Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

Under the Apron

Mansfield Athletic Club Chef Derek Damann

Housed in the old Loews Theatre in downtown Montreal, the new Mansfield Athletic Club is a veritable amphitheatre of fitness. The seats in the grand balcony have been removed, and the tiered levels are filled with cardio machines; the orchestra pit is a tangle of shiny weight-lifting equipment. Clients come to the Mansfield to pump iron, to be pampered and to partake in the culinary wonders prepared by chef Derek Damann and his staff at the Café du Club.

Just as the Mansfield represents a new vision for urban health and lifestyle centres (a fusion of spa and fitness centre), Damann exemplifies a new breed of gourmet chef-young, talented and innovative. From his open-concept chrome kitchen, which overlooks the dining area and a two-storey climbing wall of multi-coloured plastic holds, he oversees a kitchen that prepares a new weekly menu every Monday for the private club's elite clientele.

One Thursday afternoon, I sample a new effort in the works for the following week's lunch special-a savoury watermelon gazpacho served in pleated white ramekins that acts as a refreshingly tangy respite from the heat of the day; Damann nods with approval to his sous-chef Dagan Gottesmann as he downs the rosy concoction. It is the process as much as the product that started Damann cooking professionally, and since enrolling in Nanaimo's Malasapina culinary program the year after graduating high school, the native of Prince George, British Columbia, has made a name for himself both in North America (most recently catering a Steven Spielberg pre-Oscar party) and in Europe, where he worked alongside pop culture's reigning celebrity chef du jour Jamie Oliver at London's Fifteen.

Unlike the stereotype of a snobbish gourmet master, Damann is a laidback guy who wears knee-length army fatigues beneath his apron and chunky black skater sneakers on his feet. There is a geometric-patterned tattoo that rings the upper extremity of his left calf and, as he rolls up the right sleeve of his shirt, I spot a snarl of interlocking tropical imagery, in colours as vibrant as his gregarious personality.

Initially, Damann comes across as possessing a rough-and-tumble aesthetic. To date, his most memorable celebrity diner is shock-rock icon Alice Cooper. "He came into the restaurant [Fifteen] in London. He looked dead. He looked like the walking dead, very small and frail," Damann tells me with a genuine sense of awe. "We got a picture taken with all of us holding knives, it was pretty neat."

But broad shoulders and a scruff of facial hair is where the tough-guy persona concludes, because, in the end, Damann is more the stereotypical outdoorsy BC guy than anything else. He often bikes to work in the summer and enjoys snowboarding in the winter. He spends his weekends in the country with his girlfriend's family and claims never to have stepped foot in a Montreal bar (although he has visited a couple of its pubs). If this sedate lifestyle seems unusual for a high flyer on the restaurant scene-notorious for the after-work nightlife-it is simply because Damann is a retired scenester. While shrugging off the label of former party boy, Damann admits to his London heyday of going out with the other cooks, whom he describes as knowing how to party well during evenings punctuated by "hilarity and a hangover."

But his years in Europe were much more than a simple social mêlée. Damann worked with Jamie Oliver's Fifteen foundation, an outreach program that provides culinary training for underprivileged British youth. Teaching skills in the foundation's now celebrated kitchen and accompanying the various groups on tasting tours in Piedmont, Tuscany and Champagne, Damann's kitchen management style was honed in a team-oriented environment, which sets him apart from an older generation of chefs. According to Damann, a revolution of sorts is taking place in the culinary world: the days when young cooks were subjected to a flurry of flying pots and temperamental head chefs are being replaced by the working attitude that it is better to "be inspirational, to let people be a leader rather than a dictator."

In this new world of fine dining, however, the restaurant scene is being shaped not just by media-friendly culinary personalities but also by cutting-edge techniques. When twenty-nine-year-old Damann talks about his contemporaries, he bandies about terms more suited to a scientific laboratory than a Michelin-rated kitchen: chef Homaro Cantu at Moto in Chicago uses soybean and cornstarch in an inkjet printer to produce edible menus and a class IV laser (typically used for surgery or welding) to bake a reverse loaf of bread with the crust on the inside. And then there's the Fat Duck in Bray, England, where chef Heston Blumenthal plies his signature-style molecular gastronomy. (Molecular gastronomy is a term coined by French physical chemist Hervé This and Oxford physicist Nicholas Kurti to describe a branch of food preparation and cooking science in which centrifuges and distillery equipment hold court alongside chopping blocks and copper pots).

Damann's kitchen style reflects both new schools of culinary management and creation. Unlike many establishments, where kitchen staff are hired to perform specific tasks, Damann and his small team constantly rotate duties. As everything on the menu at Café du Club is made from scratch and is tied to whatever seasonal produce is available in any given week, there is room for a constant process of creation to which each team member contributes.

Whether developing aesthetically surprising dishes by engineering intricate pasta shapes, blending flavours and textures for sauces or using aspects of molecular gastronomy to prepare meat in hermetically sealed bags, Damann's relaxed attitude permeates the kitchen's collective approach to cooking. "Enjoy yourself, cooking is fun. Same thing as at home," he says without the affectation that belies the choice clientele who clamour for his culinary prowess.

Beneath the vaulted ceiling of alabaster moldings, the patrons of the Mansfield Club toil on their physiques and weightlifting form. The few remaining diners drain the last drops of wine from elegant stemware while flipping through newspaper broadsheets. The lunch rush now over, Damann stands in the kitchen amid his staff, cracking jokes. With the relative leisure of an office-hours work schedule, the occasional glitzy private function to cater, and a staff he considers all as friends, there is little more this young chef could ask for, save to run his own little restaurant one day, one "that is really busy all the time." Damann has already scaled heights that many twice his age would be envious of ever achieving in a lifetime; from now on, all the rest that comes his way is simply icing on the cake.

Follow writer Ceridwyn Au through the kitchen doors as she gets to know the chefs you rarely have a chance to meet, in Maisonneuve's new online series Under the Apron.