This is the sixth instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This month: Raegan Steinberg and Alex Cohen of Arthurs Nosh Bar.
Raegan Steinberg, Alex Cohen share a nosh
October 10, 2018
Throughout my time spent with Raegan Steinberg and husband Alex Cohen, co-founders of Arthurs Nosh Bar on Notre-Dame St. W. in St-Henri, Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe was on a loop in my head:
They say we’re young and we don’t know
We won’t find out until we grow
Well, I don’t know if all that’s true
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you
Like those lyrics, the story of these two chefs is built on a foundation of support. They share a passion for food, hard work and a prevailing attitude that, even with life’s curveballs, they will back each other up in a way that is rare in their unforgiving industry.
Steinberg was born in Montreal in 1984 and grew up in T.M.R., the eldest of three siblings in a Jewish home. After she graduated from St. George’s High School, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, career-wise,” she says. She dabbled in acting, fashion and other creative fields, ultimately ending up at Concordia.
“I went through the motions of school, not really interested in what I was actually learning. I kept trying to apply to get into John Molson (School of Business), but kept getting deferred because I had to redo my calculus. I was really bad at math.
“My dad got really, really sick with cancer, and it was my third year of university, and so I decided I would not finish my marketing minor or try to switch programs. I just wanted to graduate.”
After graduation, a job at catering giant Java U was arranged through a boyfriend’s mother. Steinberg says she was determined to succeed.
“I liked doing something different every day and enjoyed the camaraderie. Obviously everyone doubted me and they were like, ‘No, you are just a spoiled girl and you are just passing through.
“I was like, ‘Screw that! What I am going to do is be the best.”
After a year at Java U, Steinberg applied for a one-year intensive culinary program, held at the Art Institute of Vancouver. What followed was an uphill climb and an emotional battle.
In late 2006, Steinberg’s father, Arthur Steinberg, passed away after a fight against non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The loss of a parent is a time when you are forced to see what you are made of — it can destroy some people, and can move others forward.
“I was lost and angry, in need of a change,” Steinberg confides. “I guess my dad dying propelled me to leave Montreal, which was a really good thing at the time.
“I always wanted my dad to be proud of me. My dad loved food. I knew right away when I had made that decision (to pursue a culinary career), that it was the right decision.”
With a new-found focus at the age of 24, Steinberg ensconced herself in Vancouver with her studies and her first real job as a cook.
“I wanted to take things to the next level, and I worked in a super-fine-dining restaurant (Blue Water Cafe) and I went to school simultaneously. I did that for one year and then decided to return to Montreal.”
With a formal training degree under her belt, Steinberg sent resumés to only two restaurants once she was back in Montreal. It was a time when the culinary spotlight was shining on the dynamic partnership of Fred Morin and David McMillan of Joe Beef, Liverpool House and McKiernan. Many young talents have worked their way up the ranks in these kitchens, going on to become incredible chefs in their own right. Steinberg was one such alumna.
“I have been really lucky with jobs,” she says. “When I came back, I only applied to Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon. I got both jobs and decided to work at Joe Beef, and then moved next door to Liverpool House and pretty much went back and forth for four years.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
Chef François Côté helped get Steinberg oriented in Joe Beef’s kitchen; later, she was shepherded along by ever-generous chef and co-owner Morin. When asked who had the strongest influence on her cooking and ethos, she doesn’t hesitate to name Morin.
“Just watching him and the way his mind works — a genius. His plating was so effortless. Fred would just whip up something and it would be the best sauce you’ve ever had in your life. He would take fresh tomatoes from the garden, some basil and garlic, veal stock — boom! It would be amazing.”
While working full time at Joe Beef, a fateful night out led Steinberg to meet Cohen, who was working the garde-manger area at Greasy Spoon on Laurier Ave. W.
“I never thought anything of him again, really,” she says. “I just referred to him as Hot Chef.”
But a few months later, she and her mom were at Lucille’s on Monkland Ave. “We sat at the bar and I see him! I was like, ‘Oh my god, Hot Chef is here!’ ”
Steinberg and Cohen, then 25 and 26 respectively, started a whirlwind romance. “He asked for my number that night,” she says, “so I think it was love at first sight.”
