Conviction Restaurant: This is not a con job

Saturday, June 26th, 2010

An eatery staffed by former convicts opens for business today in Vancouver

Mia Stainsby

Marc Thuet ( right) and Biana Zorich ( second from right) with the ex-convicts who will staff their Conviction Restaurant.

Restaurants don’t usually go looking to hire ex-convicts, but then whoever said chef Marc Thuet and wife Biana Zorich do the “usual”?

They open Conviction Restaurant today, with 12 ex-cons working in the kitchen and front of house. The restaurant is at 1789 Comox and it’s an honest-to-goodness business. It is also a reality-TV show called Conviction Kitchen Season 2. Season 1 was shot in Toronto after the couple turned one of their own restaurants into the reality-TV restaurant and set. He was the chef and she was general manager.

The restaurant, owned by Daniel Frankel, was formerly known as Delilah’s. (Frankel also runs Prospect Point Cafe, Mill Marine Bistro, Stanley Park Pavilion, and Burrard Bridge Bar and Grill.)

Thuet has serious culinary chops, having worked in two-and three-Michelin-star restaurants in Europe and is now operating several bistro/ bakeries in Toronto.

Josh Wolfe, executive chef at Vancouver’s Coast restaurant, worked for Thuet and is thrilled to have him in the city. “I would say hands down, he’s probably one of the best cooks in this country,” he says.

Advance press material deals with the couple’s edgy personalities head on, referring to Thuet’s “leather-clad, Harley-riding, tattoo-sporting, hard-drinking, drug-taking, unfaithful, bankrupt past.” (He’s reformed.)

And she, “beyond her good looks and big heart, is also known by staff as the Dragon Lady when things go awry and describes herself as an ambitious, money-driven, career-focused control freak.” (The woman I met was cheerful, good-humoured and bright.)

“I was a very functioning chemical lab. I lived life through chemistry,” Thuet confirms. He’s been clean for five years and feels hugely indebted to Zorich for supporting him through recoveries and relapses. Conviction Restaurant is about paying it back.

“She has given me so many chances in life and inspired me to give others a chance, to make it easier for others,” he says with a thick Alsatian accent. “I had a good 25 years of addiction and it 100-per-cent affected my reason to do this. It is about 12 people who want to change their lives. That’s the No. 1 focus.”

Thuet and Zorich had been planning to go into prisons to teach restaurant skills. But when the production company Cineflix got wind of that, their plans morphed into Conviction Kitchen.

“At the end of the day, most people have a negative image of ex-cons. It’s very difficult for them to re-integrate,” says Thuet, in an interview at the restaurant.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” says Zorich.

All but two of the ex-cons from the first season are working in the food industry and some are still with Thuet. One came to Vancouver to help with the startup of operations here. One, out of that first group, went back to prison; another is a roofer.

They did have a selection criteria. “They couldn’t have committed hideous crimes like rape, murder, child molestation,” says Zorich. Beyond that, they looked for people who love food and the restaurant culture.

“We were looking for people willing to go along on this journey and looking to change. You can sense when a person desperately wants to change.”

In the Vancouver group, one accidentally slashed himself with a knife and had seven stitches. “He’s going to be a waiter now,” Thuet says.

“You become a family when you do something like this,” says Zorich. “They come to you with problems. They’ve made stupid decisions. There’s alcohol and drugs.

“It’s one-third social work, it’s one-third being a father and mother and a small amount of work,” Thuet says. He exaggerates on the last point. The Toronto crew were putting in 14 to 15 hours a day.

The worst occurrence was when one of the ex-cons used heroin during service in the bathroom.

“It affected a lot of us who were obviously trying to stay clean. We came together and worked through it,” says Thuet, adding that all the males in that group had addictions.

As for the food, it will be in keeping with the Vancouver zeitgeist of using local, fresh and sustainable products. Expect Fraser Canyon rabbit, Sloping Hill pork, Organic Ocean shellfish, Nass River sockeye and Brooks Peninsula ling cod done in French bistro style “with a twist.”

Expect also some firsts, even for Vancouver’s leading-edge restaurant scene. The menu features horse meat tartare, an initiation for Vancouverites (but very French). Frankel was at a tasting and loved the food, but had, he says, a hard time with a salad of lamb testicle, pig brain and tongue.

But the squeamish need not quake. There will be ling cod, poached in olive oil; risotto with braised pork cheeks and boudin noir; pan seared onglet with frites and shallot reduction, and more.

Conviction Restaurant is open Wednesday to Sunday for dinner. Reservations can be made at [email protected] 604-687-3424.

The show airs this fall on Citytv on Sundays at 9 p.m. but the date is not yet set.

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