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Welcome to the launch of montrealsushi.com.

It’s been a long year in the making—or should I say, the languishing. Still, something is always more than nothing, and here is that something. In the style of its mother site, montrealfood.com, montrealsushi will start small and hopefully end up big.

However, with montrealfood.com I had a bunch of reviews all ready to go from a previous site, but this time, I have . . . one. I considered borrowing Japanese restaurant reviews from montrealfood.com, but that would be stealing. No, this just has to be done from the ground up. And from the title, you must know that the word “teriyaki” will not be a common term in the reviews that will follow, because we’re here for things that swim, not things that flap, oink, bleat or moo.

From Anago (conger eel) through Inago (deep-fried crickets) to Wakasagi (Pond smelt) we shall muse, consider, analyse, philosophize, agitate and cogitate upon this wondrous bounty called sushi. And we’ll do it all right here in Montreal.

As with the launch of montrealfood.com, we start here with an interview.

A little background: the subject of the interview, Kourosh Salas, is the founder of Restaurant Soto, one of the first places in Montreal to break away from the traditional and institute the “hip” sushi place. Of course now, there are many places that endeavour to be hip, but something that is hard to ignore is that Soto was one of the first, and is still one of the first trying to spread out in various incarnations, all over Montreal— indeed, all over North America.

Soto has some major detractors. Lesley Chesterman, food critic for the Gazette, trashed it, not once but twice—a pounding for both Montreal locations. Luc Devroye, formerly owner/founder of the highly-respected Sushi in Montreal pages, also had few kind words for Soto.

And up front: what food I had at Soto was provided free by Kourosh as a part of a publicity campaign to help the launching of his satellite “SotoExpress”-brand shops, which now are ubiquitous in this city.

So I will pass judgment neither on Soto’s food, nor the man, who comes across as bombastic, intelligent, boastful, introspective, funny, ruthlessly ambitious and endearingly humble, all in the same interview.

Here then, is Kourosh Salas.


Q: How did you get into this business?

A: I’m from Iran. My grandfather was a doctor, my father was a doctor and I was the first person to say, “I don’t want to study medicine, or go to Med School, or anything related to that.” I wanted to study Economics.

So I came to Montreal from Paris, where my family was living, and I got my Masters in Economics at the University of Montreal.

By then my French was very good—I’d been studying it since kindergarten—but my English was pretty terrible, so I decided to get a Masters in Management at McGill. That was a one-year intensive course, and after that I decided to get a job. I got a job for eight months as a business analyst for Owens-Corning, in, of all places, Dubai. But at the factory there, it was all old-style management—slow and structured, and I needed something fast-paced and challenging, so I decided to move on and start my own business.

After that I could have gone anywhere, because I was single and wasn’t tied down by anything, but you know, Montreal’s one of those places that once you’ve lived there, you keep getting drawn back.

Q: How did you get from assembly line to food?

A: I was 25 years old and I had to start a career. But for me to start any business, it was all the same thing, since I’d never started a business before. I figured that the restaurant business was something that would suit me, because of its high-intensity nature. I mean, you figure that at a restaurant in a one-and-a-half or two-hour space of time, you’ve got to do the ordering, the processing, the production and the service, whereas in a factory you’ve got 8 hours or even days to do the same amount of work. So we have an hour and a half to manufacture (sorry to use the manufacturing metaphor, but that was my background up to that time)—should I say, to produce, the food, and make sure the customer’s satisfied. And it’s a one-shot deal. You have it or you don’t have it—you can’t do it over again.

Also, I talked to a lot of people, and from what I kept hearing, I knew this was my kind of work. Plus, there’s no entry barrier. Anyone can open a restaurant. However, this makes the risk factor very high, and you’re going to get a lot of failures. Maybe a few successes, too. Anyway, that combination, the rush and the risk factor, drew me in.

Q: Why this choice of cuisine?

A: The second question everyone asks me is, “You’re Persian. Why Japanese?”

Well, let me just say that I work out twice a day, and I have been for many years. In fact, I’ve been doing all kinds of sports for well-on fifteen years now, and a healthy lifestyle is a way of life for me.

I was introduced to Japanese food for the first time in Montreal and at the time I was on a high-protein, low-carb diet. I was immediately struck by how colorful it was, the simplicity and the care that went into the presentation of the food. There was nothing hidden, you knew exactly what you were eating because you could see just what you were eating, and I said, “Wow! This is healthy stuff.” From studying trends in Economics I knew that as a food trend, Japanese food was going to be around for ten, twenty, many years, and I figured it was a better bet than a future of French fries and hamburgers. I knew then that Japanese food was what I wanted to do.

Q: How did you approach the concept?

A: I began hanging around Japanese restaurants, and I immediately noticed a few things. Either they were cramped, badly located, or their lighting was too harsh, and there was always something missing: service, atmosphere, you name it. The food might have been good, but it seemed there was always something missing.

I thought, why not make a different interpretation—open space, high ceilings and so on—anything to get away from the old traditional way of doing things.

I was lucky enough to be introduced to the person who’s now our executive chef, Jun Ikematsu, and we started Soto together in 1995. Jun and I bonded immediately, because as a former chef from a French restaurant in Kyoto, he also wanted to create a place that parted from the old, traditional ways.

