Knife skills may not be a problem

Chef Marc Thuet hires freshly paroled ex-cons for his restaurant and lets the TV cameras roll

Knife skills may not be a problemChef Marc Thuet has led a colourful life, but all the same, what he got up to this Monday past was something altogether new: shaking hands with a gang of freshly paroled ex-cons, and offering each of them jobs at his flagship Toronto restaurant—with a full television crew on hand to capture the deal. It was the first day of shooting for his new TV series tentatively entitled Criminal Dinners.

“I told some customers about it last week and they all said I was f–king crazy—but then maybe they never really thought any different about me before,” Thuet volunteered over the phone from his restaurant, which with more aptness than taste is named Bite Me! “Some asked about my insurance.”

The concept for this program owes a considerable debt to Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen—wherein the cuddly English chef devoted himself to converting 15 layabouts and street urchins into hireable cooks, and then set them up with their own restaurant in Islington. But as another Food Network star would say, this premise has been kicked up a notch. Now the new mentor chef has a Dickensian management style, could give Gordon Ramsay swearing lessons, and his new charges really are fresh from prison.

“Mostly they came from Kingston, and I don’t know what they were in for, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t for stealing Mars bars,” Thuet told me the week before the Monday meeting. At that point, two of the 22 ex-cons selected for the show had already broken parole and been returned to the Big House before they even had a chance to discover that Warden Thuet might be abusive, but at least does not mind if you smoke in the kitchen.

If you plan, however, to work out on the floor, where you will learn the ropes under Thuet’s partner in life and business, Biana Zorich, you will be required to get a decent haircut. So it came to pass that on the Monday shoot, a parolee was told that his dreads must go and responded by calling Zorich a bitch (and then some). Much swearing ensued, and 20 became 19. The plan is to keep trimming, and then in a mere four weeks the final 12 will open a new restaurant under Thuet and Zorich called, er, Conviction.

“People think I’m a bad boy French chef,” says Thuet, who hails from Alsace and trained in innumerable multi-Michelin-starred restaurants in France and the U.K. before settling in Toronto, where in addition to Bite Me!, he and Zorich have a second restaurant, Atelier Thuet, and a traiteur and patisserie called Petite Thuet (a reference to the size of the store and not the girth of the chef). “A couple of years ago, I was thinking for a change I should do something nice.”

He settled on a sort of culinary version of the Johnny Cash concert at Folsom Prison. But it never got off the ground. Still, the notion got him thinking about the bigger picture. “There are not too many places where you can go and apply for a job and they say, ‘Where did you work last?’ and you say ‘Kingston—in the kitchen at the penitentiary,’ and they say, ‘Okay! You can start tomorrow.’ ”

Thuet is right, of course, and there are many good reasons for that. And every last one of them has the potential to make great television if the cameras were actually in place when someone was finally foolhardy enough to put his own business forward as the exception to the convention. As luck had it, just as Thuet was thinking this over, one of his regular customers—Simon Lloyd, president of programming at Montreal-based Cineflix—came in for dinner, and afterwards they settled in for a chat, and one thing led to another.

The Cineflix shooting schedule for Tuesday was an excursion to the countryside, where Thuet was planning to show his new employees how to slaughter a lamb. (“Some of them may have good knife work already,” he said.) The farm will also supply ewe’s milk for a quick course in cheese-making. Next comes butchery and charcuterie.

“Maybe I’m a dreamer,” Thuet said, and then, on cue, paused for a contemplative draw on his cigarette. “Maybe people will think Thuet is more crazy than even before. But this is going to be an incredible journey.”

Network buyers agree: a series of eight one-hour episodes has been sold to Citytv. Meanwhile, when you next dine at one of Thuet’s restaurants, you may want to think twice before complaining that your steak was overdone. And thrice before checking your coat.

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