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Interview with Zoya de Frias Lakhany, Founder and Owner of Le Virunga Restaurant from Montreal

The gastronomic diversity of a city is shaped by the presence of restaurants that represent the cuisines of other countries. Since 2016, Zoya has been representing Pan-African sub-Saharan cuisine, with its own restaurant Le Virunga, in Montreal. I talked with Zoya de Frias Lakhany about Le Virunga.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Zoya de Frias Lakhany

Zoya de Frias Lakhany


by Meryem Aksoy

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One of the best ways to get to know different cultures is to experience their culinary culture and taste their traditional dishes. If you would like to learn more about the gastronomic culture of France, Italy, or Japan, it's easy to experience it in your city. However, it is more difficult to live this experience when it comes to countries that have not a popular culinary culture around the world. Those who live in Montreal are advantageous because Montreal is home to many different restaurants that represent different cultures. One of them is Le Virunga Restaurant, located in the Plateau Mont-Royal. Founded by Zoya de Frias Lakhany, Le Virunga offers both authentic atmosphere and Pan-African sub-Saharan tastes. I talked with Zoya de Frias Lakhany, Founder and Owner of Le Virunga Restaurant, about her career and Le Virunga Restaurant.

Le Virunga Restaurant - Zoya de Frias Lakhany and Maria-José de Frias

Zoya de Frias Lakhany and Maria-José de Frias

Zoya, before talking about Le Virunga, could you tell us about yourself? Who is Zoya de Frias Lakhany?

I was born in Kinshasa, DRC in 1991, my mom is half Congolese/Portuguese and my dad is Indian born in Bukavu, DRC. I grew up in Brussels, Belgium and then moved to Montreal, Qc when I was 16 years old.

Once in Montreal, I completed my college degree in Commerce then bachelors in Computer Science and Mathematics in 2015. I worked for about ten months in my field of study (tech analyst) and quickly realized this was not a fit for me, I was missing the social interactions I would get when I was working part-time in retail through my studies, and I always wanted to have some kind of purpose in my life. So in April 2016, I quit my job and opened Le Virunga in June 2016. I have always been a "foodie" since my young age I'll always love to eat, so it was definitely fun for me to share my passion with our guests.

Since then I keep myself busy in diverse certifications, tasting events, I even create and execute my own cocktails, we offer wine pairings as well.

I find excitement in every new challenge, I feel like I was meant to do this!

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

Please tell us about your location and the advantages of being there.

We are in the heart of the Plateau Mont-Royal, 7 minutes away from Mont-Royal metro station. I fell in love with this location because it is quite in the middle of a busy neighbourhood but yet still a hidden gem because it is not a street where there is a lot of stores. The majority of businesses are restaurants and usually either family-owned or owner-run so no franchises really. Another particularity of this street is that you have Quebecois, Portuguese, Italian, Korean, French, Afghan, Indian, Balinese and African specialities all within few blocks away!

I think that is definitely one of the advantages being there, the customers know they can have a closer, more intimate and diverse experience.

Besides, we are 7 mins away from the metro station, right next to two bus stops and the Parc Lafontaine plus the beautiful bike lane in front of the restaurant. Need I say more?

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

Could you tell us about Le Virunga and the overall concept?

Le Virunga is a Pan African Subsaharan restaurant, Virunga comes from Ibirunga in kinyarwanda which means "volcano" and is also a national park of volcanoes located in the North East of Congo, bordering Rwanda and Uganda.

Le Virunga was born out of love for a culture we thought under represented. The concept really was inspired from our many trips to the continent and also my mom's childhood experiences. We are ourselves product of blended cultures and we wanted our cuisine to blend different parts of the continent with a twist of modernity and creativity. The mission is to show that we are different yet still have so many things in common. Being able to appreciate one another and find beauty and pride in our culture.

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant - Maria-José de Frias

Who is Chef Maria-José de Frias?

Maria-José de Frias is my mom, like I mentioned she is half Congolese/Portuguese. She was born and raised in Congo, DRC. She grew up in Kinshasa, where she owned many businesses from video stores to beauty salons. When she moved to Brussels in 1991 (because of looting in Zaïre) with two under-aged kids she decided to go back to school and studied fashion, became a stylist under her own brand.

When we moved to Montreal, she came back to her inner passion which is cooking. She thought that there was no better way to share her culture than through food, because everybody loves to eat!

So once again she went to school at College LaSalle, completed her degree, worked for a few places and decided it was time to fly on her own (with me).

