Hugue Dufour & Sarah Obraitis

4th June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sean Santiago

4th June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sean Santiago

We turn up at Hugue Dufour and Sarah Obraitis’s apartment in Long Island City on a Saturday morning which, even by their standards, is pretty hectic. The couple run two great restaurants in the neighbourhood, M Wells Dinette and M Wells Steakhouse, and they are constantly shuttling between the two places while juggling a variety of extra-curricular activities (the current logistical headache is a complicated lunchbox order for the Tribeca film festival). Now, on top of this interview, they’ve got a medical emergency to deal with: one of their key chefs Aidan O’Neal nearly sliced off his finger in the kitchen last night and is on his way over to change his bandages.

If Hugue is flustered, he’s hiding it well. A Quebecois chef who spent nearly a decade at Montreal’s legendary Au Pied de Cochon1, he has developed a reputation as a brilliant eccentric since arriving in New York six years ago, turning out OTT meat dishes (veal brains, a burger for four) and curiosities such as the spaghetti sandwich2. Right now he’s blearily assembling chicken ragu with polenta for lunch. His wife Sarah, who manages front of house at both restaurants, is more obviously frenetic – she keeps skipping between conversations, leaving a trail of unfinished sentences in her wake – but she seems more amused than bothered by the chaos.

When Aidan arrives and they retreat to the bathroom for a gory first-aid session, we have a chance to get our bearings. We are on the 35th floor of a late-90s tower block with astonishing views over the New York skyline. The apartment, which belongs to Sarah’s mother3, is cluttered in quite a lovely way: family photos deck the walls, their baby daughter Crystal’s toys are scattered everywhere, there is a model sailing ship in the window and an M Wells gnome guarding the liquor cabinet. The kitchen is pretty basic but their fridge is loaded with vegetables, homemade stock and industrial quantities of maple syrup, which Hugue, a true Canadian, drinks by the glassful after a long day’s work.

We sit down to lunch. The ragu is rich, hearty and extremely moreish, and even Aidan, ashen-faced after his bandage change, seems revived by it. Then Sarah dashes off on an errand and Hugue, who has perked up by now, walks us over to M Wells Dinette. It sits at the heart of MoMA PS1, the world-renowned art institute, in a former classroom which they’ve done up with blackboards, desks and forward-facing chairs. There’s a certain irony in the fact that Hugue, an inveterate rule-breaker who was booted out of culinary school in Montreal, has ended up here, in a reconstructed classroom, but it makes an odd kind of sense. How better to disrupt the institution than from within?

Continued below...

Where are you both from?

Sarah: I grew up in Queens, on the other side of the 7 train4.
Hugue: I grew up very far away from the 7 train in a place called Lac-Saint-Jean, six hours north of Montreal.

And where did you meet?

Hugue: In Orlando, Florida, of all places. In 2007.
Sarah: We were both invited to a pretty cool…
Hugue: …and mysterious…
Sarah: …film, food and wine festival in a place called Winter Park. They wanted to capitalise socially with the food and wine thing so they invited a lot of dope people and we happened to be among them.

Were you both working with food before then?

Sarah: Hugue had a pretty notorious restaurant in Montreal [Dufour was a partner at Au Pied de Cochon] and I was in the meat business. Somehow we got paired up, so I was his farmer for the weekend.

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What were you doing in the meat business?

Sarah: I was working with a company called Heritage Meats in New York. We were middlemen: we connected everyone and sold all parts of the animal from the ears to the tails. People had no idea about heritage meats and historic breeds 10 years ago. Our system was so corrupted, flavours were lost, so our little meat company was fighting back.

Was that your first food job?

Sarah: No, I was in service forever. Aged 11, I was a busgirl. Okay, maybe not 11 – I don’t think I was underage – but I started early.

Grand Central Oyster Bar is just our number one place… Those guys are like machines; they don’t do precision-shucking but they have fantastic produce
Hugue and Sarah on their favourite NYC restaurants – see Address Book

What about you Hugue? Did you always want to be a chef?