I of course had never had any experience in the restaurant business, so I trusted Jun to come up with a concept for the new venture, from a food point of view. His background in the French restaurant gave him the confidence he needed to shake up the whold traditional thing and make it new—new sauces, new mixes of ingredients, new combinations of old ingredients.

Montreal, in my opinion, is such a colorful city, and I wanted our restaurant to be as colorful as possible, with the menu, with the service, with the atmosphere. Jun and I are both pretty calm individuals, I think, so that part of our personalities is reflected in the choice of colors and atmosphere at the restaurant. Actually, I think that our desire for calmness also affected the service, because we both don’t like pushiness from anyone on the floor. I actually had to let a guy go, a really good waiter, because he was too enthusiastic. Too pushy! We figured that if we had a strong menu, a good variety on the menu, if we explained the menu in an intelligent way to the customer, the customer would choose—we don’t have to push him.

Q: How did you approach the design?

A: We wanted to make all the elements—the lighting, the decor, the ambience, the menu—have a harmony with each other, something consistent and modern, not traditional.

We also had to figure out our serving style, the way we wanted to interact with the customers. That aspect alone took two years—to come to the point where we could finally say, yeah, we’ve developed a “brandable” style of service. I knew we’d reached that point because one of the customers actually told me that our restaurant had a unique style, which he called the “Soto” style. Needless to say, that put a big smile on my face.

Jun wasn’t the only one I started Soto with. I had a partner for a while in the beginning, but after a year or so our visions of how things should go began to diverge. I ended up buying him out.

Q: How well did you adapt to the restaurant business?

A: In the beginning, I knew that in order to be able to communicate effectively with the people working at the restaurant, I had to understand what it was like to be in their positions. So I started in the kitchen. I went through the kitchen and I started working the floor. I waited the tables, I did the “hostessing.” It was great, because I was in direct contact with the people.

But at the same time I was managing, opening the shop at 6 a.m., working all day, closing the shop, then going to the office, doing the books, accounts payable and so on, then going home and doing it all again the next day. Today of course, I have a manager for each store, an Area Manager, a Regional Manager, a Development Director—well, you get the picture. But in the beginning I had to do it all myself, to wear all the hats, so I could get to the point we’re at today.

Q: Where is the name from?

A: It was very difficult to choose the name. I knew I wanted a name with two syllables. I wanted something that would be easy to make a logo for, and also something that would be easy to remember. We were throwing around all sorts of names, but I’d find this one a little bit too soft, that one a little bit too playful, whatever. I wasn’t the one actually who came up with the name, but I knew it was right when I heard it and saw it. The two round “Os,” the compact sound of it—I thought it was sexy and even feminine. But at the same time it had a serious sound to it. It’s difficult to explain what I liked about it, but I think I made the right choice.

Q: Who do you consider your main competition?

A: In the beginning it was tough. I’d have people come up to me and tell me, “Do you realise you’re competing with places like Katsura? They’ve been around for decades. They’re like, King of Japanese food in Montreal.” Well, it was never my intention to compete with these other established places, to try to beat them at their own game. I just wanted to do our thing, to do it the best, to work hard, to gain the respect of the restaurant-goers in Montreal. And you know what? It paid off. We have a tremedous reputation here, and some people even say we’re the ones to beat now!

Q: What do you think sets you apart from the rest of the pack?

A: Well, whatever we do, I want it to be the best. The sushi? I only buy the best. Me, I’ve never flown in a private jet. But my tuna does, all the time. I don’t want to be cheap. Cut a corner here, cut a corner there, but never cut a corner on the food. All the fish that we buy, the tuna, the salmon, it’s the best you can find. I don’t care where it has to come from. And yup, a Japanese company delivers the tuna by private jet.

And then there’s saké. When I started in this business, I didn’t know much about saké. I thought there was only two kinds of saké. I mean, how are you going to know these things? You’d certainly never find more than two kinds of saké on a typical Japanese restaurant menu, let alone at the SAQ. But when I went to Japan, and they told me that there were THOUSANDS of kinds of saké, like wine, I was stunned. And I said, we’re going to be the ones to introduce some of these sakés to Quebec, if not Canada, if not North America. But wow, I had no idea what that would involve. Private importation! Red tape! But we did it—I didn’t care. I had to put deposit money down, what have you. Now we have at least 15 kinds of saké, and the customers are just boggling. They all thought there was only two kinds of saké, too! And you know what? When I started the restaurant you’d walk into the SAQ and see two kinds of saké on the shelf, but now there are at least fifteen, because of our efforts. The fact that I was able to contribute to the appreciation of saké in Quebec really makes me happy. And the SAQ loves me!

Q: How did you get Japanese people working in your store?

