Coming home to roost at oddBird
Justin Duc and Scott White want to eat certain foods when they go out.
“If there’s paté or tortière on the menu and something else, I’m getting that,” Duc said.
“With extra baguette,” White interjected.
But until the chefs opened their oddBird bistro in downtown St. Catharines in 2017, they had to head to Hamilton for such meals. There was no place in Niagara the business partners could wear track pants to dine on a fried chicken sandwich while sitting next to a couple on a milestone date eating lobster funnel.
They decided to fix that when they took over a former — and oh, so tiny — shuttered burger joint next to the city’s main hockey arena. There, they opened the kind of place where they like to spend their days off and that served the sort of food they wanted to eat.
Foie gras in various forms would get prominence on an ever-changing chalkboard menu. So, too, would the fruit grown on Duc’s family farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, or the vegetables from the market garden tended by his brother, Jeff, along with anything else the duo wanted to cook.
And, of course, despite the hole-in-the-wall size of the place, there would be plenty of room for the track pants-wearing, Pabst-drinking patrons and the lobster funnel-eating crowd.
“It’s everything we wanted, and more,” White said.
It wasn’t a clear path for oddBird to take flight, though.
White didn’t grow up always wanting to be a chef. At 23, the Niagara Falls native was working in a local casino when he decided he wanted to try cooking as a profession.
“I told my mom and she said ‘Why? You never cook anything,’ ” White recalled.
He was undeterred. White landed an apprenticeship at Niagara Parks’ Elements on the Falls, followed by more training at Niagara College’s Benchmark restaurant. There were stints at Ravine Vineyard in Niagara-on-the-Lake, then Rise Above, St. Catharines’ vegan restaurant, where he mastered cooking without butter before further fine-tuning his skills with omnivorous chef Cory Linkson at AG Inspired Cuisine in Niagara Falls.
Next came stints at Martin Picard’s renowned Au Pied de Cochon and Normand Laprise’s Toqué! in Montreal — dream gigs for an aspiring chef.
“It was quite different because it was something I didn’t know,” White said about cooking. “It seemed like a really transferable skill and I really enjoyed it. I’m still learning. You’re never really a master of it and that’s cool.”
Meanwhile, back in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Duc didn’t want to work on the family farm one summer as a teen so his father, Ray, marched him over to a rental house on the property occupied by a chef at Peller Estates.
“He said ‘Justin needs a job,’ ” Duc recalled. Peller, it turned out, needed a dishwasher.
Duc stayed for a year before moving on to the dish pit at Zees Grill in Old Town Niagara-on-the-Lake. There he met wine country chef Ross Midgley and became his protégé for the next 10 years.
During that time and at his parents’ behest, he also studied business at Brock University. But Duc knew his career path would lead to chef’s whites, not business suits.
“When I graduated from business school, I realized all I knew how to do was cook,” he said.
White became obsessed with seafood in Montreal and made a shortlist of restaurants he wanted to work when he returned to Niagara in 2016. He landed at Tide and Vine Oyster House in Niagara Falls where a chef with a business degree also happened to cook.
Duc and White hit it off, and within six months of meeting, they were making plans to open their own place.
“We wanted to take food in directions we couldn’t do at Tide and Vine,” Duc said.
Their initial idea was to open something small, staffed entirely by them — with that other necessary prerequisite:
“We wanted it to be a place we would go and hang out,”
They would have easily modified blackboard menus to keep waste to a minimum. In addition to food they enjoyed eating, Duc and White would offer dishes that challenged them behind the burner: lamb’s brains, horse heart, Wagyu beef, a bumper crop of zucchini from Jeff’s garden, often cooked with a French influence.
When its offal on offer, they’ll serve it in a familiar situation, like sweetbreads with Buffalo sauce and bleu cheese, before doing a more classical French preparation.
“We both push ourselves,” White said. “We’re at the point of always trying to learn something new and modifying it to work for the menu.”
They promote their menus on social media, and if they forget to update the blackboard in the restaurant itself, patrons remind them of what they showcased online and ask for it anyway. There are some mainstays that never get erased, including the salmon tartare and fried chicken, however just as there are some foods, like chicken breast, which will never be featured.
Duc and White also opened oddBird in the only Niagara city they were sure the concept would fly. Downtown St. Catharines was on an upswing thanks to significant investment from the city that beckoned crowds to the core. The true test of the oddBird business plan came when Bolete, run by chef Andrew McLeod, opened a few blocks down on St. Paul Street.
“I would say Bolete was the turning point for downtown St. Catharines,” Duc said. “Wellington Court was here and has always been amazing… but if something like Bolete can work, we thought we can make a go of this.”
They have. Two years in, locals flock to oddBird for lunch and dinner. The bistro has become so popular, its initial staff of two have grown to 15. Duc and White marvel as diners gush over their Buffalo sweetbreads.
“I don’t think it would have taken off anywhere else in the region,” Duc added. “And Niagara makes this possible as well because of the farm and the wineries.”
The appreciation for what they do is so strong, the duo are opening an offshoot one block away on nearby King Street. oddBar will serve pizza and wings in a space with a skate park feel. At twice the size of the mothership oddBird, it will also boast such chef luxuries as a walk-in fridge and a larger line in the kitchen.
With their December opening looming, Duc and White admit it’s a bit of an odd feeling taking stock of their success.
“It’s still very surreal,” Duc said about the second location. “It’s very surreal we (even) have one place. It’s terrifying.”
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52 St Paul St, St. Catharines, ON L2R 3M2
Phone: (905) 322-4043
52 St Paul St, St. Catharines, ON L2R 3M2