At this innovative Montreal restaurant, adventurous diners meet their gastronomic matchSome chefs claim that passion for gastronomy is in their genes. Maybe that’s part of the reason why chef Derek Dammann decided to name his new restaurant in the red-hot ’hood of Old Montreal, DNA. (Incidentally, his partner and wine director’s name is Alex Cruz. Get it? Derek ’n’ Alex.) Whatever the inspiration, DNA has the blueprint for innovative and adventurous cuisine. Just take a look at what’s on the menu: porchetta di testa, bison heart tartare, veal sweetbreads and even classic foie gras-stuffed ravioli gets punched-up with pork kidney and duck tongue. Dammann enjoys cooking bison lungs, too.
“It’s done Neapolitan style, with chilies, orange and borlotti beans, a bit of cherry tomatoes and lots of mint,” says the 33-year-old chef about the offbeat special. OK — but do customers actually order these daunting dishes? “The heart tartare is one of our bestsellers,” says Dammann. “People here go out for an experience.”
When something particularly crazy is on the menu, Dammann ensures each of his servers shares a plate. “When the first thing a customer hears is ‘lungs’ or ‘balls’, everyone sort of shies away from it,” he says. But if his servers understand what it’s all about, inquisitive patrons are more likely to try it.
The food at DNA is best described as Old World fare with a Canadian spin. Italian, French and Spanish influences appear throughout the menu, but Dammann’s inventive cuisine isn’t like anything you’d find on the Continent — few Quebecois ingredients make their way over to Naples or Lyon. “When we were building DNA, everyone was asking, ‘What kind of restaurant are you going to be?’ I thought, ‘Why can’t we be a Canadian restaurant?’ Everyone’s always got to have a theme — Spanish, Chinese, Italian. Our fundamentals come from Italy but we’re a Canadian restaurant. We do Canadian food, and we do Canadian wine.”
That interest in seasonal, regional cuisine was cultivated on Vancouver Island, where Dammann grew up, went to culinary school (at Malaspina Culinary School in Nanaimo — now Vancouver Island University) and later worked under Peter Zambri in Victoria. But the intrigue around adventurous foods and a nose-to-tail philosophy didn’t take root until he spent two and a half years in London, highlighted by a gig as chef de cuisine at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen.
“I really enjoyed eating it and I picked up on the philosophy that chickens aren’t just drumsticks running around on boneless breasts,” he says. “All kinds of things make up an animal.” He gets a whole pig every week from Gaspor Farm in Mirabel, Que., where sows are pen-fed warm milk every two hours, and he cooks it all. “But we also get other stuff from them. One week they’ll bring me a box of kidneys that nobody wants; next week they’ll bring me a box of heads.”
With weekly visits to farms in and around Montreal, Dammann has quickly earned a reputation as a chef who’s happy to take anything. “If you’re willing for it to be killed, you should be willing to eat it all.”