Ryan Gray on the importance of hospitality
Restaurateur Ryan Gray talks good wine and even better pizza
Words— Clay Sandhu
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.
Ryan Gray is in many ways the perfect host. He is professional and deeply knowledgeable yet, at the same time, incredibly warm with a boyish charm, greeting each guest as though they were an old friend. The way he speaks to you about food and wine feels less like a sales pitch and more like an intimate and nuanced understanding of place and time; inviting you to become part of the story behind the product. We sat down with the restaurateur and Montreal native in his newest restaurant Elena to talk about how his work has helped shape Montreal's dining scene, pizza, hospitality, and his thoughts on living the good life.
You run Nora Gray, a well established staple of the Montreal restaurant scene, and recently you've opened Elena, the coolest pizza joint-cum-natural wine bar that nobody can stop talking about; do you feel like you're having a moment?
I certainly am incredibly grateful for everything that I have right now, I definitely feel like we’re riding a wave right now and it’s fun, like it’s really fun. It’s kind of overwhelming—it’s hard to sometimes think about how awesome it is because we’re so in it. The response to Elena has been so overwhelmingly positive and we’ve been so busy but, yeah—trying to continue to always be grateful for all the early success here.
What was your first restaurant job?
The first restaurant I worked in [laughs] was a Montana's Cookhouse. I opened the first Montana's in Quebec. I was a cook, I worked what they call the “pantry station”, which is basically the garde-manger section. I really loved it and I was really good at it actually, but I felt after a while I wanted to be with the public as opposed to in the back, I guess that’s just my nature.
You've been part of some of the iconic contemporary restaurants in the city, I'm thinking of Liverpool House specifically and of course Nora Gray, how do you see your role in shaping the current landscape of Montreal's restaurant scene?
Wow, I’ve never really thought about that. I certainly am a huge proponent of hospitality as part of the dining experience, it’s such an important part of going out to dine. Nora Gray is such a small space you know, like this great little bustling room, and a lot of times you feel like you’re hosting a really fun dinner party and we try and capture that and hold on to it as though you were receiving them in your own home.
The new restaurant is named after Elena Pantaleoni of La Stoppa, a pioneering winery in the natural wine movement; what was the impetus for naming your restaurant after her?
She just has this thing about her, and it was kind of indescribable, just like an aura about her that is so warm and so like pure and beautiful. I remember greeting her [at Nora Gray] and she exuded this warmth and this wisdom and this kind of unbelievable cool at the same time, I was really drawn to her. I went to visit her at La Stoppa in Emilia-Romagna and she invited us to stay with her in her home. The passion she has for winemaking, but beyond that, for where she’s from. Her raison d’être for La Stoppa, is going back to promoting Emilia Romagna and the traditional values and varietals of the region. I just thought that would be so cool if I could just capture any of that spirit that she has in a restaurant and so, that’s why we called it Elena.
"I certainly am a huge proponent of hospitality as part of the dining experience, it’s such an important part of going out to dine."
You travel to Italy fairly often, is there a place you go to again and again?
I was really lucky the first time that we went in 2016, Katie Parla, who’s a food writer based in Rome, was like: “Hey you’re coming to Rome, these are the best places to go” ‘cause Rome is the kind of city where you can go eat the best food or you can go into the myriad of restaurants that are kinda all the same. It’s a very tourist friendly city, let’s say, so it’s easy to fall prey to like not-so-great food and you really have to go and seek out the great restaurants. Katie Parla set us up with an itinerary that was just lights out, so that’s my little Rome bible. There is this restaurant called Da Cesare that’s easily in my top 3 favourite restaurants; it’s kind of out of the way in the suburbs of Rome and it is just insane. Bonci pizzeria by Gabriele Bonci is the greatest pizza place on earth. People, when they think about pizza, think about Napolitana style pizza which is what we do here at Elena. But what he does, al taglio pizza, is really and truly as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had with dough, it was kind of a transformative experience for me. That place is amazing, it’ll be the first place I go after I get off the plane and it’ll be the last place I eat probably before I leave Rome. I’ve just been dreaming about going to these two places since I left there a year ago.
Where have you never been that you'd like to visit?