Hugue: I’m from a very small town…
Sarah: You were a farmhand.
Hugue: …and we didn’t have much back in the day. There was a Greek restaurant that was not good at all and a bunch of McDonalds. But my grandparents had a farm and a garden and I knew I wanted to cook from very early on, not knowing at all what I was up against. I moved to Montreal hoping to go to culinary school, and the minute I was accepted I got thrown out.

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Why?

Hugue: Oh I don’t know, I was young and foolish.

Did you find it difficult taking orders?

Hugue: Yeah, I’d say. The whole philosophy behind French cuisine is that you have to suffer, and I always had a problem with that. I still do sometimes.

So your kitchens at M Wells aren’t run according to hierarchy?

Hugue: No not really. I like my people to be versatile; everyone can do pretty much everything. It’s not perfect but it suits me better than having a guy who only does the grill, and so on.

The trout need to be alive until we cook them so we built a 24-foot trough in the steakhouse. We had holes in the ceiling but we were building a fucking concrete trout trough

Were you able to find restaurants in Montreal that shared your outlook?

Hugue: I worked with a big brigade in Montreal that was really strict, and I think it’s good to have that experience. You need to have certain bases and technical references. But the most significant experience of my life was Au Pied de Cochon, where I worked for 10 years. There were no positions. I got really inspired by that. And it was a lot more than just cooking. I had a TV show for four years with my former chef5. I was doing all sorts of things: building, plumbing, welding. I do as much welding now as cooking.

You were involved in building your restaurants?

Hugue: Yeah, all of them, from the ground up. That’s very important. People want to see where your inspiration for a certain dish comes from: sometimes it comes from actually building a place.

On The Menu

Lunch with Hugue Dufour & Sarah Obraitis
Long Island City, April 2015

To eat:

Chicken ragout with polenta »

To drink:

Genmaicha tea
White wine (Chateau Mas Neuf Compostelle)

Could you give me an example?

Hugue: We do a dish at the steakhouse called truite au bleu. The trout need to be alive until we cook them, so we built a 24-foot trough. That was the first thing we built – we had holes in the ceiling but we were building a fucking concrete trout trough.

How did M Wells come about in the first place?

Hugue: We didn’t actually want to have a restaurant. M Wells was originally “Magasin Wells”. We wanted a general store selling food that we’d make, and toys for kids, and pelts and furs – I have connections with trappers so I had incredible polar bear pelts and beavers and all sorts of things. It would have been great.

Polar bear pelts? Really?

Hugue: Well, no, because it’s illegal in the States… Also I was working on automats where you’d put coins in and really expensive things like cans of foie gras would come out. Now, thinking back, the shop idea would have never worked.

So how did it end up as a restaurant?

Hugue: We were living across from a little diner on 21st Street that was vacant most of the time. Tenants would come and go. It was very weird, very old New York. We intrigued by it. It took us about a year to find out who the real landlord was. Finally we ended up in there and it just didn’t make sense as a general store. The place dictates what you do – I believe that. You’re not going to force something into a space that doesn’t belong there. I didn’t know much about diners, just like I didn’t know much about steakhouses. My idea of a diner is like Twin Peaks6 and I love the Twin Peaks idea of having a slice of cherry pie and a cup of joe. So we made it happen. It was pretty fucked up, the diner: we were doing fucked-up dishes; it wasn’t open in the most profitable days and hours. I spent the first four months trapping rats downstairs – there were tonnes of them. They’d been nesting there for 100 years. I got rid of them with raccoon cages.

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How long did the original diner last?

Hugue: A year. It was a weird time. It was me being new not knowing any critics, not knowing anything about New York, just doing whatever. It was that naïve thing that worked out.

Now that you have two restaurants, do you have any spare time to cook at home?

Sarah: We’ve arranged it so that both restaurants are closed on a Tuesday. So on Tuesdays we make as much food as we possibly can for the week. Hugue makes about seven different dishes.

That’s impressive. What kind of things?

Sarah: A bunch of soups.
Hugue: One-pot recipes.
Sarah: Or a broth, which uses up most of our aging crap. We’ll take a big chicken and make sure we have a stock, and that works as a base for other dishes during the week.
Hugue: I start it on Tuesday and it’s still on the stove on Friday – just keep adding water.