Cohen grew up in Montreal as a first-generation Canadian, born to parents who hailed from Morocco. Juggling English and Hebrew at Jewish day school was the first struggle in his circuitous journey toward working in Montreal kitchens.
“I got kicked out in Grade 3,” he says. “I had some anger issues and struggled with the two languages. I switched into public school and, looking back, I see how it gave me a different viewpoint on life — seeing all the different cultures and different types of people.”
After high school, Cohen tried to find a path for himself but faltered.
“I went to university, in fine arts at Concordia, but never graduated. I had a year left. I wanted to switch into animation, so I applied to a one-year certificate program in 3D animation, quickly realizing that staring at a computer screen wasn’t for me.”
Now in his early 20s, Cohen needed a job. “I was a dishwasher/busboy at a supper club, and never had any interest at all in cooking.”
One night, he was asked to man the kitchen. “I said sure — I really just fell into it.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
Cohen may loom large visually, but he is disarming and incredibly humble. “I wouldn’t say what I have is technique. This is probably the corniest thing I will say, but someone once called it ‘cowboy cookery,’ because I would just figure it out,” he says. “In certain jobs it worked out great — and with others, not so great!
“There are times I wish I could go to culinary school, but I can’t,” he continues. “My wife always says, ‘You should go,’ but I’m like, ‘No, we have a baby on the way.’ Right now there’s too much going on in my life to even consider this. So I just accept it, and have to keep learning on my own.”
While cheffing at Liverpool House, Steinberg snagged Cohen a coveted position in the Joe Beef kitchen — but without the classically trained style of the Joe Beef empire’s all-star chefs, he struggled.
“It was a really hard time in my career,” he admits. “I made a lot of mistakes. I worked in this really great restaurant, but I never really had an apprenticeship. I guess I never stayed somewhere long enough.
“I just always doubted myself — doubted my ability.”
Cohen left Joe Beef, but was undeterred. Now in his early 30s, and newly married to Steinberg, he began learning how to make Japanese cuisine at Ryu on Laurier Ave.
The self-taught chef once again threw himself into his work, with a steep learning curve. “I had only ever cooked Japanese for myself. After researching ingredients and recipes, I would figure out my own flavours, technique and style, using just visuals and smell. I smell something and I just know how to put it together — that’s how my brain works.”
Cohen and Steinberg soon joined forces to learn how to run a catering business, and a search for a commercial location led them to St-Henri. A lease was signed, but once a six-month build was nearly underway, they decided to create a restaurant instead of just a catering kitchen. And not just any restaurant — one with a menu informed by traditional Jewish recipes.
Doubt and worry quickly took hold. They recall looking at each other and asking, “What the hell did we just do?” But in June 2016, the doors to Arthurs Nosh Bar swung open.
“We are a Jewish restaurant in the middle of St-Henri. Why would anyone want to eat Jewish food here?” Cohen says. “And without any marketing — we didn’t even say when we were opening — out of nowhere, we had over 150 people waiting outside.”
Arthurs was named in memory of Steinberg’s father. Having played an integral role in his daughter’s love of food, he now lives on not just for family and friends, but through explanations of the restaurant’s name to customers.
For Cohen and Steinberg’s Beyond the Plate food adventure, we strolled down Victoria Ave. in Snowdon to visit a few of the Jewish community’s culinary institutions, looking for ingredients for a Sephardic-inspired Shabbat dinner. We poked and prodded around for the best hot challah bread at Kosher Quality bakery, then jostled for position in a line of fierce grandmotherly shoppers at New Victoria Fish, where we were given a sample of house-smoked lox. From there, we set out for Cavendish Mall to buy vegetables and kosher chicken, and then dropped in on Cohen’s aunt, Licy Cohen, to concoct a savoury Moroccan-style Shabbat feast.
Spending time with these two chefs outside the kitchen and observing their devotion to one another — and their frequent kibitzing — deepened my appreciation for their bustling restaurant. Steinberg and Cohen worked through some epic obstacles, but never lost sight of each other.
Cohen closed with this thought: “I can only be as great and reach my full potential with Raegan by my side.”
And all the while, the song played on in my head:
Put your little hand in mine
There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb
Babe, I got you babe
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on October 10, 2018