Gabrieau’s Bistro – Where Kitchen and Community Come Together

As a young child, Mark Gabrieau developed a passion for cooking by being in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother. He is a first-generation immigrant who fell in love with rural Nova Scotia and carried his food culture with him throughout his journey to owning Gabrieau’s Bistro. As someone who is always willing to learn, Chef Mark continues to advance in his career. Alongside his wife Karen, they explore new business opportunities in and out of the kitchen, while always keeping in mind what is beneficial to the community they love.


Mark Gabrieau was born and raised in Windsor, Ontario. As a first-generation immigrant, the food culture in his household may have appeared unconventional to the average Canadian. “Both my mother and my grandmother were amazing cooks. We ate things that most people didn’t. They didn’t waste anything. They had the ability to cook things most people might discard” he explained. His parents and grandparents moved to Canada from Normandy, France before he was born. Sadly, his father died when he was a baby. With a passion for cooking at an early age, Chef Mark worked for an Italian family as a part-time cook. He gained a lot of experience while working for them that he carried on throughout his career. As a teenager, he packed up for a summer vacation with his friends to Nova Scotia. However, they all enjoyed the East Coast so much, they did not return to Ontario.

After moving to Nova Scotia, Chef Mark was able to take the necessary courses to obtain his high school diploma while attending culinary school. After completing his culinary program, he went to The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He returned to Nova Scotia and had many excellent jobs as a corporate chef. In spite of the job opportunities, Chef Mark no longer wanted to live in the city of Halifax. He went seeking a rural area for a quieter lifestyle and landed at Lobster Galley Restaurant in St. Ann’s Bay. He then took the role of executive chef at the Inverary Inn in Baddeck. After a couple of years, his attention turned to the town of Antigonish. He thought Antigonish was a small, beautiful town with the right amenities for him to settle there. He took a job as a chef and food and beverage manager at a Best Western Hotel. The owner of the Best Western also owned a bakery that Chef Mark took over as well.  

Three years later, an opportunity arose for a purchase-owner partnership of a café in downtown Antigonish. Chef Mark always said he was going to own a restaurant before he was thirty. With two weeks left to make it happen, he secured the partnership and was now a co-owner right before his birthday. Sunshine On Main Café was very busy and successful. Chef Mark made connections with regular customers. It was there that he met his wife, Karen. 

In 1998, Mark and Karen got married and parted ways with the business. Along with their own savings, they turned to Karen’s parents and a small group of other couples who would financially help them invest in a one-storey building. The commercial building was a bakery that had been closed for many years. It was an older building, with lots of potential. Karen had graduated with a business degree from St. Francis Xavier University, and together they came up with a business plan and bought it. Chef Mark had a vision of what he wanted, so he did most of the drawings for the renovation. This included turning the one-storey building into three stories. “I had a really good contractor who was just getting started with his contracting business. He was very talented and a great person to deal with.” He goes on to say his contractor was well respected by the other tradesmen and that made the project go smoothly. “From the time we bought it and started the demolition to the time it was finished, was six weeks.” 

The first week the new restaurant was open, it was only available to a small selection of people including close friends, some previous customers from Sunshine On Main Café, tradesmen and investors. The first week was a success, so they opened the doors to the public. Unsure of what to name the restaurant, Mark and Karen went to Karen’s old professor for advice. Karen’s professor, Ian Spencer, who now has the Ian Spencer Award for Excellence in Business named after him, was a business and marketing expert whose opinion was well respected. After meeting with Spencer, they decided on Gabrieau’s Bistro. Due to the strong customer relationships Mark and Karen built at the previous café, they wanted the locals and tourists to know where they had moved on to. They had the community’s support from day one. 

Tourism in Antigonish was very predictable in the beginning. “There was an old joke that if you want to get to Antigonish, get on the Trans Canada and turn off at the first set of lights. There were three sets of lights on the Trans Canada, and all of them were entrances into Antigonish” Chef Mark said. Tourists would stop at a red light, see desired amenities, and turn off to get something to eat. But when the highway was moved, the restaurant sales suffered greatly. The tourists no longer had to stop in Antigonish on their way to another destination. Chef Mark had to think of new ways to draw tourists into the restaurant. He was on the board of the Antigonish Tourism Association and a part of the Destination Eastern and Northumberland Shores Tourism Association (DEANS). Both associations were helpful avenues for promoting the restaurant with online marketing. Over the next 5 years, the customer base kept growing, but it never returned to the original numbers. 

