This story originally ran in the Winter 2014 (V8I4) edition of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
Florian Boulais doesn’t know the number of nails holding together the Alchemy Café, but he knows half were hammered with his left hand.
“If I had planted all of them with my right hand, I would have tendonitis by now,” he explains. “This place is kind of based on that. It’s being aware of what you do. It’s measuring the consequence.”
Boulais is wearing a ribbed-knit sweater and toque and relaxing near the woodstove of his recently opened coffee shop,
recalling the four years of labour—and life philosophy—that went into Dawson City’s latest bistro.
“After the decision is taken, you just go ahead slow,” Boulais says, with a patient, mellow tone. “It’s easy to go to the bank and get the big mortgage, but then you’re stuck with things that you need to do…. I feel taking your time really adds quality to what you do.”
"VERY SIMPLY, YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE EATING. IT’S NOT GASTRONOMY."
Boulais was born in Germany, lived in France, and worked in Switzerland as a jet-engine mechanic before settling in Canada 14 years ago and encountering First Nations culture at a time when he was questioning the pace of his high-speed life.
“It’s wonderful and something that Europe doesn’t have at all: a culture that’s so old that it actually has another relationship
with the world,” Boulais says. “I found … a different way of looking at the world where the balance is everything and you are the steward of that balance.”
He eventually settled in Dawson after arriving during a frigid November. Initially, it was a lonely experience he admits disliking intensely. But only a few years later, his plans for an environmentally conscious, processed-food-free coffee shop—something Boulais felt was missing in Dawson—began percolating.
His dream started taking shape as he learned the skills at Yukon College required for building his business: carpentry, plumbing, welding, electrical, food safe, and first-aid, to name several.
The one necessary element not acquired at school: good and giving friends.
“One hundred people worked on this place, whether just advice or lending tools or helping a bit here and there or lending money,” Boulais says. “It’s not just me.”
The final creation is as colourful and varied as Boulais’ past. The exterior of the half log, half tin-clad construction veers off at acute angles. Bright blues, reds, and greens mix with the earthy brown of untreated logs.
Inside, English joinery spans the room, a brass-tinted Italian coffee press separates customers from kitchen, and tables are set close—a challenge to the western world’s concept of social space—and adorned with Lego, 3-D puzzles, and other toys.
“Playful, adventurous learning: that’s what I would like this place to convey,” Boulais says.
A simple, framed chalkboard announces the libations: freshly squeezed juice; smoothies made with carrot, ginger, cardamom,
and maple syrup; eight kinds of coffee and ten types of tea; and protein shakes, either dairy-free or “Happy Cow.” (The milk comes from cows that have only been milked two months of the year.)
The food on offer—paninis, rice bowls, salads, and all-day breakfasts—follow the seasons and, where possible, utilize ingredients sourced from area farms, an important principle for Boulais that means better, fresher quality, support for the local economy, and less carbon emissions produced in transport.
“Very simply, you know what you’re eating. It’s not gastronomy,” Boulais says. “There’s no chef working here—there are cooks working here. They take high quality, simple ingredients and put them together in a sensible way.
“It’s easy to go all industrial and have consistency and speed,” he continues. “Well, we don’t have consistency and we don’t have speed, but it’s going to be really yummy.”
There’s also an Internet kiosk, and capping the business, literally, is a summertime rental suite upstairs. “It’s right downtown and above the best coffee shop in town,” he says with a broad grin.
Boulais is also cooking up plans for a meditation facility, something he hopes will be funded by the proceeds from his café. For the time being, he’s excited about staying open this winter and being a warm, bright gathering space for families and friends—something that likely would have enhanced his first winter in town.
“The Alchemy is about mixing elements. When you mix things and heat them together, the result is gold,” Boulais says. “Some people dig for it, and we make it—we make it locally.” Y