This is the fourth instalment in the monthly series Beyond the Plate, looking at the motivations and passions of local chefs. This week: Theo Lerikos of Tuck Shop.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “At the centre of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.”
That truly applies to Theo Lerikos of St-Henri’s Tuck Shop (4662 Notre-Dame St. W.).
We live in a fast-paced world, many of us rushing through each day. Spending time with this 30-something chef, I was gobsmacked by his poise in the face of all that clutter, and was reminded of an invaluable, often overlooked lesson: stay balanced.
In addition to a packed schedule at Tuck Shop and its catering arm, Lerikos lives a full life away from the kitchen, immersing himself in nature, forest foraging and quality time with friends and family. This even-keeled life, filled with a thirst for learning when away from the restaurant, helps him channel his discoveries back into his kitchen and his celebrated food.
Lerikos was born in Montreal, and his mother, father and maternal grandmother had a large influence on his cuisine. With his father Sam’s traditional Greek background, food was front and centre. One of Lerikos’s earliest kitchen memories was the family setting out for Nova Scotia, where his Greek uncles owned a restaurant.
“Over Christmas holiday, we had a big family meal in their restaurant,” he reminisces. “At six years old, I would just be in the industrial kitchen the whole time. I couldn’t get enough of the whole kitchen scene. The bar setup, making Shirley Temples with the garnishes … the show that went on at a restaurant … I was really taken by it.”
I’ve noticed many chefs had difficulty staying focused in the classroom. They are built for action, creativity and multi-tasking. Lerikos remembers how he was struggling at the age of 17.
“I flunked out of CEGEP. My mother found out I wasn’t going to school anymore and she wasn’t happy with me.”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
While Lerikos had a strong family foundation of love and support, his no-nonsense mom, Margaret, read him the riot act, as only a mother can.
“My mom said to me, ‘You can’t live here at home and not go to school or pay rent. You are going to get a job, or you can leave.’
“She gave me the Gazette’s classified ads and a pen, said, ‘Circle this and circle that,’ and said, ‘Here’s the phone.’ ”
After a few calls, he got some traction: a family-run Italian restaurant in Pointe-Claire, Piazza Romana, was looking to hire a busboy immediately.
One long métro and bus ride later, he arrived an hour ahead of schedule for his first day on the job — a clear indication of his work ethic and desire to present well.
“I remember peeking through the window of the restaurant to see how a table was set, and memorized the placement.”
Lerikos worked as a busboy for a year, then moved his way up to server, wanting to save enough money for travel.
He then set out solo to Australia with enough funds to last, he thought, for three months.
Flush with money for the first time, he was overzealous with his spending once he arrived. Many a mismanaged day and night later, Lerikos was down to his last $500 with two full months to go.
“I had no idea how to budget. I ran out of money in the first month. I bought myself a tent and was living in the woods, going to hostels for showers, and lived off a weekly bag of trail mix. But it was really a cool experience.”
If nothing else, the predicament led to a fortuitous turn of events.
Lerikos ran into a Montrealer in the middle of his Australian adventure who happened to work at Monkland Tavern. She encouraged him to inquire about a job there upon his return.
With a healthy dose of travel under his belt, Lerikos, then 18, was homeward bound and headed for a pivotal job interview.
“With my CV in hand, I walked into the Monkland Tavern and met with then-manager Jon Bloom,” he recalls. “He was pretty tough and intimidating, but said, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ ”
Lerikos bused tables for a year at Monkland Tavern, earning respect and trust, and then landed a coveted server position.
“The Tavern was a real family environment, a real positive and encouraging atmosphere.” He recalls how he “loved hearing about the daily specials and wanted more.”
“I was always in the kitchen. I wanted to know what a bouillabaisse was, or what went into a Béarnaise sauce.”
Before each shift, Lerikos would stock up on groceries, choosing tantalizing ingredients. When he returned home, he and fellow server David Bloom (brother of manager Jon and now co-owner of Sumac restaurant in St-Henri) would teach each other how to whip up extravagant meals, using tips gleaned from the Tavern chefs.
“We were 20-year-olds buying all these crazy groceries, cooking until 4 a.m. and then sitting down to foie gras and a nice bottle of wine!”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
With this insatiable love for food, Lerikos attended a one-year intensive at the Pearson School of Culinary Arts every weekday until 4 p.m., and then headed straight to his restaurant shift each day at 5. He maintained this gruelling schedule throughout the year.
“It was a tough year to get through, but it was great. It built character.”
After graduation and another year amassing savings, travel to Thailand was up next for this evolving and ever-curious chef.
Upon his return, he put in a call to revered chef Stephen Leslie of Westmount’s Tavern on the Square (also a founder of Monkland Tavern) to ask for a position in his kitchen. There were no openings, but a recommendation from Leslie landed him a job at popular chef Chuck Hughes’s Garde Manger. After a year, Leslie poached him away from Hughes with a full-time position in the Tavern on the Square kitchen.
Lerikos fondly remembers his two-year stint with Leslie.
“I worked under Leslie the longest. He’s a very intense, systematic personality, and a lot of that rubbed off on me,” he says. “I think it’s very important to have that passion and emotion for food.”
With a desire for the outdoors and nostalgia for a childhood spent surrounded by nature, Lerikos went to work with celebrated “chef in the wild” Nancy Hinton. Under Hinton’s tutelage at Les Jardins Sauvages in St-Roch-de-l’Achigan, he honed his foraging skills, with a focus on our province’s wide array of fungi.
“I was throwing myself into the woods, probably picking poisonous mushrooms. I was cooking and really interested in wild mushrooms, but I didn’t know how to approach it and harness it.”
In 2010, it was time for Lerikos to open his own kitchen. Alongside partners and fellow Monkland Tavern graduates Jon Bloom and Amelia Stines, he swung open the doors of Tuck Shop. They have been enormously busy ever since, and can be credited with kicking off the food scene flourishing on St-Henri’s stretch of Notre-Dame St. Lerikos’s love of foraging plays nicely on the menu at Tuck Shop, where nature’s bounty will always pop up on the evening’s offerings.
For this month’s Beyond the Plate adventure, Lerikos decided to pack into our day everything that matters most to him: food, foraging and family.
We set out for the Bromont region of the Eastern Townships, to a mushroom-rich top-secret location in the woods. You could sense Lerikos’s pure joy as he went through the forest. It seemed like he could easily navigate the area blindfolded, he was so at home. Knowing the day’s find of wild mushrooms would end up on his menu that evening, we excitedly collected our winnings.
We then turned our attention toward dessert. A fast car ride brought us to a patch of huge, robust rhubarb, needed for baking as Lerikos’s mother — who is also Tuck Shop’s pastry chef — was awaiting our arrival at the family home.
Life for this young chef has come full circle. Lerikos emphasizes that his growth was largely due to being “amongst family” while working his way through Montreal’s kitchens, particularly his Tavern family.
Spending time with Lerikos, I couldn’t help but notice his profound sense of joy. He clearly knows that to lead a life filled with happiness and wonder, one needs to embrace a career head-on while also living life well beyond the confines of one’s job.
“You can see the difference when you find a cook who has their passions and interests outside of work,” Lerikos muses. “They really start to shine.”
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on August 8, 2018