Montreal is a metropolis that defines itself with food. Bagels. Smoked meat. Poutine. These are our icons — venerated, sainted, knighted, canonized, indisputably and immutably of Montreal.
And even though this city is traditionally French, notably, our food generally is not. Bagels and smoked meat are Jewish contributions. And they have Poutine in Scotland. It’s just called chips and cheese and gravy there.
Given that we claim the largest number of fine dining establishments of any town on Canada’s Best 100 Restaurants list, our picks are decidedly working class, too. There is nothing particularly extravagant about bagels, smoked meat, or poutine — Quebecois slang for ‘mess.’
Another local-ish dish has emerged, though, that when history is written will surely be included on this city’s food mood board, and that dish is Laksa. Best made by Saint-Henri’s Satay Brothers, the scrappy, Singaporean street food restaurant that now boasts three bustling locations, Laksa, a spicy shrimp and chili coconut milk broth, reminds me of Montreal more than all the smoked meat sandwiches and all the all-dressed steamies combined.
That’s because I was fortunate enough to have caught the Satay Brothers at their inception, moving to the neighbourhood just as they were embarking upon Montreal’s competitive culinary scene. Beginning with a modest, street food-style stall at the Atwater Market, Satay Brothers has since expanded into an empire, a veritable neighbourhood staple revered city wide.
“It’s definitely developed in the 13 years since we first started out,” says the naturally gregarious Alex Winnicki, who, along with more reserved brother Mat, founded the Satay Brothers in 2011.
Though their last name is not Satay. “Dad was Polish,” explains Mat, pronouncing the family name, “Vinitsky.”
Their mother, Kim, an immigrant from Singapore who worked as a nurse, inspired the boys to make food more than a simple career choice.
“It goes back to the Singaporean culture, the Asian culture,” Mat says. “We love to eat. Mom always instilled that in us. Not necessarily just Singaporean food, but food in general. We were blessed, you know. Our parents would take us out to eat. I knew friends who would go out once a month to a restaurant. We’d go maybe once a week, to Chinatown, or somewhere. It didn’t have to be high-end food, but we were always out, always out eating. What we wanted to do with Satay Brothers was kind of an homage to Mom, to bring this hawker culture into Montreal, and these types of flavours.”
The spirit of the Satay Brothers’ Southeast Asian cuisine has obviously caught on in Le Sud Ouest. With their expanded bar and noodle counter at the Atwater Market, the Kim Jen Ming Canteen up the hill at the MUHC, and their flagship restaurant on Notre-Dame, the Winnickis employ nearly 70 staff members in the summertime, up to 50 year-round. “Now, the food court is busy as hell,” says Alex. “It’s become a destination.”
Though they both went to school, Mat for graphic design and Alex for business, the brothers cut their teeth at the Art Deco market that anchors Atwater Avenue to the Lachine Canal.
“I started working here probably 30 years ago, at the fruit stand.” recalls Alex. “I was 10.”
“I paid my dues, too,” says Mat. “I’m a self-taught chef. I’ve been cooking since I was 13 or 14 years old.”
Apprenticing at some of Montreal’s eminent restaurants, including Olive + Gourmando and Club Chasse et Peche, Mat Winnicki gradually envisioned what would become their unique brand. “What the big restaurants taught me,” he says, “was that, for me and my brother, we’re never going to go down that road. I never wanted to do that. I still remember one day receiving an order from Vinum, which sells very expensive wine glasses. And the order was as much as my yearly salary. On wine glasses. Decanters. And I remember telling my brother, we’re not doing that. We’re going to do volume, Chinatown style.”
Despite their half-Asian ancestry, the Winnicki brothers are dyed-in-the-wool Saint-Henri bred — as are their entire staff, alternating seamlessly between English and French — and fiercely loyal to the neighbourhood.