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

What can your guests find at Le Virunga?

Le Virunga is all about hospitality, receiving guests at the restaurant like we would at home. It is important to us that our guests feel welcomed, guided, and approachable.

The atmosphere is very intimate, low key, dim lights, warm and comfy.

In terms of designs we brought a lot of our souvenirs from our travels, my mom has always been passionate about art so you can definitely find a lot of artwork from the continent.

Please tell us about your Mission. How can your guests contribute?

Bring Africa to the world, one bite at a time <3 ! Come say hi, eat some good food and tell your friends :)

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

Could you tell us about your menu?

Our menu is very small, about 5 starters, 6 mains and on average 3 choices of desserts. We like to keep is small so it is always fresh and easy to rotate. The particularity of our menu is that you can, for example, make a three-course meal with plantain in each of them. We also always have one vegan option, and it is a gluten-friendly menu as well. This was not made on purpose we just realized that our menu was very inclusive along the way. That's the beauty in using African staples.

How often do you change up your menu? What are you paying attention to while selecting new drinks and dishes for your new menu?

We have a small menu, keeping it fresh and easy to manage. We'd love to say that the menu changes once every season but really it happens way more often than that. We work with fresh local and imported products so sometimes this or that product is no longer available or not of quality so we change and re-print the menu right the way. It definitely keeps it interesting and fun for our regular customers.

Our mains concerns in terms of menu choices are to always keep it as close as possible to traditional recipes, accessible yet very authentic.

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

Is there any drink or dish that never changed in your menu?

Menu-wise, everything changed! But some protein are probably going to be classics like goat (locally sourced), and Oxtail. We will definitely always have goat though.

The only thing that has been pretty stable on the drinks menu, is the fact that we only carry South African wines, since day one and forever will be!

Which dishes and drinks are your customer's favorite?

Dish: Goat

Drinks: Elephant's Tree (Amarula, Spiced Rum, Pineapple, Coconut homemade syrup)

If a customer asks you to make all the choices instead of him or her, which drinks and meals do you advise?

It really depends what you are looking for, I would first ask what are their preferences then advise. Even for myself, my choice of dish/drink would depend on my mood at the moment. Everything is worth trying.

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

How could you define the gastronomic diversity of Montreal cuisine? What are the most popular and traditional dishes or drinks in Montreal cuisine?

Montréal is probably the most diverse city in terms of gastronomy, hands down. You can eat any type of food and usually always very accessible. It is not a legend, in Montreal, you can eat in a different place every day for a whole year. It is how much we love food!

In terms of popular dishes, I am going to talk as a student who spent her time 24/7 at school. Poutine, Chicken Piri-piri, Shish-Taouk, Bagels, Timbits (Gotta love Tim Hortons), and anything with eggs in the middle of the day (brunch)

Drinks: Coffee! Very very big on coffee!

Could you tell us about private dining and events options that Le Virunga offers?

We offer the option to rent out the restaurant for private events, tastings, we have hosted fundraisers and meetings too. It stays a small place - about 30 seats - so it remains very intimate.

Montreal has lots of restaurants. How does Le Virunga differentiate itself from other restaurants in Montreal?

Le Virunga is "unique en son genre", we literally put our hearts on every table we serve. It is a one-on-one experience with passionate individuals. Your home away from home.

I'd like to think of it as your tasting journey, travel through food and music.

Le Virunga Restaurant

Le Virunga Restaurant

If you have only one weekend in Montreal as a first-time visitor, in this limited time, what are the best things to do?

BBB: Bagels, Brunch, Booze

A trip to the old port, Mount-Royal mountain, and the Place des Arts during the summer festivals. I'd stop by Mont-Royal street for some shopping in between.

How do you describe Montreal in one sentence?

Montreal is full of surprises, you'd never live the same day twice.

How can our readers find Le Virunga when they visit Montreal?, or on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Opentable, and Restomontreal

What do you think about the importance of social media for restaurants?

The restaurant business is a very old type of business that has mainly worked through word-of-mouth. Social media allows people to spread their word-of-mouth to a wider/more international range. I used to think social media was essential to restaurants, but I do believe that what is more essential is the quality of the service and the experience the client has when he walks through your door. Most people do not always have the time nor the envy to post an intimate moment on social media, they just enjoy and come back so that's what matters!

How can our readers follow Le Virunga?


Instagram: @levirunga

Twitter: @levirunga

Thank you so much !!

Thank you Zoya for your time.

For more information, please click here to visit the website of Le Virunga Restaurant