Fringe Food

Gather ‘Round The Table

The eight people crowded around Shammy Chan’s dining room table are about as disparate a group as one could find, even in Montreal.

There’s a nineteen-year-old, freshly arrived from the West Coast, a thirty-something Lebanese financial advisor and a project manager from Toronto in town for business. And, of course, there’s the quick-footed Chan herself, intermittently propped up on a small chair just long enough to share a laugh with her guests, before leaping back to refill dishes or stir pots in her spacious Plateau kitchen.

Her apartment is chock full of multi-coloured walls, mismatched furniture, and the rich scent of heartfelt cooking. I’m attending ‘Press G for Gluttony,’ Chan’s popular series of film-themed tasting menus, billed as “a greedy night of fine dining and film to brighten your boring, tasteless Thursday.” Though title and tagline borrow heavily from Hitchcock, it soon becomes evident that Chan’s soirées are quite the opposite of thrillers: secrecy, tension and crime are replaced by conviviality, laughter, and nourishment.

Damn good nourishment.

Arriving late—the fault of the aforementioned business traveller, my dinner companion, who has insisted on treating me to an extended 5 à 7 on her company credit card (a rare event in my humdrum life I couldn’t decline)—we’re just in time to sample what remains of the starter course on Chan’s communal table tonight: three Persian ‘cooling salads.’

There’s a luscious, creamy beetroot salad (my personal favourite), an aubergine pureed with walnuts, a classic tomato-cucumber salad, and host of fresh Persian breads. After all, the film of the week is Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s 2007 a coming-of-age portrayal of a woman during the Iranian Revolution.

With film looming and wine flowing, the table becomes wrapped in a cloak of chatter: from office workers whining about their bosses to various political debates. Chan brings out the mains: a set of ‘warming’ dishes.
First, there’s a chicken leg braised with prunes and oranges (Khoresht-e Alu) whose meat falls off the bone with nary a prod. Next, some nutty rice and lentils (Adas Polo) with a nice little crunch. And finally (my new favourite), a meatball as I’ve never tasted before. Chan explains that it’s been stewed with pomegranate coulis.

I’m in love. As conversation intensifies, I spy the large platter of meatballs, forgotten by the revelers. I seize upon their distraction by spooning myself second and third helpings.

With Chan back at the table, I ask her about the inspiration for these soirées. “I used to have potlucks in a huge old loft I lived in, and sometimes eighty people would show up,” she said. “We had to have more than one sitting! Not everyone brought food, and I’d inevitably end up cooking for a crowd.”

A bicycle delivery service, Bento Attack, followed, wherein Chan began to hand-deliver lunch boxes to clients across the city at noon. Finally came the Thursday-night film series—which has proven to be an even more adventurous culinary affair.

“I experiment all the time. I’m often cooking styles of food I’ve never tried before. We’ve had Czech, Hungarian, Japanese, you name it. But it’s not that straightforward all the time. There are often these hidden links between the dishes I cook and the film to come,” explained Chan. “A Japanese film is not necessarily a Japanese menu; there might be a big bowl of Italian style pasta. People wonder why—until they see the film.”

‘Press G’ has taken on a cult following, and I’ve devised my own hypothesis as to why: As a concoction of narrative and sensory experimentation, the normally sight-and-sound-bounded film experience seeps into the gustatory (and, as Chan reminds me, the olfactory and tactile as well).

This, blended with a communal table produces a quirky, unconventional space which somehow leaves a powerful impression—and leads to unexpected thoughts and conversations.

Oh, and at twelve bucks a pop, consuming Chan’s array of carefully-crafted dishes almost feels like theft—and that’s before the film has even begun (it’s included in the price). For those feeling gluttonous, “Press G for Gluttony” continues every Thursday into September with an array of carefully-selected exotica and cult classics on the menu. Check the Facebook group for more information.