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Interview with: David Lee and Yannick Bigourdan of Nota Bene

Posted on May 9, 2012 by in Interview with

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Nota Bene has been a fixture on the Toronto dining circuit since 2008, and it was even voted as one of Canada’s top ten new restaurants by Where Magazine. Despite those accolades and all of the success that comes with it, co-owners David Lee (DL) and Yannick Bigourdan (YB) took some time out of their hectic schedule to answer a few questions for TOFoodReviews (TO).

David Lee

TO – How important is sourcing local ingredients to both you and to Nota Bene? How does that build relationships in the community?

DL – It’s very important to us to support the local community, and the food tastes better when you can buy local.

I feel like buying local contributes to a history; my grandmother planted her own vegetable garden and raised chickens. It was just understood that you would eat food that you grew. It is a normal and natural practice. I feel like it helps teach the younger generation the value of sustainability for decades to come.

I have great relationships with farmers and we rely on a forager who sources things like wild leeks and mustard leaf. I have been out foraging for fiddleheads and things like that with my family. I think it is important to have a respect for the food and the ingredients, and a connection with the land and soil.

But I don’t cut out the rest of the world, especially because of the people I am cooking for. There are countries that produce great food, for instance California peas, but we support local farmers as much as possible.

TO – Can this be a challenge in winter months?

DL – January and February are the most challenging months in terms of creativity with the food and menu. You are antsy for spring to arrive, and looking forward to green asparagus, and things like that. I have so many ideas that I want to try. This spring has been particularly difficult as the weather has been so back and forth. It was so warm earlier in the year, so the menu has been changing a lot.

TO – What are some of the trends in the industry that you see right now, and how do you feel about following trends?

DL – Mexican food is a huge industry trend right now, growing out of the taco scene. It seems that down-to-earth and fun to eat food is coming back. But take something like pizza, it has always been there, but the trend comes from the ingredients being used, where are you sourcing the tomatoes, the buffalo mozzarella? What new and creative toppings are you using?

Trends are important to follow in terms of providing the guest with something new to try, but I always come back to the value. I want to make good food that is a great value to the client.

TO – Your restaurants have received a lot of recognition in terms of industry awards and accolades. What does that mean to you?

DL – I consider myself a very humble person, and I have never focused on achieving accolades, I focus more on the attitude that I bring to work each day, and my team. What can we do today to be better than yesterday? How can we please the guest? I still get butterflies when I go to work, because everyday is a new day to try and be better than the one before.

I think the recognition does show that we are serious about our business and the restaurant. It shows that we are always trying to be better in a very competitive industry.

TO – How would you describe your menu in three words?

DL – Ingredients. Passion. Values

TO – What is your favourite neighbourhood in Toronto to spend time in and to shop?

DL – I love to spend time at farmer’s markets, to shop for food and to take my family there, as well. I like Wychwood Barns, but I love to explore.

The great thing about Farmer’s Markets is that you are teaching a respect for food to the public. It is what I call the ‘second notion’ of the food, the person who has grown the food, and selling it, and the ‘first notion’ is the actual planting, the soil and the earth. It gets you closer to the food.

TO – What is your favourite food to cook when you are at home with your family?

DL – I love slow cooking. I would probably cook something in the Green Egg, spare ribs or something like that. I like to cook meat.

TO – What would be your “last supper?”

DL – Lobster and Frites.

TO – How important are wine pairings to you? Do you spend a lot of time planning your menu and your wine list to work with each other?

DL – Wine pairings are very important. Our guests know a lot about wine, so we like to ensure that we have some great matches. We serve such a variety of food at Nota Bene, we have some Asian dishes, and pastas, tuna tartar and steak, we need to have a variety of wines. Ultimately, people will drink what they like, and what they are in the mood for.

TO – What are some of the most difficult challenges you deal with being a restaurant owner and chef, and the most exciting?

DL – The most difficult part of owning and operating a restaurant is the time I miss with my family. At the same time, I love the excitement of the restaurant. It is one of my greatest satisfactions to stand by the dish bin and watch the plates come back empty. It means people loved their meal, and that makes me happy.

Yannick Bigourdan

TO – Tell me a bit about your history, and how you found yourself in the restaurant business?

YB – I come from a family of chefs. My father and uncle were chefs in France, but I always said to myself, ‘I will never cook.’ But, I was 16 or 17 years old when I said that, and when I started thinking about university, somehow I found myself interested in Hotel Management. I travelled to Switzerland for school, and received a degree in Hotel Management. From there, I was asked to work at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles. After a few years there, I was given the opportunity to join the Four Seasons in Toronto, and that is how I came to Toronto.

