BEHIND THE SCENES: LE VIRUNGA
Discovering Le Virunga is just one of the reasons I love social media and how it connects people. When I arrived in Montreal last month, I had a list of places I wanted to try. I also had African food on the mind and I wondered what African dining options there were in Montreal. And almost as soon as the thought passed my mind, through the magical powers of Instagram, I connected with Zoya de Frias Lakhany.
I had no idea until I arrived at Le Virunga that Zoya was not only younger than I expected but also fully in charge of the entire business. She has partnered with her mother who runs the kitchen as Executive Chef and manages all other aspects of her new restaurant almost single handedly. I was beyond impressed and hoped to be blown away by the food… which I was. Upon my return to NYC, I knew I wanted to find out more about Zoya, who is indeed quite the inspiration (you have to read below to see what I mean). I’m so happy she agreed to share a little bit more about herself and her very first restaurant and the extraordinary challenges she has had to overcome. Here we go:
When and why did you decide to get into the restaurant business?
As far as I can remember, I have always been a foodie! When I was younger, I would always be excited to go out to try new restaurants with my family, I was constantly eating tasty food such as pastries, chocolates, Belgium french fries, anything that is good for your soul but terrible for your health. At some point, I remember having to hide to eat because I was a little overweight.. so much love for food !
At the age of 10, I was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma which is basically bone cancer. During a bit over a year of treatment I was not able to eat anything, the medication was so strong I had no appetite. I went from being overweight to not being allowed to leave the hospital because I would not eat anything and at some point I became extremely skinny.
One morning, I was watching TV during chemo and a cooking show called “Bon Appétit, Bien Sûr !” was going on, and I think it kind of revived my love for food, I started to have cravings! I would just watch it everyday and make my mom run home to cook it!
After completing my bachelor studies in Computer Science last year, as a graduation gift we went on a safari with my family. We visited a Maasai village, road trip to Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro national parks. It was not my first trip in Africa, but it was such an inspiring journey that it made me realize that I wanted my life to have a meaning and showcase the beauty and richness of what Africa has to offer.
Ten months later, I decided to quit my job and to honor the things that shaped me as an African woman, I wanted to create a place where people could experience Africa in all its beauty. From the arts to music and fine cuisine and “Le Virunga” was born.
During our safari in Tanzania, my parents discussed how we would have done the same trip at home in the Democratic Republic of Congo – at the Virunga National Park. The Virunga National park is the home of many endangered species like Gorillas, Okapis, and Rhinos. “Virunga” meaning “volcano”, the landscape is amazingly filled with many volcanoes, mountains, lava lakes and glaciers.
However, there are so many troubles such as conflicts of interest between corporations and nationals regarding mineral resources available in the park, and rebels raping and killing women and children in Kivu which had made the entire region unsafe.
I decided to put a spotlight on that beautiful park, promote a positive image of what it could be if we valued its potential and worked together to protect it instead of tearing it down. The name is very meaningful to me because not only it is in the center of Africa, it also delimits three countries Uganda, Congo and Rwanda and that’s our mission, to be at the center of Sub-Saharan African culture and provide a fusion of dishes from multiple countries, showing how they can work beautifully together on a single plate.
I owe everything to my mom, she’s my rock! I think I’m also the reason why she changed career paths and became a chef !
She helped me design the space and the menu. As much as we love each other, we have a different skill set which is challenging because she’s the artist and I’m more methodical/strategic but that’s also our strength. We constantly challenge each other’s ideas and I believe that’s exactly what you need in a business.
The “Virunga Salad” which is a mango, avocado, papaya and spicy shrimps salad. It’s our signature dish because we came up with it couple of years ago and it has been our friends’ favourite since then! It’s very fresh, exotic, sweet and savoury with a punch of spices and texture. It’s different from a regular lettuce salad, still very healthy and nourishing, the sweet and savoury mix is intriguing to our customers but they are always happily surprised !
Crazy hours! It’s a lot of work outside of opening hours: manage weekly deliveries, accounting, marketing, reservations, etc. You live during the night and sleep all morning, it’s a total different lifestyle from a standard 9-5!
As a computer science graduate, I knew what was it to be a female minority in a mostly male dominated industry. There will be people (not only males, trust me) that will doubt you, ask you questions or give comments that they would not give if they were in front of a man. My advice is keep going, work hard, be stubborn, and make your own way.
I have a tendency to think I can do it all on my own ! Truth be told, if you are running a business you need to learn how to delegate… still a work in progress!
Becoming a place of reference in terms of “African experience”, and hopefully open another one, who knows, maybe in NYC?
For our first menu we decided to focus on basics of the African culinary experience which is stews, fish and chicken. Our dishes this season are inspired from countries such as Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania. We are working on the next menu and a very original brunch menu!
Le Virunga: 851 Rue Rachel Est, H2J 2H9 Montréal, Qc