The unlikely restaurateur: Meet Michaël Gazier, ZenKitchen’s new owner

When ZenKitchen suddenly closed in May, and engineer Michaël Gazier reached out to beleaguered restaurateur David Loan to offer his assistance, the last thing he expected was that he would end up owning the much-celebrated business. Yet that’s exactly how it has turned out.

Gazier may be the new owner, but it is Loan who will continue to run the restaurant. Chef Kyle Proulx has moved on, but Loan’s former partner in business and life Chef Caroline Ishii is stepping up in a consulting capacity to help get things back on track. ZenKitchen is gearing up now for a July 31 re-open. Dinner at first, ramping up to brunch and lunch, and an eventual expansion and introduction of special weeknight features.

ZenKitchen's new owner, Michaël Gazier, an Ottawa vegan.

ZenKitchen’s new owner, Michaël Gazier, an Ottawa vegan.

While it can’t have been easy for Loan to relinquish ownership, the good working relationship they’ve developed has set him at ease. “As I’ve gotten to know Michaël better, I’ve found he’s a very quick study in whatever subject he takes on. He’s determined to learn about the restaurant business and to avoid the financial mistakes we’ve made in the past,” Loan said. “We both want ZenKitchen to succeed, and we both take immense pride in its future.”

I met up with Gazier and his partner Tania (as well as their two tabby cats) to learn more about the man behind ZenKitchen’s resurrection. He’s still getting used to the idea that he now owns his favourite restaurant, and knows that the journey of reviving and growing ZenKitchen has only just begun. He spoke with quiet confidence and thoughtfulness about his new role.

PT: You initially were just offering Dave support, but after a long period of discussions, you ended up owning the restaurant. What motivated you to stick with it, and make this work?

MG:  I have been vegan for ten years, and can’t actually remember the last time I ate meat. ZenKitchen is a special place for vegans, and a place I liked to go. It was also the best restaurant in Ottawa. It simply seemed impossible that it could close.

I reached out to Dave right away when I heard the news, and we met up to discus the situation. One thing led to another – it was very incremental, we solved one problem at a time.

Dave Loan will continue as ZenKitchen's manager and purveyor of wine.

Dave Loan will continue as ZenKitchen’s manager and purveyor of wine.

But as important as ZenKitchen is to vegans, I think it’s very important for non-vegans as well. There have been so many times when, as a vegan, the only food offered to me is salad. ZenKitchen has done a lot to change people’s perception of what is vegan food, and that it doesn’t have to mean salad. I like the idea of helping people to see things differently, and planting seeds at every opportunity.

PT: I think some of us were worried when we learned about an investor being in the picture, that they might take ZenKitchen away from its vegan roots. I’m guessing that’s not going to happen?

MG: Ha! No If anything we are returning to its roots. I know how important it is to the vegan community; afterall, I am part of it. I actually became vegan after attending some local vegan restaurant meet ups, where I learned about veganism from people, and reading books about ethics and the food industry. I’m vegan for many reasons – I don’t want to harm other creatures, but I also think there are compelling ecological considerations of which we should all be conscious.

PT: How well did you know Dave Loan when the closure occurred?

MG: I knew him as the friendly guy and great restaurateur who ran my favourite restaurant. I did not know him personally at all. Conversely, he didn’t know me. This required a leap of faith on both our parts. There have been a lot of twists and turns in the deal, but we’ve both gone out on a limb to make it work.

We are both doomed without the other, which I think motivates us to act in the best interests of the restaurant. He IS the restaurant. Dave will continue to be the face of ZenKitchen.

Former ZenKitchen chef Caroline Ishii returns to help with the re-launch.

Former ZenKitchen chef and co-owner Caroline Ishii returns on a consulting basis to help with the re-launch.

PT: How will ZenKitchen’s future look?

MG: I believe there is potential to grow the restaurant. Only 10% or so of our clientele is vegan, with potential to improve on that, and we will of course continue to cater strongly to their needs as they are the backbone of the restaurant.  The biggest growth opportunity though – which thrills me – is non-vegans, as we know that many enjoy exploring the gourmet vegan food experience.

I have looked at all the financials, with an eye towards sustainability. I’ve concluded that the business is sustainable, and that the issues that occurred were a result of some unfortunate circumstances, and following bad advice with good intentions.

I’m just really happy that ZenKitchen will continue, and get a new start. It’s exciting to be a part of it. I’ll be reaching out to the community of ZenKitchen patrons to get their feedback and thoughts on how we can make the restaurant a community hub. We already do special occasion meals really well, but it’s our intent to give people good reason to visit us any night of the week.

PT: So what do you do when you’re not at your fulltime job, or accidentally buying businesses?

MG: I really enjoy spending time outdoors – gardening, and camping and canoeing in particular. I also am learning Spanish, as well as the double bass.

ZenKitchen re-opens for dinners on Thursday, July 31. For reservations call 613-233-6404 or visit the website: www.zenkitchen.ca.

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