“We chose Saint-Henri because we lived here,” says Alex. “We grew up here. We were kind of lucky also. In the early 90s if we would have done this, it wouldn’t have been as well-received. I remember there was a Thai restaurant on Notre-Dame, where the Robot Vape is, in the early 90s, which was very good Thai food. But they didn’t make it. It was all hot dogs, poutine, taverns, and deps. That was pretty much it.”
Two significant things changed in the past decade that helped the Satay Brothers flourish: the City of Montreal fully opened its restaurant market to street food in 2013; and Saint-Henri’s demographics shifted rapidly from working to creative class.
“From when we were kids, it’s a whole different neighbourhood,” says Mat. “The architecture, the vibe has changed. Since we’ve opened the restaurant, it’s not been exponential. But when we grew up in the 80s, this was a very working-class neighbourhood. A lot of factories were still in the neighbourhood and people worked here. All of that’s kind of gone. They’ve replaced the shoe and leather factories with high-tech firms and design firms in Chateau Saint-Ambroise. It’s been gentrified — the bad G word.”
I ask how these shifts have altered Saint-Henri’s fabric. “I’m not going to lie,” admits Mat. “I’m not 100% against it. It brings certain new things to the area. And it expands its life beyond a working-class neighbourhood. It brings a different type of economy, different strata of people from across society. What’s the reaction to gentrification? Do they want us to become the slum that this used to be?”
Alex chimes in: “The borough put in a rule that you can’t open a restaurant within 25 meters of another restaurant, and I’m not a big fan of that. It happens organically. If I want to open a restaurant, and there’s only one spot, and there’s a garbage restaurant next to it that’s been there forever, and you want to open with two recipes from your grandmother, but you can’t because you’re within 25 meters? We live in a free market. If your food is good, you’ll survive. And if it’s not, maybe it’s time to update yourself.”
“We all dream of the local cobbler,” says Mat, “but I don’t have a pair of shoes that need to be cobbled.”
Alex reminds his brother of Cordonnerie Carinthia, the area’s shoemaker that is indeed always busy.
“I found these cowboy boots at the flea market for 40 bucks and I wanted to put a rubber soul on them so I wouldn’t slip around. I brought them in, and fucking ten days. They’re swamped.”
The bottom line, says Mat conclusively, is that “we can’t dictate what businesses we want in a neighbourhood if they can’t be self-sufficient.”
Despite the odd trivial squabble, Mat and Alex seem to get along swimmingly.
“I think it’s stronger now than it’s been in years,” says Mat of their relationship. “I told my brother, you know, I had a few hard years, and I’m sure my brother has had some too — of managing people, managing the stress of owning a restaurant. Especially for me, who is quite introverted, and a shy person, I thought that Satay Brothers attracted a lot of attention. I found that hard. But I learned to be a better businessman, I learned to be a better boss, I learned to be a better brother.”
There’s a tangible sense of contentment when the Winnickis talk about their collective calling.
“It’s the little things,” Mat muses. “Like if people say it reminds them of home. I did the Hainan Chicken for some people. They ordered it, and I looked at them like, ‘do you know what you guys just ordered?’ And the guy pulled up his leg and showed me a tattoo of the Merlion from Singapore. He said, ‘I’m an expat and I haven’t had Hainan in nine years.’ Just for a client that says that to me. I do a noodle dish and people say, ‘these are memories of when we lived in Malaysia, or Singapore.’ If I can satisfy someone with the food that I make, then I’m happy.”
Alex concurs. “When we work on the floor and we’re there for daily operations, we’re often just trying to get through the day. But sometimes if you take a step back, you look at the room and there’s like a hundred people, nobody’s on their phones, people are laughing, they’re with their friends, they’re taking a moment out of their lives, out of the stress of everyday life, of work, of shit that broke at home, of their bills, of their problems. Seeing that is very rewarding.”
I am not originally from Singapore. Nor was I born in Saint-Henri. I’m a transplanted Montrealer. But to me, savouring the spices of Satay Brothers’ Laksa soup will always remind me of home.◼︎