A passion for food is essential for any chef, but for Tim Lawrence of Sala Rosa, cooking is an essential part of a well-balanced life. A proponent of the "Slow Food" movement, Lawrence's view of cuisine is perhaps best summed up in the words of French writer Edgar Morin: "We do not need well educated minds but well made ones, able to enjoy and taste gourmet food." What constitutes a good meal is up for debate in most culinary circles, but for Lawrence the experience is derived from the use of fresh, local produce. For this Prairie transplant, Montreal-the often-proclaimed culinary capital of Canada-has a lot to learn from cities like Calgary, where fine dining is associated with the quality of food and social atmosphere, not the caliber of the décor or social status of clientele.
So after dabbling in the kitchens at several high-end Montreal hot-spots, Lawrence found a comfortable niche at the unpretentious Sala Rosa (4848 Saint-Laurent) in Montreal's Plateau district. The Spanish-themed eatery boasts a menu of tapas nibbles and heartier offerings like seafood paella but, unlike many restaurants, it remains unconstrained by the strict conventions of sit-down dining. The bar area that encircles the kitchen is a popular watering hole and gathering place for local hipsters who wish to throw back a few drinks before heading upstairs to catch a show. With a concert hall on the upper level, the restaurant can't help but be infused by an eclectic musical influence. "Sala Rosa is a magnet for musicians-many people who have taken jobs here are doing music as well," says Lawrence. "You can't not talk about music all day long."
The laid-back vibe that characterizes the kitchen staff mirrors the atmosphere of the restaurant as a whole. "What happens in the kitchen, the rapport between the people, is felt in the final product. All of that dynamic is there in the food and it colours the restaurant. The way the server treats you, it's all part of the experience," says Lawrence. "I really hope that that shows. That's who we are." With its white stucco walls adorned with poster-sized Correida playbills and its crimson table cloths, Sala Rosa perpetually evokes the sensation of having emerged from a siesta at dusk.
Much like the rest of the kitchen staff who harbour interests beyond the slicing and dicing of meal preparation, Lawrence is much more than a mechanic in an apron; dutifully following recipes, culinary conventions or hierarchical kitchen management styles. A self-described free-thinker, Lawrence began his exploration of food when enrolled in film studies at the University of Victoria. He and fellow foodie friends would head to Chinatown after class to buy fresh seafood and return home to experiment with new cooking methods. When his passion for food exceeded his desire to remain a student, Lawrence left university to learn the ropes in professional kitchens. "Just because I am thin doesn't mean I don't like food," says Lawrence, whose tall and lanky frame is clad in a simple white t-shirt and jeans.
In his journey from dishwasher to line cook to cooking-school student at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Lawrence was well-versed in the workings of the culinary world before he even graduated. "Cooking school was a waste of time for me," says Lawrence, because it did not reflect his philosophy on what cooking is all about. "It's not a process of repeating what you've been shown. It's something a lot more sensual. It is everything that you're doing, having a sensual dialogue with the food."
Nonetheless, the experience was a formative one. "I went there for a credential, and it just made me realize that you want to have something outside of the business," says Lawrence who initially moved to Montreal to continue his film studies. Although the parallels between filmmaking and cooking seem worlds apart, according to Lawrence the skills of a filmmaker are quite similar to those of a chef. Playing with sound and visual aesthetics, "being able to organize something out of nowhere," he says, is the "same organizing strategy used to make an improvised dinner."
When Lawrence arrived at Sala Rosa, he brought with him not only his culinary skills and imagination, but also his food ethics. An adherent to the tenets of the Slow Food movement-a philosophy that combines culinary prowess with eco-civic responsibility-Lawrence believes that diners need to become more informed about the food they consume. Supporting local producers who cultivate crops that are seasonal and regional in nature is a central tenet of the outlook, as is putting faces to names of distributors, understanding the duration of growing seasons and appreciating when certain ingredients are available. "I can't get whatever I want twelve months a year because it has a three-week season," says Lawrence, "and so you appreciate those three weeks and gorge yourself on that produce whatever it is for that limited time." But greater public awareness is required for diners to understand the links between their eating habits and their community. "That is really one of the laurels of the Slow Food movement, [helping diners] to understand why food is the way it is."
At the end of the day, Lawrence is content with his multi-faceted life, one part of which affords him the opportunity to pursue culinary creations in the kitchen at Sala Rosa. He views cooking as "a skill that travels. Wherever you go there are new foods, new cuisines, new audiences-it's really exciting that way," he says. But more importantly it has permitted him to work in an environment that is ever-changing. "This place is really transient, people wandering in from all crazy walks of life. It attracts some pretty interesting characters," he says. "Meeting so many people like that is definitely a blessing here."