David Schmidt interview
David Schmidt on what makes the perfect restaurant
Words— JP Karwacki
Portraits – Martin Hyu
In our Good Living interview series, we ask our most interesting friends revealing questions about how they design their lives, navigate today’s complicated world and, well, live the good life – whatever that means for them.
To speak with David Schmidt is to take an in-depth crash course in all facets of the hospitality industry. When I called the Montreal-based restaurateur up for this interview, it didn’t take long for him to launch into details of the conscious efforts that go into each of his establishments, from how table height affects atmosphere to his more tender years spent haunting cuisine ground-breakers like Joe Beef and Au Pied du Cochon to see how they tick.
It’s been a decade since Schmidt opened his first bar at the ripe age of 24, and he’s since gone on to be part of numerous projects across his city. From the tinted windows of the bar and nightclub Datcha and Montreal’s premier spot for Nikkei cuisine Tiradito to newer ventures like the brewpub Pamplemousse with a wood-fired menu or the swimming pool-themed bar Club Pelicano, we wanted to see what drives him and his enterprises.
What first attracted you to hospitality?
I always dabbled in catering and worked in hotels when I was younger. I love hospitality, I love people, I love service and the philosophy behind it. But I was also studying history, which gave me a kick in the butt because it made me realize how much history is involved in restaurants, and that good service is storytelling.
The more you know about your food and your libations, the more you make customers interested. I like to serve customers that are interested in food and alcohol and everything in between, and that we can chat about coffee for ten minutes because they’re interested and they ask questions. Sometimes the clients are the ones that arrive with great suggestions or great stories, and I think that was always a big part of it for me, the history.
When you get into hospitality, you get addicted to all the different facets of it. It’s not unilateral; there’s human resources, psychology, philosophy, organization, there’s administration, the rush you get from serving clients – being the boots on the ground, being there for people and bringing these stories home.
It’s such a total experience, and as an owner, I’ve wondered a million times if I could be doing something else, and I’m completely addicted to it. There’s no way I’d do something else right now. I’ve dabbled with the idea of owning a furniture company as I love furniture as well, but at the end of the day, I get to work, there are 30 problems to solve, and I complain about it, but I’m happy. I like it a lot. I don’t see what else would give me that same kind of feeling.
Mango ceviche at Tiradito, cocktails at Club Pelicano.
What did you mean by “good service is storytelling”?
I think that when you convince a client to make a purchase in your establishment, you’re selling them the idea that it’s going to be a good time. There’s work in the place that you’re doing: There’s work in the cocktails, you know your wine and they’re well curated, the information around the wine is interesting. You can serve me a biodynamic wine and not tell me a story about it, and I might like it, but you can make my taste buds five times as vivid if you explain to me who makes it, how it’s different from other wines, what I should be tasting…
When you go to a good place that has a strong philosophy and an interest in the product, they’re not supposed to just drop a plate without describing it, to give a menu without guiding you through it. Often a lot of the work that the kitchen puts in gets lost in translation, and a server doesn’t tell the story they should tell.
…If the waiter doesn’t explain this, you could even undervalue or underappreciate the product because it hasn’t been explained to you, it hasn’t been vulgarized in a way where you can imagine the amount of work that was put into something. These are all things that make you enjoy your experience even more, and for me, that’s where the history and the storytelling comes into play, it’s as important as the product as you’re going to eat.
A lot of the businesses you’ve opened in the past have stemmed from varied cultural influences and client needs. What would a bar just for David Schmidt look like?
I open businesses because I see myself in them. Pretty much every time I open one, I’m in love with an idea or an experience. I open restaurants and bars because I see myself in that seat.
Personally, I’d like to open/sit down in a really small, intimate bar that democratizes wine. I’d like to see wine less expensive, and I’d hire one person who’s surly—I kind of like to the romance of them being surly—and a good collection of amazing wine. You’re served in small glasses, filled up to the brim, and it’s basically the working Montrealer’s wine bar. You go there, it’s inexpensive, the glasses start at $6 with even wine on tap, maybe two food items, and I’d go there every day to work and maybe read a book. That’s the kind of bar I can see myself in.
Tiradito's soft-shelled crab with Criolla salsa.
Hypothetical here, but bear with me: Walking into a bar or restaurant you’ve never been to, maybe even in a town you’ve never visited, what’re you looking for when you enter?
