The Montreal chef has taken his share of hits, but learned the pleasure of expecting the unexpected — and shares that pleasure with customers at Provisions and Le Petit Italien.
The boxing ring is an apt metaphor for life’s unending trials, and illustrates the scrappy demeanour of Pablo Rojas. The chef has a fighter’s mentality; from a very young age, there was a steely stance and a desire to be the very best. Like Rocky Balboa, Rojas learned through the school of hard knocks.
Rojas was born in Châteauguay in 1985 to a French-Canadian mother and a Peruvian father. His father had the greater cultural influence on his first years in the kitchen and on his cooking to this day.
“I have all these memories of every time I’ve been to Peru growing up,” Rojas says. “Last time I went was about five years ago; I pretty much spent the whole time with my grandma cooking. She is probably one of the best chefs I’ve ever met — she’s a great, great cook.
“I am very proud of the Peruvian food. I think it’s some of the best food around the world.”
In elementary school, Rojas suffered from boredom in the classroom. As with many future chefs, there was a lack of focus when he was disinterested.
“By not putting any stop signs in front of me, that’s where I can perform. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider. I didn’t want to follow the rules.”
The one skill set that stuck early on — and showed its relevance for Rojas time and time again — was sports, which gave him a sense of focus.
“At six, I was a gymnast. I was a very good gymnast — one of the best in Canada. I was trying to go to the Olympics. I was very, very strong, very hard-working. But my grades were not strong enough.
“Gymnastics is probably the hardest sport you can do, because you need to be good at everything. The second you’re a gymnast, any sport you pick up, it’s easy — you have perfect balance; you are strong as a bull.”
(Rojas put that strength to use when he took up boxing about eight years ago: “I just wanted to punch stuff!”)
At 16, Rojas decided to set off on his own and settle in Montreal, stepping through life’s ropes and into the ring.
“At 17 I take my first job, as busboy at Wienstein & Gavino’s. For a year and a half I am the ‘suiteur,’ the expediter, calling out ‘Table 1! Table 2!’ — so, pretty much doing the job of a chef when he calls the ticket. I was very good at that. Very authoritative, very organized, even if I was super young.”
On a lark one day, the smart-mouthed teen said to the chef that, after closely observing the workings of the kitchen, he was confident he could take over.
“I was watching the kitchen and how it worked for 3 1/2 years, and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s easy for me.’ And then the chef said, ‘OK, you are starting tomorrow!’
The chef was a good manager, Rojas recalls — “great with numbers. He’s like, ‘You wanna learn? The first thing to learn is how to count, then doing inventory of the restaurant, food costs and the breakdown of recipes.’
“I showed up at 6 a.m. the next morning ready to work. I did that for about a month or two. I was barely 18 years old.
“If it was not for cooking, I don’t know where I would be,” Rojas says of this experience in young adulthood. “I would say that cooking kind of saved me.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
After almost two years honing his skills, Rojas joined chef Kimberly Lallouz at Time Café, where she was manager.
“I am 20 and go in as a cook, then the chef leaves and I take over,” he remembers. “I think it was my birthday and the owners asked, ‘How old are you going to be?’ … I turned 21 and they were in shock!
“They never realized that at 21 you could be so hungry for work and hungry for success,” he says. “At that point I’m like, ‘OK, that’s what I am going to do in my life.’ ”
One of the defining characteristics of this tenacious, focused young chef was his stealthy movement toward getting what he wanted.
“When I put my head into it, I am like, ‘Now I need to be the best!’ ” Rojas says. “I was never a great cook, but I always told everyone that you could be a better chef than I am, but I am such a hard worker, I will be the last man standing, so for sure I am going to win. Then my cooking got better and better with experience, with learning and a lot of reading.
“The key to being a good chef is to work hard. Working, working like 90 hours a week since I was 20, six days a week, all the time,” he says. “I think I’ve always done everything with a lot of passion. I never had that half-speed thing; I was never able to do that — pick something and say, ‘Meh, I’ll do it half-assed.’ ”
After Time Café, Rojas did a short stint at downtown’s Garçon! restaurant.
“It was a French restaurant on Sherbrooke St. I went there as a sous-chef. It was a good restaurant — they won (enRoute magazine’s national award for) best new restaurant a couple years before. I stayed there a bit and then I left. It was not really busy and I get bored fast.”
Things moved quickly for Rojas in the years that followed. He was a chef at Via Crescent, followed by a post at Le Petit Italien on Bernard Ave. W., and then he helped Joe Mercuri set up his namesake resto, Mercuri, in Old Montreal.