A: The St. Laurent shop was humming along pretty smoothly by 1997 or so, and we decided to open the Old Montreal shop in 1998. This meant our staff was going to have to grow, and of course we’d need more chefs. Montreal isn’t such a huge city, so the pool of available talent is going to be limited. You can’t just go around stealing other people’s chefs. And like I said before, there are certain places in a restaurant where you don’t want to cut corners—you have to have the best. So, I took a plane and I went to Japan. I went to Fuchu University, one of the biggest cooking schools in Japan, and introduced myself to the president. He took one look at me and said “You’re awfully young to be starting a restaurant!” See, in Japan you start off as a busboy and twenty years later you might be an apprentice chef! (Laughs.) Just kidding, but it’s very different than here.

Anyway, I gave him an overview of the company, and I told him of our expansion plans. I said, “We have to be partners.” The idea was, when graduates of the university started looking for jobs, I wanted our restaurant to be on the list. It was great for them, because foreign country experience would look great on their resumés, and it would be great for me because I’d be getting fresh talent right from the source.

Of course, you can’t just say, “Put ‘em on a plane and I’ll meet them at the airport.” I had to arrange all the visas, the housing, and all the support stuff anyone from a foreign country who didn’t speak English or French would need in Quebec. It wasn’t easy. But that way I avoided having to do all that tired stuff like stealing other people’s chefs, and we ended up with a superb pool of fresh, new talent.

Q: And now you’re expanding. What’s up with that?

A: When we opened the Old Montreal store, we had to do some serious thinking. We didn’t want some cookie-cutter formula for new branches. The St. Laurent shop, our flagship, catered to the trendy customer base that naturally flocks to that area. In other words, the music was fairly loud, the decor was flashier, more party-style. The McGill shop, in contrast, was more subdued. We made a jazzy, sophisticated ambience more suited to the business community or perhaps families, rather than the more youth-oriented style of the St. Laurent store. We didn’t want to do the McDonalds-style of “everything being exactly the same” at each location. We tried to keep some things consistent with the Soto philosophy, namely, quality and service. The music might be different at the Mont Tremblant store, but the tuna is still going to be flown in on a private jet!

I hadn’t mentioned the Mont Tremblant store? Sorry about that.

We opened the Soto in Mt. Tremblant in 1999. That was a huge step for the company, because not only were we opening a Japanese restuarant at a major North American ski resort, but we’d actually taken over managing the food and beverage service of Westin Hotels there.

Soto was doing great in 1999, and in 2000, I decided that I wanted to branch out, take us somewhere we hadn’t gone before. We came up with the concept of branches-within-branches, at each level getting closer to the community. First there would be the restaurants, now encompassing St. Laurent, Old Montreal, and latest, Mont Tremblant. But then I had the idea of catering. If you think about it, Japanese food—sushi—is ideally suited to catering. You don’t need a lot of sauces that need to be made and kept hot. The freshest fish available, and you’re on your way.

Meanwhile, in the catering area, we started to cater major events in Montreal, like Molson Centre events, the Pro Tennis Tour events (at Jarry Stadium) and golf tournaments. Mind you, my goal here wasn’t to become King of Catering in Montreal, just king of Japanese food catering in Montreal. So it was more of an idea of being a sub-contractor of the already-established catering places in Montreal, not to take over the field.

And then there was the concept of takeout and delivery. Start making neighbourhood-based “Soto Express” shops that would deliver the same calibre sushi that we serve at the main restaurants, except on a neighbourhood, even block level. So far, we’ve opened six stores like that, and by the end of this year we’ll have opened another six.

So far this is on a regional level, in Montreal. On a national level, though, we want to open in Toronto, and we’re in the middle of negotiations about that. There’ll be a restaurant there and maybe half a dozen of the takeout counters.

To tell you truth, I was planning to open a shop in Vancouver, but after making the six-hour trip a couple of times, I came to the realisation that that was too far. In the end, we’ve decided to limit ourselves to places that are within an hour and a half from Montreal by bus, train, car or plane.

So we’ve got plans for a restaurant in Laval, and also we want to open a shop in Washington, D.C.

And yes, I’ve often heard the comment, “You’re spreading yourself too thin! How are you going to maintain the quality? How can you trust these workers at your other branches if you’re not personally there to keep an eye on them?”

Well, it’s part of my philosophy that if you trust someone, give them a chance to attain the best they can be, they’re going to try to do that. I’ve always thought that if you give them the opportunity, most people are going to seize it with both hands. I have today an area manager who used to be a busboy. He himself told me, “If I’d had to do the regular up-the-ladder thing from busboy to even just waiter, it might have taken me 20 years.” Well, he did it in two years. I told him: he’d put 400% of himself into his effort. He’d earned it, and it wasn’t difficult for me to recognise that. He’s only 32 years old and he has almost 100 employees under him! I told him, “I don’t even know what my limits are, so how can I judge your limits?” He might be MY boss one day.

Q: Some thoughts for the future of Soto?

A: We want to be the choice for sushi in North America. We want to democratise sushi. So with the takeout counter concept, we can do that. It’s a smaller space, so less overhead, so we can charge less for the sushi, so more people can buy it.

But we want to maintain the quality at all the levels. We want to make sure that when you eat sushi from Soto, it’s guaranteed.

You know what makes me happy? If you come with your mother, your friend from out of town, your business meeting, your whatever—if you come to Soto and you go away happy, I’m happy. I’m the happiest restaurateur in the world.

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