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This is the second instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This week: Joe Mercuri.

Joe Mercuri:
The Accidental Star Chef

May 30, 2018

There is a quote by the late Julia Child that is bang-on when describing Joe Mercuri: “People who love to eat are always the best people.”

Mercuri is a force on the Montreal food scene. When the gregarious 40-something walks into Westmount’s Cafe Gentile, the launching point for our adventure, he has undeniable star power. But he remains true to his humble beginnings.

As I watched Mercuri shake hands and greet staff and customers as we awaited our coffees, I was reminded of the opening of the show King of Kensington, in which Al Waxman sauntered through an Italian marketplace in Toronto as the theme song played: “When he walks down the street, he smiles at everyone …”

Mercuri insists he wasn’t always like this. “At the beginning of my career, I was like a turtle — hiding, using the kitchen as my shell.”

He grew up in a traditional Italian home in Lachine with his parents and three sisters. His father managed a fabric company, and his mother was a seamstress. It was a working-class household in which his father “never cooked a meal. He couldn’t even boil water. My mother did all the cooking.”

In their classic Italian Montreal 1970s home — where one might imagine a dinner table with pasta spilling over bowls and the scent of heirloom sauces on a perpetual simmer — the now food-obsessed Mercuri was the pickiest eater of the whole famiglia.

“My nickname was Coniglio, which means rabbit, because I would only eat lettuce.”

Mercuri was 13 when he applied for a job at Il Fornetto, an Italian restaurant mere blocks from his home. Eager for tips, he coveted a busboy gig, but was saddled up at the dishwashing station, where he scoured plates by hand.

“That was before they had this installed,” Mercuri said, pointing to a modern dishwasher during our surprise visit to his old stomping grounds. “And I tell you, this place was busy. This was the Buonanotte of the ’80s.”

At Il Fornetto, Mercuri spent nine years climbing his way up to busboy and later bartender. He remembers the chef repeatedly imploring him: “You have to get into the cooking world and become a chef.” But that wasn’t on his radar until he was presented with an interesting dilemma.

He laughed: “I got into cooking by accident!”

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

Mercuri gradually garnered the respect and attention of Il Fornetto’s owners, and was eventually offered an opportunity to open a café next door, named Dolce. Mercuri ran the new space with his best friend, but the pair quickly encountered a stumbling block: “We needed a chef, but couldn’t afford one.”

He surprised his friend — who had never even seen Mercuri brew a cup of coffee — by promising to prepare a test batch of “salads and sandwiches with fresh local market ingredients,” assuring him: “Don’t worry, I feel I can do it.”

The friend tried the food and was shocked by Mercuri’s talent, gleaned from years under his mother’s tutelage and from working in Il Fornetto’s bustling kitchen.

After a year as the café’s chef, Mercuri said, he was “falling in love more and more with food.” He fondly recounts a flashbulb moment when he was given his first cookbook.

“The sun was glaring through my family’s huge garage window and I was handed this book by my brother-in-law — Charlie Trotter’s Cookbook — and it just snapped: This is what I want to do.”

Mercuri enrolled in a one-year intensive program at the Pearson School of Culinary Arts in LaSalle. Once out of school, he desperately wanted to work under revered chef Claude Pelletier at Mediterraneo on the Main, but there were no openings.

Mercuri had an insatiable appetite: “I went there every night. I had to work there.” His persistence finally paid off. “I did one year for free. Then there was an opening, and I started working full time.”

After Mediterraneo, there was Rosalie and the famed Cube, where he reunited with Pelletier. Mercuri was owner and chef at the now-closed Brontë, which was named Canada’s best new restaurant by enRoute magazine in 2004. And his menu is still going strong at the Italian favourite Lucca, on Dante St. in Little Italy.

Each of Lufa’s rooftops showcases a sophisticated, climate-controlled and pesticide-free greenhouse dedicated to harvesting tons of fresh produce using LED-supplemented seedling germination, state-of-the-art hydroponics and good old-fashioned sunlight. The urban farm’s customizable weekly baskets are delivered to drop-off points throughout the city, and the produce finds its way into the fridges of more than 13,000 families.

We were led on a fascinating tour by Lufa co-founder Lauren Rathmell, and Mercuri’s wonderment was palpable on his first visit. Hand-selecting everything from Boston lettuce to sorrel, scarlet kale and kohlrabi, Mercuri hollered at me in delight about the fragrant nose of a handful of plucked herbs: “This stuff is unbelievable!” He pointed to a bank of frizzy greens: “That kale over there is a chef’s dream!

“I am so surprised by all of this,” he said. “Most of the time when I get hydroponic product, I find it’s lacking in flavour, and this is just bursting with flavour.”

With reusable Lufa bags brimming with greenhouse bounty, and a box of pasta we fetched along the way, we headed southwest to Urban Bonfire on the Lachine Canal. The showroom specializes in top-of-the-line grill equipment and has a kitchen for grill demos and cooking classes.

We unpacked our rooftop spoils and I got set to assist Mercuri with his favourite style of cooking: open-fire grilling.

We chopped, stirred, spiced, massaged and drizzled the fresh produce, and talked by the rising open flame as he prepped a dish he said he concocted on the drive to Bonfire: barbecued pasta (yes, raw pasta dry-grilled, then boiled) with a sauce featuring broccoli florets, seared fresh hot peppers and sautéed garlic. Authentic Italian this was not. Foodgasmic it was. The cherry tomato and shallot salad he whipped up and laid out on chef’s smears of tahini was no less satisfying.

On his next career move, Mercuri excitedly confided: “Heidi, I have big news!” His celebrated namesake restaurant, Mercuri, which closed in May, will be downsizing from a 120-seater to a soon-to-be-announced cosier location, nestled further into Old Montreal, with a 40- to 44-seat capacity. This will allow Mercuri to better connect with his clientele.

“I want to make Mercuri a more intimate experience for myself, my team and the customer,” he said. “I’m in it for the future. I got great things cooking up.”

After a long, colourful and enlightening day with Mercuri, it was clear this man has shed his turtle shell. In Julia Child’s words, Mercuri really is one of the best people.

This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on May 30, 2018

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