Not long after the pandemic closed down bars, restaurants and many other businesses last year, former Montreal bartender Sam Turp found himself working part-time construction shifts to make ends meet for his family.
He had recently moved with his pregnant partner and daughter to the countryside of Saint-Césaire, about 50 kilometres east of Montreal.
For the first time, the perpetually busy Turp had extra time on his hands, as well as an abundance of outdoor space around his new home.
He decided to build a barbecue pit in his backyard, using cement blocks and grills he bought at a hardware store. And he attempted to cook meat over a fire — just for the challenge of mastering a new skill.
Initial results were underwhelming, including a disappointing first attempt at pulled pork.
But something clicked once Turp tried his hand at cold smoking salmon, where cured pieces of fish sit for hours in a box next to a fire but away from direct heat.
Soon, he was devoting time before and after work to his passion project, getting up at dawn and staying outside past midnight to tend to his grills.
And to his surprise, this began to yield results beyond a surfeit of supper food for his family.
From hobby to business
Early on, Turp brought some smoked salmon to share with the guys on the construction site. They liked it, and asked him to make more.
Turp soon expanded the outdoor grill space from six to 24 feet. Later, he moved to an indoor facility where he can smoke up to 25 pounds of salmon at a time.
"In the beginning, I thought I'd be making 10 portions of smoked salmon at most.
Now, I'm making hundreds," he said.
Those portions of smoked salmon are the main product of his new business: Lox Box Mtl.
Done his own way
Turp admits it's odd that he's launching his business with a food product he never liked very much before he tried to make it himself.
But the chance to do it differently intrigued him.
"It seemed weird to me that I didn't love smoked salmon, even though Montreal is a smoked salmon town," he said.
He's found that the best results come from working slowly. It now takes him five days to prepare the smoked salmon, twice the time he took when he first started out last year.
"You're rewarded for your patience," Turp said. "I put all my energy and heart into it. It's weird but you can taste the love."
Sharing with family
Turp's old life involved long, late shifts at restaurants and bars in the city, but his new one is no less demanding.
He's up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare everything for the smoker before taking his two young daughters to daycare. And once they're home in the afternoon, he makes sure to spend time with them until they go to bed.
His three-year-old, Lily, is starting to take interest.
"She knows about the steps…. It's fun to be able to share it with her," he said. "I have more time with my family now, but I've never worked this hard."