The ambitious restaurateur behind Montreal's Miss Prêt à Manger, Monsieur Restaurant & Bar and Bird Bar grew up fast, but building her empire took time, patience and trust.
On June 12, 2005, in front of the 114th graduating class at Stanford University, Steve Jobs delivered an iconic commencement speech. It lasted all of 15 minutes, but helped set forth a lifetime of lessons for many.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future,” he said. “Believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well-worn path, and that will make all the difference.”
Chef Kimberly Lallouz has her own dot-to-dot story. She didn’t always know where she was going, but had the tenacity to keep propelling herself forward.
Kimberly Sarah Lallouz was born in Montreal to a French-Canadian mother and Moroccan Jewish father. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as the older sibling she found herself playing a caretaker role for her sister and brother.
Being part of a large extended family helped prepare her for a life path in which food would stay at the forefront.
“I grew up around a lot of food, from a very young age,” Lallouz says. “My family was really cool. They exposed me to different types of food. A lot of freshness. My love for everything that encompasses food definitely is not driven from an obsession with food itself, but from wanting to feed people.”
When Lallouz was 10, her family moved to the south of Spain for 3 1/2 years.
“I felt very uprooted. My life was super different and I didn’t have any friends for the first year. I studied a lot and skipped two grades in elementary. All there was to do was study!”
As Lallouz approached young adulthood, two continuous threads were her mother’s all-important influence and a path that was anything but linear.
“My mother exposed me to a lot of different things. I joined every extracurricular program under the sun. I was the wild child — I wanted to join the circus!”
Upon her return to Montreal, Lallouz attended St. George’s high school and made a bold move.
“Being exposed to a lot at a young age came with a lot of freedom and independence. It comes as no surprise I moved out at 16. There were no problems in my home, and I was not a rebellious kid. I was just that ready at that age to leave.”
After high school, Lallouz went to Dawson College, but quickly grew restless.
“I was studying journalism and marketing, living alone. I was in charge and could do whatever I wanted. But I was so caught up in being the best, the way my mother moulded me to be. So I switched into Marianopolis myself; (Dawson) wasn’t hard enough!”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
At 18, Lallouz left school to go to Israel and everything changed.
“I literally fell in love with the place. It was the first time I ever felt like I belonged somewhere.
“I was still quite free. I was painting, studied Hebrew, always creative. I lived in a s—ty apartment on famous Dizengoff (in Tel Aviv) with a couple of friends. Somehow I was always cooking. It was peripheral; it wasn’t the main focus. I loved playing house — I loved cooking for other people, making them happy.”
With a bigger taste for adventure, Lallouz went even further afield at 20.
“I went to Australia and got a job at a coffee shop for six months. When the chef didn’t come in one day, I ended up in the kitchen. It was easy stuff, like: ‘Boil 10 chickens!’ ” she says. “I remember thinking, this is disgusting!
“The next day when I went in, the chef had not come back, and I had to boil chickens again. I was like, ‘What happens if we just put some lemons in there, and some aromatics, throw some garlic, spices, and then when it boils, it won’t smell so bad?”
A sudden turn of events summoned Lallouz back to Montreal.
“I came back because my dad had a heart attack, and I am like … the glue. So if I wasn’t around, you know … s–t just hit the fan.
“It became really stressful. I started ‘adulting’ so young.”
Following her father’s health scare, she felt a need to take charge, as if anticipating other family responsibilities to come, including her younger sister moving in with her. With that need to take charge came a need to go back to school and get a degree.
Lallouz enrolled in LaSalle College, studying fashion marketing. But her enthusiasm quickly waned. “It didn’t feel challenging.”
Quick on her feet, the 23-year-old switched over to Concordia, majoring in journalism with a minor in marketing, and secured a job as manager of the hot spot Time Café.
“I loved selling food and wine. When it came time to hang out after hours, I was always hanging in the kitchen. I was always asking the garde-manger if I could decorate the plates … always learning visually. I started watching food television — anything related to food. But it was still on the periphery.
“I never allowed myself to fathom working in the industry,” Lallouz reflects, “I guess because of the way I was brought up and exposed to so much. (My mother) put me in Les Grands Ballets Canadiens; I was almost a pro tennis player, playing provincially. The expectation was high — it’s like, ‘Kim has to be something big!’ ”
While Lallouz was in university and working part time, a family friend in fashion retail offered her a job.
