MONTREAL – For a good while now, we’ve ended each year in this space with “best of” lists. At a time when restaurants are too busy to be reviewed (or often closed), I have preferred to wrap things up by underlining the efforts of the sharpest chefs and their most brilliant dishes.
Yet, I always felt we were leaving out some of the people whose foodie efforts extend beyond those lists. Thus, the tastemakers column was created.
Think of all the people who work tirelessly at getting those ingredients to your plate or in your glass, the people who are growing or raising those ingredients. Then there are the folks who work hard to make home cooks think beyond the usual Hamburger Helper. And let’s not forget the chefs who are taking risks on the Montreal scene to make it a more interesting place to eat.
As an example, very recently we discussed with someone from the meyer food blog about what has to be the most delicious event we have ever thought of and actually done: chocolate tasting!! I know, at first it sounds a bit unusual, I mean you can get a candy bar just about anywhere right? Well, as with other things, chocolate has many forms and types. It can come from different places, be prepared for consumption differently, and in the process it can range from being healthy for you, to downright detrimental for your health.
As you can probably imagine the version that is good for your health is in its most natural form. Learning about these types of things is important, specially when not common knowledge, as healthy eating is so often associated with boring and stale food. In reality you can vary your diet quite a bit, and there's all sorts of treats (like chocolate) that you can have. In the meantime and while learning some of these not too well known facts we got to eat chocolate.
There are countless butchers and bakers in Montreal, waking at dawn to haul those carcasses or shape those baguettes. There are plenty of shopkeepers who pay high rents and even higher taxes to supply eager cooks with their favourite Le Creuset pot or cast iron skillet.
When I think deep foodie thoughts in this city, people come to mind like truffle seller Paolo Macchi meeting with chefs over an espresso to show them his latest precious tuber,
or a tiny Asian woman called Fong placing chocolates so delicately in boxes at Pâtisserie de Gascogne, or the Lavallée brothers at Les Douceurs du Marché describing bottle after bottle of olive oil in detail to some customer standing in awe before this wall of “huile,” or the ecstatic Chuck Hughes when he won the lobster battle on Iron Chef America.
Yes, there’s a lot more to gourmet Montreal than its fabulous steak frites. Here are some of the people who took the food scene to another level.
Favourite ingredient: Gaspor pork
Though I have long been a fan of this tender, tasty and pricey suckling pig, it was only this year that I finally visited Gaspor headquarters at the St-Canut Farm in the Laurentians. Owners Alexandre Aubin and Carl Rousseau have been in the suckling pig farming business since 2003. You’d be hard-pressed to find two more amiable guys, who not only raise the pigs but butcher them and deliver them in person to their Montreal chef customers, including XO, DNA, Laurie Raphael, and Toqué! I’ve enjoyed it at SEB in St. Jovite and 11 Madison Park in New York. It’s also FedEx-ed to the French Laundry in California and Canoe in Toronto, and four containers are shipped to Japan annually.
Gaspor pigs are a Yorkshire-Landrace mix that are fed on a steady diet of vanilla-scented milk every two hours. “It’s an expensive way to raise pigs,” said Rousseau, “but we believe the taste of the meat has more to do with the animals’ feed than the breed. A 10-week-old pig fed with grain will cost $15, yet one fed on this milk diet costs us $110.”
I have never tasted a nugget of Gaspor pork that didn’t make me swoon. I only wish it was easier for us home cooks to acquire, especially since I’ve tasted the Gaspor bacon, sausages and pulled pork at the Val David Farmer’s Market last summer where Gaspor always has a stand. For now, Gaspor’s products are also sold at the Val David Winter Farmer’s market held on Feb. 12, March 12, April 16 and May 7 from 10 a.m. to to 1 p.m. at the École St-Jean Baptiste at 2580 de l’Eglise St., as well as the summer market held every Saturday from June 4 to Oct. 9. You can also purchase directly from the producer at the St-Canut farm store at 14105 Chemin Dupuis. For more information, check out: gaspor.com
Gutsy chef: Nick Hodge
I never reviewed the casual restaurant Icehouse (one of Gazette casual-dining critic Sarah Musgrave’s top picks of 2011), yet I dined there often. Sitting at a paper-topped table and watching our waiter dump a bucket of spicy fried chicken right on the table was a revelation. The food was so delicious, the ambience was as spicy as the pulled pork taco, and the booze offerings ranged from bourbon-spiked lemonade to a California cabernet with a bucking bronco on the label. Our city may be able to boast a strong cast of homegrown chefs, but it took this Texas native to show us a new take on how much fun a restaurant could be while still serving great food. If I had my way, I’d eat this sort of finger-lickin’ fun fare every night. Problem is, I’m not the only one thinking that way, thus the crush to nab a table. Sucking back oysters and shelling shrimp on the Icehouse terrasse last summer, I couldn’t help but marvel at how great it was to have this little taste of Texas in our midst. Yum! Icehouse, 51 Roy St. E., Tel: 514- 439-6691
Fantasy kitchen stores: Les Touilleurs, Arthur Quentin, Dante
As much as I love beautiful ingredients, there’s nothing quite like a fancy kitchen shop to wake up my inner gourmet. For culinary chicness alone, you’d be hard-pressed to find two more beautiful kitchenware shops than Laurier Ave.’s Les Touilleurs or St. Denis St.’s Arthur Quentin. Any item that comes from either of these stores is the nec plus ultra. Don’t be intimidated, though, by the glitzy surroundings. Granted, many items are costly, yet markups are fair and there is plenty here for shoppers on a budget. You also can’t go wrong in the hands of Elena Faita at Quincaillerie Dante, where you’ll find absolutely everything you’ll ever need for the kitchen, ranging from a pizzelle maker to that perfect, flat-edged wooden spoon. And like Les Touilleurs with their “Ateliers des Chefs,” Dante can show you how to put all those pots and pans to great use in their popular cooking classes. Both shops offer classes led by several of the city’s top chefs, Les Touilleurs holds them on-site, and Faita offers her classes at the neighbouring Mezza Luna cooking school.