I’ve never been to Asia, and I’d really like to go to Japan specifically, again going back to that same thing, traditions and knowledge of land and even with food in Japan it’s so simple yet incredibly complicated based on how perfect or imperfect the preparation is.
Other than food and wine, what do you look for when you're travelling?
I usually don’t choose places that don’t have good food, when I go south I like to go to Mexico because I’m absolutely wild about their culture and their food as well. I really love architecture and I love art whether it’s contemporary or not. I really enjoy walking cities, I love exploring them, I love getting lost in them. I like to have new experiences. I like to discover things. I don’t like to spend too much time in the same place.
Nora Gray was inspired by The American Bar in Vienna. What gave you the inspiration for this stunning Italian modern inspired dining room we're sitting in right now?
I don’t want to say it was a no-brainer, but it was a lot easier than Nora Gray. Nora Gray is really small, it has low ceilings, a lot of people like to make the comparison, which we love by the way, to like their grandparent’s basement from the 70’s, you know like dark wood-panelled walls, low light, the challenge was how do we create coziness and a warm atmosphere that you get when you walk into like a Joe Beef or Pied de Cochon, how do you create that ambience without looking like them? The dark walnut wood panelling on the walls was sort of the answer to that, and that was the inspiration from the American bar in Vienna. Here [at Elena] we had this big open space and tons of light and we definitely knew we were doing Italian again. I think that we didn’t specifically draw inspiration from any place for Elena, we were just able to create this place ‘cause we had this idea that we wanted something that was like really fresh that didn’t feel like anywhere else, and that you could be in day, night or whenever and it would be refreshing.
Why did you decide to open a place that focuses on Pizza?
We wanted to do pizza for a long time. It’s a funny thing, Montreal has such a great food scene, like world class, people travel from all over to come eat at these great restaurants and pound for pound probably the best food city maybe on the planet. Pizza has been this thing that’s like, “Yeah, there’s a couple places” but like why does New York have such a great pizza culture and we don’t? Toronto has an amazing pizza scene, like amazing, they have phenomenal neighbourhood pizza restaurants. Emma [Cardarelli, Chef and Co-Owner of Nora Gray & Elena] has worked at Roberta’s [in Brooklyn] in the past, she’s been kind of heavily obsessed with having a pizza place and when we really started work-shopping it, we just thought like, we don’t want to just do a pizza joint, we want to do a comprehensive restaurant that also is serving great pizza. A lot of people were doing pizza with the idea that if we do it the way they do it in Italy then it’ll be the best but we thought if we get an oven that’s built by a local artisan, with local brick and mortar, and then we made our own dough with non-imported flour and natural yeast we can create more of a produit du terroir, a product from here. It just follows the same logic as everything else that we do: buy local, work with local farms. We’re buying our flour from Moulin des Cedres which is like 30 minutes from here, you know instead of importing double-zero flour from Italy, and that’s the root to better pizza.
What advice would you give someone opening a restaurant today?
There’s a really funny joke David McMillan (of the Joe Beef Group) used to say he’d be like, “If I could do it all over again, I’d go to refrigeration repair school, then I’d become an electrician, I’d get my certification, I would go take courses in plumbing and then I would open a restaurant.” Because there’s so much stuff that happens on a nightly basis where you’re like: “Ah, I’m not qualified to fix this.” To be a restaurateur I think you’ve got to know every job in the business; I started as a line cook, I’ve been a bus-boy, I’ve been a waiter, I’ve been a bartender, I’m kind of again like a bus-boy now as an owner. I think that you have to love making people happy. It’s one thing to be a businessman, it’s another thing to be someone who works in hospitality and who has a genuine desire to make people happy, so I think that’s an important thing too.
What does good living mean to you?
Good living to me now means something very different than it would have a few years ago. Good living is feeling physically and emotionally well and creatively stimulated. Drinking great coffee is a huge part of my life now—great food, who wants to waste time eating bad food. I think that travel is super important, it’s become a really important thing in my life. For a long time, I only went to New York to party and not remember anything because I thought that was what was important. Now I think my idea is so different, don’t get me wrong I love New York, but there are so many exciting, interesting places to visit. I do also really love clothing and apparel, so that’s a vice of mine I guess, I think that looking good is part of good living.
If you enjoyed our sit down with Ryan Gray, check out some of our other interviews.
Cover photo by Dominique Lafond.