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It’s a good tip, to always have a broth on the go.

Hugue: It’s beautiful. And it’s a good way to clean out the fridge. If anything’s left over the following Tuesday, it ends up in the broth. All cheese rinds go in there. I use maple syrup to glaze all the pork bones and stuff. I use seaweed sometimes. If we have too much we freeze it, but we never use it because we always make a new one. Most of the cooking we do at home is to feed Crystal, and we eat whatever’s left over.

Is she a good eater?

Hugue: Yeah, she eats everything. I give her a lot of fish these days and she eats it. Before Christmas I had two-pound cans of caviar and Crystal was finishing the pot, spoon after spoon. The family was like, wow. There’s pretty much nothing she doesn’t eat. Right now she eats better than we do.

Compared to New York, Montreal is way more exciting food-wise, there’s no doubt about it… Montreal is insane, there’s almost too many good restaurants

Do you eat much fast food?

Hugue: I still haven’t tried most of main places. I went to Burger King for the first time last fall.
Aidan: You had a Whopper, and a chicken burger.

Are you a bad influence Aidan?

Aidan: No, I just go along with it. I don’t really like fast food. But Hugue ordered two burgers, large fries, apple pie, and he ate it all.

You have a healthy appetite?

Hugue: Yeah I eat a lot. Given that times were rough when I was growing up, my dad really wanted us to eat everything. He was like a tyrant when it came to eating – we had to finish our plate – and I remember crying, “Ah you can’t do that to me, you’re such an asshole”, but now I’m really grateful. There’s nothing I don’t eat.
On the subject of fast food, sometimes it’s good. There’s a reason people go to it. You can’t say it’s all bullshit. For example, MSG7 – I use it sometimes and I love it. Put MSG in ceviche and it’s out of this world.

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What’s the food culture like in Canada?

Hugue: Canada is even worse than America, but Quebec is totally different. Compared to New York, Montreal is way more exciting food-wise, there’s no doubt about it. New York is a platform for people to compare their dicks. You get the super-high end – Le Bernardin and places like that – and the very low-end, all the delis and places where most people eat. Now in Brooklyn and Queens you have a few places in the middle. In Montreal it’s all in the middle, no high end, no low end.

So you’d eat better on balance in Montreal than New York?

Hugue: Oh yeah, no doubt about it. And that’s despite it being hard to get oranges and fresh stuff in the winter. Montreal is insane, there’s almost too many good restaurants. You can eat well pretty much everywhere.

So why did you move away?

Hugue: I came to New York because I fell in love with Sarah and it was easier for me to move down here, because she didn’t speak French and Montreal can be challenging sometimes if you don’t. Plus I was running a sugar shack8, which was highly seasonal, and I didn’t want to go back to the farm. So I wanted to move on and have an adventure.
I would have never moved to Manhattan, that’s for sure. I love visiting Manhattan but I would die there. In Queens I feel like I have best of both worlds. You can see far, literally and figuratively, and you can dream a little bit out here. Food-wise I feel there’s still a lot to do in New York.

For further info on M Wells, go to magasinwells.com or follow them on Twitter // Instagram

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  1. Martin Picard’s restaurant is known for its macho, meaty Quebecois fare
  2. It generated headlines on both sides of the Atlantic
  3. Sarah’s mother is Peruvian, her father, who turns up midway through the interview, is of Ukrainian descent
  4. Sarah points out that the 7 train is one of the most interesting lines in New York: it runs between Time Square and Flushing, passing through a “crazy array” of ethnic neighbourhoods along the way
  5. The Wild Chef with Au Pied de Cochon’s Martin Picard, which aired on Food Network (Canada)
  6. Hugue is referring to the Double R Diner, a key location in the much-loved 1990s TV series where coffee and homemade pie are the orders of the day
  7. Monosodium glutamate, a reviled ingredient which has been returning to favour in recent years thanks to high-profile advocates such as David Chang
  8. An offshoot of Au Pied de Cochon based on the traditional Quebecois cabane à sucre: all the dishes are based around the key ingredient maple syrup

Posted 4th June 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sean Santiago

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