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Chef Normand Laprise is a legendary figure in Quebec’s culinary scene and an outspoken advocate of locally sourced cuisine. Co-owner and head chef of Montreal’s famous Restaurant Toqué!, his newest venture, Brasserie T!, opened this summer in Montreal. CuiZine spoke with him in Montreal on Tuesday, February 17th, 2009.
CuiZine: Chef Laprise, you’ve written about your childhood experience on your family’s farm near Kamouraska and the role it has played in shaping your food today. How important is it for young cooks to connect to local agricultural products?
Normand Laprise: I think for me, this is based on my personal philosophy because I was born on a farm 47 years ago and, at that time, you didn’t find too many vegetables year round in the country. In the wintertime if you didn’t save something from the summer you would have nothing to eat. Where I lived on the farm people made everything from the land. Everything was natural and everything tasted good. In the country, when you’d like to eat a chicken, you’d take the chicken into the backyard and kill it. That’s a natural chicken. This is the way my family started to feed me. When I went back years later to the market and started to cook around 18, 20 years old, I just tasted the produce and found it tasted of nothing. That experience made a strong impression on me.
When I started to learn to cook and learn where to go to work, the mentality was that you have to learn the maximum recipe, maximum technique, for your apprenticeship to be better and to have better skills. However, at the same time nobody taught you how to buy food and choose between the good and bad produce. When I started to cook around 20 years old, several chefs working in Quebec were from France and everyone just complained about Quebec, saying “all the food is poor,” “the meat is not good,” “the fish is not good, “the food is not fresh,” or “the vegetables are too big.” People complained all the time and were never happy. And I said, “why won’t you go to see the right person and avoid the wholesale distributors?” Go see the person on the farm and explain with him what’s happening.
This is for me, when I started to understand the importance of being in contact with people from la ferme, l'océan or from wherever.
C: You have spent much of your career building relationships with local suppliers. Indeed, many of your menus showcase local Quebec ingredients such as Magdalen Island princess scallops, St. Canut Suckling pig and Dennis Ferrer’s Cerf de Boileau, Monsieur Daigneault’s lettuce greens. What, if any, responsibility does a Canadian chef have to source food locally?
NL: The responsibility is to make the chain stronger. If one chef only makes one thing it serves nothing. I can’t make one thing myself; I have to show it to everybody. If everyone makes it, you help the agriculture and, ultimately, you help make the food better. I think that’s very important. When I started cooking 30 years ago, chefs wouldn’t talk about their providers. They’d try to keep secrets. I have to share it with the people because if a guy would just grow apples for me, in three months he’d be bankrupt and I would’ve lost him. Meanwhile, if I like this guy and he’s a popular apple guy, when he sells all the apples in one year his finances will be better…
C: There’s a story about how you asked a Quebec lamb farmer to raise pre-sale lamb in conditions similar to the salt-marshes of Brittany. Now, it’s very difficult to find that product anymore. Do you regret, in that sense, sharing the product with everybody because it became unavailable for you?
NL: No, because when people start to make something good and when you start to be a star, you become à la mode. Once something is à la mode, everybody likes to make the same thing. For example, with Monsieur Daigneult’s greens, it is not possible to have one person like him in Quebec to grow for everybody. What is good is that [other] people see him and say, “Wow, that’s good what he’s making and I’d like to make the same thing.” It’s the same thing with restaurants. It’s very important when young cooks come here and try to open something that it’s something positive. If it’s negative, the city won’t connect very strongly with the food. When you open a restaurant it must be good in order to make the city stronger. Montreal has a great reputation for cooking and food. That’s important. I’m not sad about sharing. If people can make more I am happy.
C: Now, you’ve hosted chefs from across the world in your kitchen, including Australia’s Tetsuya, New York’s Daniel Boulud and in a few days Paris’ Chef Alain Passard of L’Arpège for Montreal’s upcoming High Lights festival. As well, you have travelled to destinations such as the Ikarus restaurant in Austria’s Hangar-7 to showcase your own menu. Why is it important for you to share your cuisine abroad and with chefs from abroad?
NL: It’s important when sharing hospitality and ideology you see something different and learn from it. It’s fun for me, but its more fun for my brigade [kitchen workers]. These kids sometimes don’t have the money to go to France, Australia, or New York, to work with these chefs. Now that the chefs come here, it’s a big pleasure for them.
