Situated on the eastern end of Montreal’s legendary St. Catherine Street, along a stretch of road known for flesh, flash and fracas, Chez Philippe is a little red brick abode that defies all the stereotypes. Only a small navy pendant banner from the Quebec hospitality authority, barely visible from the street, hints that behind the white curtained commercial storefront lies a jewel of tranquility.
Upon ringing the doorbell, I am greeted by the owner, manager and chef Philippe Nicolitch. I’m whisked up the stairs, past walls adorned with the framed playbills of London and New York musicals. Nicolitch escorts me into the dining room, bathed in early afternoon sunlight, and we sit around the large oval table that faces out onto the plant-lined terrasse. Over glasses of ice water that sweat just as profusely as we do, the native Parisian tells me about the financial gamble of his life.
Just two years ago, Nicolitch was a suit-and-tie managerial drone, working nine-to-five for an international hotel chain. Then calamity struck: Nicolitch found himself a casualty of corporate reorganization. Rather than wait for a similar position to open up at another chain, he decided to take the plunge, move to Montreal and go into business for himself. A graduate of the acclaimed École hôtelière de Paris, he has formal training in both hotel management and the gastronomic arts. It’s a wide but handy skill set for the one-man show that is his bed and breakfast. The name Chez Philippe suits this small hotel perfectly. It’s not merely Nicolitch’s livelihood, but an embodiment of the man and his beliefs.
Dressed in a navy T-shirt, baggy shorts and fluorescent orange clogs, Nicolitch is a thin, muscular man who exudes an almost unnatural calmness, as though, after years of working at world-class hotels, with their casts of colourful visitors, nothing could possibly phase him anymore. Nicolitch delivers dry-wit zingers with a flat expression, concluding each by breaking into a wide smile. With guests who span all manner of demographic groups, from young backpackers to senior citizens to business travelers, the best adjective to describe a typical visitor—and himself—says Nicolitch, is unconventional.
When first breaking into the saturated Montreal tourism industry, Nicolitch decided to set his B & B apart by using his veganism as the backbone of his corporate philosophy. At Chez Philippe, there are no animal products or by-products. That means no wool blankets, no feather pillows, no leather couches, no cow’s milk, no eggs, no honey. The pantry is stocked with organic produce purchased from local farmers who don’t use chemical pesticides. Morning cereal is served with rice milk and apple sauce is used as a substitute binding agent for eggs to make fluffy pancakes.
Nicolitch’s current culinary work is a far cry from his initial foray into the world of cooking. From the age of seven, he yearned to be a pastry chef and fondly remembers baking pies for weekend meals. But he found that, after training in the great kitchens of Paris, the professional restaurant environment had ruined his love of food preparation, and he abandoned cooking as a career option.
Now self-employed, Nicolitch can hone in on a culinary style that is all his own. What separates him from many of his contemporaries, trying to curry favour with the faddish vegetarian craze, is that the dishes he produces are based on the true spirit of vegetarianism. He does not believe in the veggie dog or using tofu to simulate meat or seafood. With no regrets about leaving the carnivorous lifestyle behind, Nicolitch does not understand the need to recreate the tastes and smells of that diet. Instead, he finds culinary inspiration in his appreciation of seasonal fresh produce, a habit acquired growing up in a French-Mediterranean family.
Much like his foray into the hotel industry, Nicolitch happened upon his culinary niche by accident. A phone call from a woman in Boston, a sufferer of celiac disease who was gluten-intolerant, led to an investigation of food substitutes and, ultimately, the creation of new recipes.
Although half of Chez Philippe’s business comes from travellers interested in the vegan lifestyle and the allergy-related culinary flexibility on offer, Nicolitch says other guests are often oblivious to the vegan underpinnings of the B & B during their stay. In the end, what keeps guests coming back is the soothing Eden that Nicolitch provides.
While the décor aesthetic pays definite homage to minimalism with its clean, streamlined look, each room is named after its fruit-inspired decorative scheme and awash in sumptuous colour: blueberry, kiwi, mango, pineapple. In the blueberry room, an open-concept clothes rack is suspended from the ceiling by steel cables; a plump couch awaits tired guests, as does a writing table adorned with a plate of complimentary home-baked cookies. There are fuzzy bathrobes in dark navy and a bedspread in slate. And then, the pièce de résistance: alabaster walls embellished with geometric forms in a light beryl.
Despite the staunch rhetoric that often accompanies veganism, Nicholitch is no zealot. He takes offence, though, over vegans being characterized as extremists. Both vegans and non-vegans are welcome at the B & B and he enjoys explaining his beliefs to anyone who is interested. Nicolitch is well-versed in animal husbandry practices and can provide guests with an extensive list of animal-product substitutes. If Nicolitch is a friendly ambassador for veganism, then Chez Philippe is a veritable embassy, one which attests that veganism is a viable option for contemporary urban living.
For Nicolitch, Chez Philippe marks a new chapter in his life, one that has permitted him to leave the rat race and find peace of mind in life’s simple moments. When not running Chez Philippe, he takes advantage of his self-made oasis by writing short stories and practising yoga. He hopes to return to the piano lessons he abandoned as a child and also expand his kitchen. For Montreal-bound travellers seeking refuge from the urban fray, Nicolitch offers a back-to-basics approach to tourism and to life, practising what he believes, that happiness is found in simplicity.
Chez Philippe B & B
2457 St.- Catherine East
Montreal, QC H2K 2J9
(514) 890-1666 or 1-877-890-1666
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.