In 2015, at the age of 33, Rojas opened the doors to his own daring restaurant, Provisions, on Van Horne Ave. in Outremont. It set the stage for his takeover of the street.
“You are never really ready. I think there are people who can own restaurants, and there are people who just can’t,” Rojas says. “It’s very stressful, especially when you don’t have money backing you and it’s your own money.”
Provisions has a fresh, seasonal approach — and no menu. All one finds is a small, colourful chalkboard listing ingredients — not even dishes — that may or may not appear that night.
“At the beginning I wanted to do no board — just like, ‘Sit down and we cook,’ ” Rojas recalls. “Then at one point I am like, ‘OK, you know what, we’ll put a board, but I don’t want to write the menu.’
“Every time I was working at a restaurant as a chef, reading the menu was giving me anxiety. I don’t know why. … Just like, ‘Ah, that f—ing tartare again’ — I just couldn’t see it anymore!”
With a fighter’s stance, Rojas hunkered down and stuck to his guns. “We went for it and it worked!”
However, his exciting expression of seasonal cuisine came with its share of concern.
“At the beginning, it was hard. People didn’t understand. They were like, ‘What do you mean I can’t choose?’ or ‘What do you mean I don’t know what I am eating?’ That obviously brought on extra stress: Am I doing the right thing? Did I take the right decision? Am I going too fast?
“And then things started slowly getting better and better, and then we got busy.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
Not even a year passed before Rojas had his eyes on a rundown butcher shop just east of Provisions on Van Horne. He pounced.
“It’s funny, but I have a very big problem with buying stuff from other people when I know I can do it myself. I am always trying to be my own supplier. You know that farm-to-table cooking starts with a butcher shop; it starts with having a garden. That’s the dream: to not have any supplier except myself.”
In addition to Boucherie Provisions, Rojas acquired his old stomping grounds, Le Petit Italien, and began leaving the nightly cheffing at Provisions to his longtime business partner, Hakim Rahal.
Le Petit Italien had been sold when Rojas was cheffing there with Alain Starosta, but Rojas says they always knew the day would come when they’d get it back. It reopened in early 2018.
“Alain came to see me (at Provisions),” Rojas says. “He sat down and looked at me, and I knew exactly why he was there. He said, ‘We are taking it back!’ ”
As a chef and restaurateur, Rojas has been influenced by some heavy hitters in Montreal’s culinary community.
“I was obsessed with Martin (Picard of Au Pied de Cochon) from a very young age. He was a big influence. There’s Stephen Leslie (of Tavern on the Square), a great chef and one of my best buddies. I was very lucky at a very young age to be guided by many of the great chefs in Montreal, even if I never worked for them.”
Rojas recalls the time he met David McMillan, the famed chef-owner of the Joe Beef conglomerate.
“I’m always going to remember that day! I was on the phone screaming outside his restaurant, right before my dinner.”
He remembers McMillan walking over to him and saying: “ ‘For sure you are a chef. You’re trying to take a night off, aren’t you?’ … He’s like, ‘Come with me!’ ”
Rojas suggests a chef’s experience can be just as substantial as lessons learned at culinary school.
“Because you’ve been doing (a dish) for so long, you’ve been trying and screwing up so many times that finally you know what’s missing is just a bit of vinegar, and then it’s just going to change a dish and balance out all the flavours. But it took me 10 years to realize I only needed two drops of vinegar to change an OK dish into an amazing dish.
“Always cook what you love,” Rojas advises. “I tell that to younger chefs a lot. Stop cooking what you think people want — cook something you like. You need to get excited about these things. That’s something you learn with time.”
For our Beyond the Plate video, Rojas wanted to convey what it truly means to be a chef, and give a portrayal of his daily grind in and out of his kitchens. After an early wake-up call for a round of boxing, it was off to the various restaurants and businesses this wildly ambitious entrepreneur has cultivated, all within a stone’s throw of one another.
We stopped at Le Petit Italien, followed by a quick visit to Boucherie Provisions for a mouth-watering take on the classic smoked-meat sandwich. The outing culminated in a wine tasting and delectable meal at Provisions, prepared by Rahal.
Like a true champion, Rojas has taken the hits and emerged triumphant in an industry fraught with trials, tribulations and knockout failures.
“I am lucky to have been surrounded by a lot of people that succeeded, but I think what you learn the most is from the people who failed and got back at it. If you go down, you get up, and you go down again. Everyone else would have given up, but you finally nail it! I think that’s what real success is.”
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on March 6, 2019