Mark and Karen participate in fundraisers and festivals as much as possible. One of the largest attractions to the town is Festival Antigonish, a theatre festival. Mark and Karen have sponsored and donated to this event from the first year they owned Gabrieau’s Bistro. Around 2012, they also got involved in Bluefin Tuna Catch and Release yearly between August and October. The east coast has some of the biggest bluefin tuna in the world, and fishermen come from all over to participate in sportfishing. The Gabrieau’s built great relationships during this event. This not only helped with restaurant sales, but it helps bring money into the community. Another attraction to Antigonish is St. Francis Xavier University, the university Karen attended. Gabrieau’s Bistro has gained student customers over the years but was named as the fancy restaurant in town, and not in a positive way. Chef Mark explains that while there are some specialty items on the menu that may be more expensive dishes, not all their options are high in price. He always welcomes students to come to enjoy an affordable meal at Gabrieau’s Bistro.

Gabrieau’s Bistro has won many awards including Restaurant of the Year from Taste of Nova Scotia, Outstanding Customer Service Award from Antigonish Chamber of Commerce, and the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator Magazine. One award that Chef Mark takes a lot of pride in is the Ethics in Business Award presented by the Better Business Bureau of Atlantic Canada. The bureau accounted for every little section of the business from the employee manual to their mission statement. It was a great honour for Gabrieau’s Bistro to win this award because it showed their core values and how well they support their employees. Chef Mark says they are very fortunate to keep being recognized at this level as they continue to win awards throughout the years. 

Mark and Karen have also explored other business ventures after opening Gabrieau’s Bistro twenty-four years ago. In the early 2000s, around the time Chef Mark became a certified sommelier, they built an independent mobile kitchen. The mobile kitchen was supplied with propane stoves, ovens, freezers, and a walk-in fridge with generators for electricity. This allowed them to cater for large events, up to 500 people at times. The catering business was remarkably successful, and they served three-course meals across Nova Scotia for many years. Mark and Karen retired the catering business in 2016. In 2002, they opened a retail store called Gabrieau’s Culinary Closet with high end kitchen essentials from appliances to utensils. While the retail store unfortunately did not generate the sales he hoped for, Chef Mark was grateful for the customers who supported them until the store closure in 2011. Some driving hours just to shop there. “Those who supported us, supported us a lot,” he says. “Looking back, maybe it wasn’t the right thing at the right time. But we enjoyed it.” In the early 2000s, Mark and Karen also started a partnership rental company that they still have today. They own 5 houses, the building that’s home to Gabrieau’s Bistro, and a 4-unit rental building. 

After closing the retail store and retiring the catering business, Chef Mark put all his focus back into the restaurant. Unbeknown to him, Gabrieau’s Bistro would face challenging times in the near future. The Covid-19 pandemic caused the industry to take a huge hit with lockdowns and dine-in restrictions. He handled it as best he could. He refused to close his doors completely and turned to take-out options for his local customers. Chef Mark and his kitchen staff looked at their menu and chose to keep their best take-out sellers in rotation. They made easy to-go meals that were convenient for the customers to pick up on their way home from work. Chef Mark said his customers showed so much support and thanked his staff members for continuing to stay open. “People came in and bought gift certificates, just so we would have extra money in our till because they weren’t sure if we were struggling or not” he explains. “That shows what kind of community we live in.” 

“We have a lot of knowledge in the kitchen because of the diversity of our staff” Chef Mark describes. He employs people from all over the world including the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka, and Mexico. Many of his staff have work experience in other countries such as Dubai. “There’s a lot of fun in here because I get to learn. I get to watch them do something I have never done before. And they get to learn from me because my background is more French, Italian, and regional Canadian cuisine” Chef Mark said. There is a lot of input from the staff regarding the menu. He says it’s motivational to watch them come up with new ideas.  They try to source local ingredients as much as possible. Chef Mark explains that he sources products from Antigonish first, then provincially in Nova Scotia, the Maritimes, then anywhere within Canada. This method has worked for him as they want to support other local businesses and keep ingredients as fresh as possible. Chef Mark says he will tell his staff he needs new entrée and appetizer selections for the following week with these products. They will each bring in samples and as a team, they discuss what will go on the menu. The staff are incredibly involved in decision-making alongside Chef Mark. Gabrieau’s Bistro also puts on Indian Night, Sri Lankan Night, and other events that allow the staff to share their food culture. “That’s one thing where we’re different,” he says. “We just want to have fun.” 

So, the next time you find yourself hungry on Highway 104, make sure to pull off in Antigonish for amazing food and a good time at Gabrieau’s Bistro. But in the meantime, be sure to follow them on social media to see what you’re missing out on.

by Gabrielle Gamblin