I have a lot of trouble these days not overanalyzing a business. The place where I go to have fun is also a work environment and a place I need to analyze operationally. It becomes difficult for me to enjoy bars and restaurants as much as I used to. Only on a longer vacation can I forget work for a little bit. If it’s just a week, I’m going to have fun, but I’m probably going to be pretty annoying because I’m going to be looking at everything, touching everything, lifting the glasses to see what the company is, wondering where they got their plateware… I might have fun, but it's a bit poisonous not being able to turn it off. It does turn off, but it takes time.
So, what do I look for when I walk in? Sadly, I analyze every single detail that I find interesting and I take notes non-stop on my phone or on a piece of paper or napkin, and then wake up the next day with my pockets full of napkin notes of different things. Some of them get hard to read because I had too many drinks and I don’t know why I wrote them, or I forget why I wrote “the thing close to the thing at the bar”, and I have to keep the note or else I’ll forget what it was entirely. I’m a notorious note-taker, I organize them, and I always have 20 notes on every single subject.
I want to shift gears from bars to cocktails; in your own words, what constitutes a cocktail culture?
I think there’s a respect of the base product, especially the perishables, that I find really important. For example, with a grapefruit (at Mal Necessaire or Pamplemousse), we’ll zest it and extract the juice, then we’ll boil the carcass to make a cordial, then we’ll dry it out and blitz it in a blender, mix it with a salt to make a grapefruit salt. What we throw out at the end would be the inside pith that we didn’t use. Instead of having this trash can full of stuff we didn’t use, it becomes a quarter of the weight and volume that it could’ve been. We’re doing all of these things that are ecologically sound, that’s the kind of kick I’m on now.
In terms of cocktails in general, it’s about balance, respecting the product in any way you see fit and as much as possible, and it’s about taste and not being too finicky about it. We’re not saving the world here, we’re just making drinks for people. The thing I find a little tedious is how arrogance can shift your experience in a cocktail bar.
I like to be very accommodating and make sure the client is happy. The thing with bar culture is that people want what they want to drink. They want it because they’re used to drinking it, and you get to choose in a bar. It’s not like a restaurant where you can request a grilled cheese if it’s not on a menu. In a bar, the client gets to choose. Bartending is about storytelling and someone having a good time, and less so just the product. The product’s got to be good, but the bartender’s charm is important as well.
Vibes at Bar Pamplemousse (left), pineapples and spirits at Le Mal Nessecaire
Let’s scale back the scope of service. Got any particular tips and tricks for the aspiring homebound entertainer?
That’s a good question. I think it boils down to your skill set, how good of a cook are you, and how good you are at entertaining. To me, I always had this idea that entertaining at home is the same thing it was in the 1950s when you’d make some nice food and make nice drinks, talk everyone’s ear off and play some good music.
And on the business end of things, any advice for aspiring bar owners or restaurateurs out there?
I don’t want to say anything too cliché like follow your heart or stick to your ideas, but there’s a new generation of people that make very precise products and forget that they can alienate a client with their own beliefs… Sometimes we get carried away with our ideas and forget that it’s still the client that dictates what your product is going to be. Sometimes being more flexible at first will help you out in a business, in the sense that you can open your doors thinking your model’s going to be one thing, and it can entirely change because the clientele is dictating that it should be different, and that’s the clientele you’ll have.
I’m not saying the clientele is king and queen all the time, but they’ll still tell you what they want. You need to be flexible enough, but also integral enough with your own idea. If you start out too arrogant, you might get backlash.
The calm before the storm at Datcha.
What makes a life well-lived?
It’s being surrounded with good people who have great ideas. I’m always in search of more information, more creativity, art movements are changing and I’d like to be there as they evolve and the city evolves. There’s always a few different ideas in the back of my mind that inform my happiness, and that’s built on the creative evolution of our city right now. When I think of a new layout for a restaurant, and we democratize it so the cooks make tips for example, that makes me happy. The evolution of human creativity makes me happy, and so do the people who have these ideas. I think I’m a big nerd, and when someone comes up with a great idea, that’s when I’m happiest when we’re birthing a new idea. That’s why I opened so many places—sometimes as a consultant, sometimes as an owner—because I get addicted to the idea and the chase of creativity and evolution.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. If you enjoyed our sit down with David Schmidt, check out some of our other interviews.