C: What does it mean for you to cook in Montreal and, more broadly speaking, Quebec?
NL: I had a chance a few years ago to cook in New York. I had already worked there for two years when I was younger and I really enjoyed the experience. But I’m happy to live here because of the culture, the mindset of people and all the customers. It’s not a big country in terms of volume, but you have two million people around Montreal and seven million in Quebec. [With] all the people around me here, I feel very well about being here.
C: How have Quebec’s culinary traditions and the province’s unique personal history, agriculture, and terroir informed your cuisine?
NL: [W]hen I started to cook for the first time my focus wasn’t on new creations, but rather, on finding the right produce, the best produce and the best ways to take the food. For example, if you went to your backyard garden and picked greens, carrots and other vegetables you know it’s fresh because you picked, cooked, and ate it that day. It doesn’t go into the fridge so the flavour doesn’t change. However, if you don’t have a backyard garden of your own, you don’t go to another country to get your vegetables—[you go] to the backyard next door. Here in Quebec, our neighbors are New Brunswick, Ontario, and Maine. Now, it’s difficult to get fish from Quebec, because only the scallops from Magdalen Island are sustainable. Today, I buy all my fish from Maine or Nova Scotia. I don’t want any fish from Chile or France because I want to source food from around my garden.
C: In that sense, can chefs from British Columbia to Quebec identify with a singular notion of Canadian cuisine?
NL: I believe right now this ongoing process is working quite well. A few years ago, chefs from British Columbia were buying a lot of Quebec vegetables, meat, fish, and cheeses. That was good because it brings people together from across the country and, at the same time, it started to shock the people in their industry. They began to ask their chefs, “Why do you order vegetables from Quebec? I can make it well right here.”
For me, when I opened my first Toqué! Restaurant here on Rue St. Denis, I sourced my greens from David Colmeyer at Cookstown Greens in Ontario. I ordered my greens from them because in Quebec at that time nobody liked to make food the same way as him. One of my purveyors saw his food and said, “Wow that’s nice.” I said, “this is what I’ve been talking to you about for three years. Make it here and I’ll buy from you because Cookstown is six hours from here.” He was so difficult to change because he didn’t know better. That was the culture at the time. Ask any kid here what was Camembert or Roquefort and he won’t know. Maybe some will, but that was the culture. I think in Canada [such a] food culture has [become] stronger and stronger. If you go back 20 years ago, people didn’t talk about food the way they talk about it right now. It’s exciting now to think about the next 10 years.
C: Yourself having trained in Dijon when you were young, do you still think there is an imperative for young cooks in Canada to travel abroad in order to develop proper technique and skill? Does Canada have rich enough resources to sustain a growing profession?
NL: Right now yes. I’ve received so many people here at Toqué! and I’m so impressed with all the résumés from kids from everywhere in the world making applications to come and work here. It’s because something is happen[ing] here. They’re curious, they like to see what we’re doing. You didn’t see that 10 years ago. It’s very good for young Canadians interested in food. But, I think if possible, it’s great to live elsewhere for one or two years. To go outside of the country to see different cultures, mentalities, and philosophies to understand what’s happening on the other side. Then, you come back with that culture and use such inspiration when you cook.
C: Where do you see the future of cuisine in Canada moving?
NL: For me, I see a very difficult future for Canada because the country is so huge. Right now, I think we exploit only about 25 percent of the country’s agriculture. When you go to France, with 65 to 70 million [people], there is a strong demand for good quality agriculture because there is so little land. I think we’ll find this same focus in Canada—not in the next two years, but 10, 15 years from now. That is why I am excited to be living in Canada. Canada, for me, whether it’s Quebec, Ontario, or BC can be a very positive area for people to eat well because there is a movement towards a more natural, united agriculture. Right now in Quebec and for the next 20 years, there’s a strong philosophy of cooking and a lot of opportunities to create great things.
Benyamin Spiegel is now travelling the world in search of new flavours and culinary innovations. An alumnus of McGill’s Faculty of Arts, he has apprenticed with a number of Canada’s leading chefs, including Michael Stadtländer of Eigensinn Farm near Collingwood, Ontario.