“He said, ‘Forget about finishing school — come work for me!’ ”
Lallouz spent five years in the fashion industry, but the experience was fraught with missteps.
“I started working there and I was so unhappy. I would cry myself to work every day. I hated waiting outside (for my boss to arrive), hated not having a key, not being in control. The most exciting moment of the day was what I was going to have for lunch. It was always about food. So I left!
“It was just an inopportune time of my life, considering all the things I had to deal with and who I was taking care of. My sister was living with me, my brother was in university and there was no money to pay for his school. He was about to become an engineer. I had to figure out a way (to fund his education). I felt super alone. I did not know if I was going to make ends meet.”
Lallouz waitressed and bartended and also worked in commercial real estate, but it was a head chef position in a kosher catering operation that pushed her toward a hard-won victory.
“I would arrive at 5 a.m. and finish at noon. It was extremely unglamorous — I’m talking white lab coat, hairnet, kitchen Crocs.”
With her entrepreneurial spirit, Lallouz posted about her cooking on Facebook, and found that social media helped her land big catering jobs.
“I just kept picking up clients on Facebook. Social media became my calling card.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
She prepared to open a small catering storefront and lunch spot on Bleury St. below René-Lévesque Blvd., called Miss Prêt à Manger. After an enthusiastic 2011 review in the Montreal Gazette, people started lining up outside. Notable patrons included Toqué! chef Normand Laprise. Business kept accelerating, and when the space next door became available in 2013, Lallouz took it over and named it for the “pseudo man” in her life, dubbing it Monsieur Restaurant & Bar.
“If I ever open a restaurant,” she remembers thinking, “at this point, I will just call it Monsieur, because I am married to this frickin’ thing anyway!”
She was also doing catering for the masses, with her seasonal Miss Tennis restaurant feeding thousands of hungry mouths at the Rogers Cup, starting in 2011.
“It was very challenging, and very scary,” Lallouz recalls. “I visualized myself turning around and walking out. My staff was just standing there waiting for my direction. It was way bigger than me.”
But Lallouz started calling out orders and managed that post for six years. “It gave me a really crazy amount of confidence.”
In 2014 a French freelance journalist spotted her talent during La Poutine Week, the annual showcase of chefs’ inventive takes on the Quebec classic. (Lallouz had created a dessert poutine in which churros mimicked fries.) Together they filmed a pilot called Les garden-partys de Kimberly, which was picked up by the cable food network Zeste in 2016. That led to a guest spot on the culinary competition show Je suis chef, and many more gigs on French and English television.
Around the same time as Les garden-partys de Kimberly, she opened yet another restaurant, Bird Bar, on Notre-Dame St. W., serving up the unique concept of fried chicken and Champagne. And she began receiving invites to attend international cooking events.
“I went to cook all over the place in Europe — London, Amsterdam — brushing my shoulders with Michelin star chefs. Things that I would never see myself do. Culinary competitions with Mark McEwan and Tyler Florence. People I watched on the frickin’ Food Network!”
With her empire built, yet forever growing, Lallouz’s success has been well earned.
“For five years, I did not move. I did not do anything except eat, breathe and sleep my job. I did not buy a pair of socks until all of my socks had holes in them. Life was work, and I was OK with it. I was very determined to succeed, especially with everybody saying, ‘You can’t do this kind of thing’ — and to be quite frank, I thought I was not a chef either. I mean, I didn’t go to cooking school; I don’t have the credentials. I didn’t want people to pay attention to that part.”
For our Beyond the Plate food adventure, Lallouz requested something a little unorthodox — quelle surprise! It involves a cause close to her heart, and speaks to her generous and caring nature.
We travelled to all of her restaurants — including Restaurant du MAC, her charming outpost at the Musée d’art contemporain — collecting food from the previous night’s feasts.
Armed with care packages of food as well as donated socks and blankets, plus artwork by toddlers from a daycare for which Lallouz provides nutritious meals, we set out to offer some of Lallouz’s goodwill to the many people in line at the Welcome Hall Mission.
“My path was a certain way,” Lallouz says, “and for a long time I didn’t really understand it myself. But if you really love food, it all just happens naturally.”
As Jobs eloquently stated: “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on January 31, 2019