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Hell’s chicken

Big-name intervention compromises the family-run casse-croute

“We don’t have this bullshit pretty little piece of food on a plate…we have FOOD.” Rôtisserie Portugalia’s Melissa Lopes, daughter of Portugalia’s owner and the restaurant’s waiter, had much to say about top celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s British invasion of Montreal’s oldest rotisserie, Laurier BBQ, which is scheduled to take place next month. “So he comes and buys off restaurants people can’t afford anymore? Him? I even like his stupid show, but I can’t believe this,” Lopes added. Nor could many Montrealers and faithful patrons of this 75 year-old family establishment.

Rôtisserie Laurier BBQ was first opened by the LaPorte family in 1936 and existed for three generations before the last son closed the restaurant’s upstairs section and eventually sold the entire space. The Rôtisserie offered hearty roasted chicken, ribs, mashed potatoes, and mac-and-cheese dishes served on paper placemats, with crayons for the kids. As a family-style restaurant, it was central to Outremont’s primarily French and more recently Hasidic neighbourhood of Montreal. Marie Christine Couture, one of the Rôtisserie’s assistants, explained that the restaurant’s clientele had substantially decreased over the years. “Laurier BBQ once had 1,000 customers a day to currently about eighty people a day.” The turh of Couture’s comments was made hauntingly clear as I looked around and saw only a few old ladies scattered through the restaurant’s booths. It seems that the neighbourhood’s distaste for Ramsay’s takeover hasn’t been enough to bring people back to the famous home of their favourite childhood chicken and ribs.

The animosity surrounding Laurier BBQ’s scheduled closure is due in part to Gordon Ramsay himself. A reality TV show tyrant, Ramsay’s takeover is the 44 year-old’s 25th restaurant experiment. Despite his fame, Ramsay’s track record is full of restaurant closings, multi-million dollar bankruptcies, and bad reviews. As one of Portugalia’s Lopes brothers explained, “None of his restaurants make any money. He makes his money while he is there and then he boats!” Then there is also Ramsay’s notorious reputation for home-wrecking and wreaking emotional havoc on his contestants’ lives. Clearly, Ramsay represents a stark contrast to Laurier BBQ’s family-oriented atmosphere and staff of friendly older women.

The shutdown of this Montreal landmark may tell us more about the truths of neighbourhood gentrification than of Ramsay’s new flavour of the week. The Outremont and Mile End communities faced a similar loss earlier this year when diner Nouveau Palais was bought out, leading to an arguably detrimental change in both management and atmosphere. Throughout the past three decades, streets such as Laurier and Bernard have  become home to ritzy restaurants and shops, and with this has come an inevitable corporatization of the Montreal casse-croute. “Family-style” has been replaced by “fancy” in these parts as Laurier BBQ has started to compete with funky Asian fusion restaurants and classy cocktail bars.

This trends of corporatization and gentrification have deepened the meaning of the events at Laurier BBQ for those in the rotisserie business – whether Quebec-style, which Laurier BBQ is famous for, or Portuguese, like Portugalia. Through his daughter’s translation, Melissa Lopes father spoke to me in Portuguese about Ramsay’s takeover. Raising his spice-covered hands, he asked,  “Does he work for the government? I bet he works for the government!” More yelling in Portuguese ensued until Melissa finally explained what her father  meant: “Well, the government keeps complaining about pollution. We have been here since 1993 and all of a sudden all of us need new chimneys. Most Plateau people like the smell and the smoke. It’s part of the neighbourhood…and they are going to let this guy come in and open a restaurant?” Portugalia has further demonstrated their disdain by challenging Ramsay to a cook-off. They have yet to receive a reply.

Despite the chef’s infamous demeanor, the blame cannot solely be placed on Ramsay or the last   LaPorte on sons. Despite the vibrant history and delicious food these famous Montreal institutions still stand for, the loyal clientele has declined. This itself is a result of gentrification, as many of the BBQ’s clientele have moved during the neighborhood’s demographic shifts. However, this fact doesn’t make the heartbreak any easier. Let’s just hope Rôtisserie Laurier BBQ is the last of Ramsay’s Montreal takeovers.