After my time with the Four Seasons, David and I opened Splendido in 2001. It was a very successful restaurant, and we learned a lot, but we realized that we wanted to reach a different market with Nota Bene, that we weren’t able to reach with Splendido. Splendido was a very upscale restaurant, and I think we were missing out on a huge market in that sense, and that is where Nota Bene came from.

TO – What are some of the many hats you wear being a restaurant owner?

YB – Every day when I come in, I am never sure what to expect, some days you are dealing with HR, guiding your staff, enforcing policy. Other times you are an engineer of food and beverage. I spend time with my staff, training managers, and things like that. This industry requires some of the most social people, so I like to get to know everyone.

Day-to-day things are more focused on the food, for instance what promotions are we running? The sequence of service, that do we need to change on the menu? Things like that.

TO – What is your secret to keeping customers coming in?

YB – Bringing people into the restaurant is the easy part. Bring them in twice is difficult. People are naturally curious, and want to try new places, new restaurants and food. What we try to achieve at Nota Bene is great food at a good price. Consistency is important, that is what delivers a great dining experience time after time. That is why people return. They have confidence that they can bring their family here, or their clients, and they know they will have a great experience.

At Nota Bene, we wanted to be the best ‘mid-range’ restaurant in Toronto, we had a very specific goal, and we have worked hard to maintain that. Sometimes we miss, we all make mistakes, but we try to satisfy our guests every time. That is why people return, that is the secret.

TO – What have been some of your most successful promotions, and where do they originate?

YB – In the beginning, we rely on print advertising; we advertise in the Opera or Ballet Program, but print advertising is not sustainable. Print is great for something new. Our marketing has evolved with the business. We focus our public relations on social media; we are active on Facebook and Twitter. We also rely on food critics and some traditional press. Our most successful marketing is recommendations; friends tell friends to come and try Nota Bene, and a great word-of-mouth reference is the best way to keep guests coming in.

TO – Describe the community at Nota Bene, and what charities the restaurant has become involved with.

YB – The restaurant is a public space, it attracts people to come together and to discuss, interact and exchange ideas and opinions. Our patrons influence us by what interests them, and what projects we may want to help with. That is how we came across our involvement with Bloorview Kids, Movember, and Second Harvest. If it is important to our patrons, it is important to us. We are so proud of the work that we did at Bloorview Kids Rehab Children’s Centre. We have raised $1.5 million.

TO – Describe your menu in three words.

YB – Fresh. Eclectic. Canadian.

TO – What is your favourite neighbourhood in Toronto to spend time in and to shop?

YB – I love St. Catharine’s market, and other farmer’s markets. They are a lot of fun, and the food is great.

TO – What is your favourite food to cook when you are at home with your family?

YB – My wife is a professional chef, so when I cook, it is very determined. I love to grill; I would probably make pizza in the wood-burning oven, or BBQ something. I also like smoking in the Green Egg, something Southern style, game meet and other things like that.

TO – What would be your “last supper?”

YB – Mushroom risotto or pasta, with a beautiful piece of caribou.

TO – How important is the wine list, and the relationship with the menu?

YB – Our wine list is food friendly. People dictate what kind of wine they want to drink. Our partner, Franco Prevedello, has been in the wine business for 40 years, so his passion with wine and influence are very important.

We are really open to any good wine. The price has nothing to do with the taste or quality of the wine. An inexpensive wine can be fantastic. What is more important in deciding on which wine to drink is the time of day, the company you are with, the mood and the atmosphere. Drink what you like, that is the best wine for you.

TO – What are some of the most difficult and exciting parts of being a restaurant owner?

YB – The most difficult part of my job is when you can see guests not enjoying themself. At Nota Bene, we put so much effort in to the guest experience, so it is difficult to see that.

The most exciting part of the business is meeting all the extraordinary people. I have the opportunity to communicate and to share ideas with interesting people, people of influence and the community here in Toronto. I love that part of my job. I am surrounded my youth and energy, and it allows me to work hard at the restaurant and enjoy the experience.

- Janine

Check out their website.

Follow Nota Bene on Twitter.

Visit Nota Bene at 180, Queen Street West, Toronto.

(Not sure what the ever so popular green egg is? Neither was I. Check out www.biggreenegg.ca to learn more about what the green egg is and where you can purchase one.)

TOFoodReviews will be visiting Nota Bene for dinner soon. Stay tuned for our review!

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