After working through “mayhem, mayhem” in Vancouver, Tavern on the Square’s Leslie came back to Montreal to “do things a little bit differently, make a little bit of a splash.”
Chef Stephen Leslie’s success is born of swagger and ambition
April 4, 2019
Chef Stephen Leslie’s demeanour evokes a long-gone era when entertainers gussied up in tuxedos and cummerbunds. Leslie commands with his voice and inspires with his effortless swagger.
When he strolls into the sprawling dining room of his beloved restaurant Tavern on the Square, nestled in the southeastern corner of Westmount Square, there is an energy about him. His talents are constantly flexed, but they remain unassuming, making his prowess that much more palpable.
“I remember vaguely there being lots of food in the house before my dad died,” Leslie recounts. He was four years old when his father died. His older brothers had already moved out on their own, but they would come home to gather for dinner. “I remember things changing. My mom had to go get a job. This is the ’60s and I think she only had a Grade 9 education, as she had no plans of ever needing to go back to work. Because we were living in Deux-Montagnes and she had no driver’s license, she had to leave home around 5:30 a.m. and got home really late. So that necessitated me learning how to cook something because I was hungry. By the time I was 7, I had the key to my house.”
He says a defining moment came when he made his mother breakfast in bed.
“I remember making breakfast for my mom on a Sunday morning, eggs à la king. … I am certain it was awful, but I remember seeing the look on her face when I brought her breakfast and seeing that sparkle. Any kid is looking for that. … She was everything to me.”
“She would get home at 7 at night, then have to feed three boys, I don’t know how she did it. That was the impetus, you know, to start coming home, making food.”
They moved to LaSalle when he was 13. “I went from a high school of 300 kids out in the country, to 2,500 at LaSalle Catholic. It was a rough school, but I made some good friends. All my friends were good people, we didn’t get into trouble, we played a lot of sports.
“I think I smoked weed for two weeks and I was like this sucks, everybody’s not doing anything. They’re boring. I went back to my friends and said let’s throw the football around!”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
A friend from Montreal had invited Leslie out on the town for dinner with some high-roller friends. What could have ended in a night of washing dishes — as he feared he wouldn’t be able to pay for the meal — turned into a great opportunity.
“I put on my best shirt and jeans and went for dinner. I’m like, ‘what the hell am I doing with these people? I don’t have any money.’ I had a hundred bucks on me and I am like, I shouldn’t even be spending this money. We go to Giardino, and one of the guys calls the chef over and says, ‘Hey, just make us a bunch of food!’
During the meal, Leslie had an introduction with the chef and was told, “You come see me tomorrow and we will see if we can get you a job.” At the end of the night, one of the high-rollers paid the entire tab.
“After that,” he says, “every night was like mayhem, mayhem. There was Glenn Close in the dining room, Mel Gibson, it was just madness. I worked there for a little while until I couldn’t take it anymore.”
With graduation looming, and B.C.’s lustre fading, he applied for a job in Osaka, Japan. Leslie wanted to travel and pursued it seriously until a Montreal friend showed up to woo him back to our fair city.
“La Transition’s owner, John, flew down to Vancouver and asked me to come back to work for him in Montreal. I had this good opportunity to go to Osaka, but part of me was homesick and lonely.”
Back in Montreal by the time he was 30, he recalls the start of organic farming, introduced during his time on the West Coast, and the humble beginnings of his career back home in hot kitchens.
“Vancouver was a great experience, there was definitely a scene going on there, they were already very big in the organic food culture. Back in Montreal, there were two kind of restaurants that I remember: classic Italian and French. So I thought I could come back and do things a little bit differently, make a little bit of a splash.”
La Transition’s owner invited Leslie to dinner at the renowned Toqué! It was at this restaurant, under the spell of chef Normand Laprise that Leslie was seduced. Laprise has unwittingly mentored many of Montreal’s up-and-coming talents.
“He was like my mentor without him even knowing.”
“It was 1993. Toque! had been open for eight months. I was like, ‘this guy is head and shoulders above me. The food is unbelievable.’ I remember going home and I was so depressed, I lay in bed all night staring at the ceiling, saying to myself, ‘What are you going to do, Stephen? You are not in this guy’s league … not even close.”
Leslie couldn’t fathom starting over by leaving his post at La Transition to work with Laprise. He thought, “You are 30 now, you can’t go work there as a friggin’ dishwasher making minimum wage again.”
With that singular attention toward his craft, the ambitious chef set out to do it his way.
“I was a big cyclist. So in the morning, I would leave early. Toqué!’s menu was on the window facing St-Denis. I said, ‘I am going to go on my bike and read that menu every goddamn day so I can get into his head and see what’s going on!’ He was, to me, the best chef in Montreal, by far.”
Leslie now had purpose to his cooking. He tinkered and tested with food, pushing himself forward in technique.
“There was a lot of experimentation with Normand’s menu. Those days were just loading up my bike and going to the market. Riding to Toqué! writing down his menu then riding to work at Transition.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
After four years cooking at La Transition, with all this passion and dedication, it was time for Leslie to take centre stage.
There was a buy-in for what would soon be the resurrection of the old Monkland Tavern. A head chef was needed and that was the chance Leslie needed to shine on his own.
“It was time for me, and I believed in myself. I gave every cent I had saved, plus I borrowed another $5,000 I think, and boom! I was in for 15 points.” The funny part, he says, is that he thought he was burnt out. “I wasn’t even working hard compared to what happened after that place opened.”
About Tavern’s opening day in September 1997, Leslie says, “You open the door and cook your ass off. We were open seven days a week, lunch and dinner. We were living week to week, the stress was just killing me, and then something happened on Valentine’s Day — it started getting busy.”
With a recipe for success it was only natural to extend the stage and open a second location in Westmount Square that would offer a luxurious neighbourhood feel with Leslie’s hit menu.
For our Beyond the Plate adventure, this masterful and decorated chef chose to head to a secluded corner of Hatley in the Eastern Townships with a few close friends and colleagues. There, we gathered in the tricked-out kitchen of a gourmand friend and cooked up a memorable, multi-course feast.
This cozy, friend-filled day trip exemplified dedication to the craft: baking and breaking bread with loved ones, music playing, a fire roaring and signature wines flowing. A true showman, commanding the room, paying attention to every detail, and poised for centre-stage: the kitchen.
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on April 4, 2019