After my nerve-wracking yet exciting TV appearance at Majors Hill Park it had started to rain and by this time it was close to 7 pm, so I opened my umbrella and started to take a stroll towards the ByWard Market. At 110 Murray Street I found the location for my dinner: Bistro 115, one of Ottawa’s foremost restaurants specializing in French Canadian cuisine.
Whenever I have a chance I try to find out the human stories behind the destination, so I sat down with Suzanne Lafrance, who owns Bistro 115 together with her husband André Giroux. Suzanne first had the idea to open a restaurant in 1983. She and several friends of hers used to travel to Mount Tremblant to go skiing and during one of these trips they came up with the idea to jointly open a restaurant. Suzanne had grown up on a big family farm with many family get-togethers and she was used to feeding people in large quantities. So the step towards opening a restaurant was not all that big and Suzanne decided to take a chef’s course at Algonquin College.
Together with her husband and some friends they opened a dessert place called “Memories” in 1983 where they served dessert and some light meals. It was an extremely busy restaurant and did very well. As time went by, Suzanne and André were more interested in opening an establishment that would serve a larger selection of foods, so in April of 1986 they took over a bar on Clarence Street and named it Bistro 115.
The name for the restaurant came from a trip to Paris, where there were so many bistros all over the place. The term “bistro” actually comes from the Russian language and means “quick”, referring to the demands for quick food by Russian immigrants in Paris. Suzanne liked the name, added the street number of their former restaurant’s address (115 Clarence), and this is how Bistro 115 was born.
A big event happened in 1991: the entire block at Clarence and Dalhousie, including Bistro 115, burnt to the ground. Suzanne and André did not let that deter them and the day after the fire they contacted a real estate agent to help them find a property suitable for a restaurant. They found their current location on 110 Murray Street, called in a contractor and an architect who both confirmed that the building was sound and this kicked off one year of renovation work, turning the property into a restaurant downstairs and personal living space upstairs.
The main dining area at Bistro 115
Suzanne explains that it was a complicated process, requiring numerous permits and a lot of reconstruction. Fortunately they had business continuation insurance and their bank was very supportive. Suzanne said the worst part of the fire was that they had to let their employees go. Finally, on March 27, 1992 Bistro 115 opened in its new location. Since there was no street address called 115 Murray Street, they retained the original name “Bistro 115” even though their street address had changed.
During the renovation, a lot of interesting materials surfaced in the house. Suzanne told me that they found horsehair in the walls which was used for insulation. They also came across newspapers from the 1930s featuring an advertisement for an Electrolux vacuum cleaner to be financed for $2.00 a month.
Originally, Suzanne’s background was not in the hospitality industry, but she worked for the federal government as a personnel and payroll specialist. Her husband was a printer for the University of Ottawa, but neither one has looked back and regretted their decision to leave their public-sector jobs to become entrepreneurs in the restaurant business.
During her apprenticeship Suzanne’s boss ordered her to peel 50 pounds of carrots on the first day as a test of her endurance, a very arduous job and definitely not conducive for a manicure. Much to her superior’s surprise she complied and finished the task without complaining. She spent one summer during her apprenticeship working as a chef at a private yacht club and also did a three-month stint in a hospital kitchen. Smiling back at this experience, she tells of a story where she was told to prepare Red River cereal as a breakfast for the hospital patients. Suzanne had never heard of Red River Cereal, so she followed the written instructions in the kitchen. When her concoction didn’t set she added more cereal until the whole thing turned into a concrete-like mass upon which she added more water…… At the end she had cooked a huge batch of Red River cereal and the entire hospital was eating cereal for a whole week for breakfast.
My tasty Gazpacho soup
When I asked her about the cuisine at Bistro 115 Suzanne explained that the concept of their restaurant is French cuisine with a French Canadian twist. Suzanne went on to say that being located in Ottawa’s ByWard Market is great since you have access to fresh ingredients all the time, including fresh Ontario asparagus, fiddleheads, berries, sugar peas and many other delicious ingredients.
The origins of French Canadian cuisine are based on peasant food, so typical Quebec cuisine is quite heavy and calorie-rich. At Bistro 115 Suzanne and André substitute a lot of lighter ingredients for the typical traditional fare to make the cuisine more healthful. One French-Canadian specialty is “sugar pie”: a dessert consisting of sugar, maple syrup and cream. Maple syrup is a staple of French-Canadian cuisine. The same applies to pea and ham soup, a hearty concoction that will stick to your ribs. Suzanne describes that as children they would often have berries, bread and milk for breakfast and that there is an inherent richness to these foods that is worth preserving.
We went on to talk a little about the life-style of the restaurant entrepreneur and Suzanne’s days usually begin at 7 am with cleaning of the restaurant, watering the plants on the patio and cleaning the terrace. Then she handles banking and administration and by 8 am she is in the kitchen, receiving deliveries. Suzanne also handles the inventory and food orders. In the morning she looks after payroll and the bills in between cooking and finally at 11:30 the doors open for lunch at Bistro 115. In the afternoon she runs errands and coordinates dinner issues with the evening crew.
The main dish: baby greens with baked goat cheese
Fortunately, as experienced restauranteurs, Suzanne and André don’t have to be in the restaurant all the time. Many of the hospitality entrepreneurs I have talked to work 7 days a week without vacations, but as seasoned entrepreneurs with more than two decades of experience Suzanne and André have found a more livable routine: they recently purchased a weekend property in beautiful Prince Edward County and Suzanne finds that whenever she goes there she feels immensely recharged and ready to tackle the world again. Generally Suzanne and André take turns going there since they can’t both be away at the same time. In more than 15 years of hospitality entrepreneurship they have gone away together on joint holidays 4 times.
Now that they are both in their fifties, lifestyle issues have become more important and they have found a way of leading a more balanced life. And their new project in Prince Edward County rejuvenates them and has given them great appreciation for their work in Ottawa. Suzanne says she loves what she does and she truly enjoys giving her clients the best food experience possible.
Well, my dinner order had arrived and Suzanne excused herself. It was actually her evening off and she had come down to see me and now she went back to a well-deserved evening of rest. I meanwhile got ready for dinner after a very long and eventful day and my tasty Gazpacho soup (a chilled tomato-based soup, heavily spiced with fresh garlic and other herbs) was ready. I chose a light main dish: mixed greens with baked goat cheese in order to leave space for a typical French Canadian dessert: a pie-shaped chocolate mousse with a slice of the famous sugar pie, both nicely presented and a perfect final touch after a flavourful dinner.
Dessert, including the famous French-Canadian sugar pie
I sat back, relaxed and savoured the moment, listening to the Cuban rhythms of Gloria Estefan before I headed back on my 20 minute walk through the rain towards my bed and breakfast. I thought how much I admired all these hospitality entrepreneurs who work so hard, virtually every day, to give all of us a good time when we decide to go out and enjoy ourselves.