegetables, they also have a delivery system in place. So busy restaurateurs can concentrate on their menus and operations, knowing that a delivery is coming, a system is in place, and has been taken care of.”

And last but not least, there is the personal touch. Although Trudeau and Quatre-Temps guide and manager Chloé Trudeau have a longstanding relationship via phone and email, they had not met before this recent visit. The close collaboration translated easily in their first face to face encounter. Farm manager Trudeau confessed that she takes friends and relatives to Foxy when she visits Montreal.

At the end of our day together, I ask Solomon to what she attributes her success in the culinary world, and was taken by the star chef’s humble answer.

“I just keep my head down and do the work.”

This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on May 2, 2018