Quincaillerie Dante, 6851 St. Dominique St. 514-271-2057; Mezza Luna cooking school: 57 Dante. St. 514-272-5299, ecolemezzaluna.ca; Arthur Quentin, 3960 St-Denis St. 514-843-7513, Les Touilleurs 152 Laurier Ave. W. 514-278-0008.
Coolest producer: Anicet
Up in the Haute Laurentides, beekeeper Anicet Desrochers makes honey with a true taste of the terroir. Desrochers, 32, is the proud beekeeper, bee breeder and owner of Les Miels D’Anicet. Lanky, laid-back and with a definite hipster style, he also happens to be the largest producer of organic honey in North America. Thirteen years ago, Desrochers and his wife, Anne-Virginie Schmidt, took over the family apiary, the Ferme Apicole Desrochers, renaming it Api Culture Hautes Laurentides. Located in Ferme Neuve, just north of Mont Laurier in the Upper Laurentians, Api Culture Hautes Laurentides includes both the Miels d’Anicet honey production, and a breeding centre for the Russian Primorsky queen bees he sells to other beekeepers. There are now five certified organic honey producers in Quebec, but none come close to the production of Desrochers, who counts about 1,000 hives on his property. Each of those hives has 60,000 to 80,000 bees at work producing the 36,300 to 45,360 kilograms of honey sold each year.
The complexity of flavour in the Miels d’Anicet is also making fans of some of Quebec’s top chefs, including Normand Laprise, Martin Picard, Patrice Demers, François Blais and Éric Gonzalez. “Chefs have the greatest impact,” says Desrochers, “because they use our products in an exceptional way. These are people who work with artisans, favour small producers and appreciate the signature we bring from our region.”
Next time you see a jar of Anicet honey, pick it up and suck back a spoonful. The complexity of flavour will have you hooked, putting the honey in that plastic, bear-shaped bottle to shame.
Miels d’Anicet products, which besides honey include honey mustards and organic soaps, are available at Rachelle-Béry, Au Pain Doré and Première Moisson, as well as select IGA and Metro supermarkets. For a full list of sales points, visit their website api-culture.com
Sweetest chef: Stéphanie Labelle at Pâtisserie Rhubarbe
Montreal may be seeing a good influx of baguette and macaron makers, but when it comes to pastries that taste as beautiful as they look, pickings are slim. But there’s a Plateau pastry shop that’s upping the pastry stakes in this city above dreary cupcakes and mealy muffins. It’s small, it’s called Pâtisserie Rhubarbe, and it’s a gem.
Owned and operated since last November by a pretty brown-haired pâtissière by the name of Stéphanie Labelle, Rhubarbe is an authentic “pâtisserie” where locals come in to pick up such goodies as her lemon tart, caramel mille-feuilles, cheesecake and pistachio cake.
The sunny shop is modest, with 12 seats for those who want to enjoy a cake and coffee on-site. Framed in white walls and tall windows, the space features a refrigerated case filled with sophisticated pastries and a few cakes, as well as chocolates and macarons. Shelves across the room are lined with jars of homemade jams, jellies and compotes. Bestsellers include the lemon tart, tea cakes and pâte de fruit (fruit jellies).
“I thought there was place for this sort of pastry shop because I was seeing the same thing everywhere, cakes topped with raspberries in February,”said the 28-year-old chef of her lovely little pâtisserie. And to add icing on the cake, Labelle is also now in charge of the desserts at restaurant Laloux. Sweet. Pâtisserie Rhubarbe, 5091 de Lanaudière St., 514-903-3395.
Wine agent to watch: Oenopole
Oenopole isn’t the biggest wine agency, but it’s the one everyone is talking about. Responsible for introducing Montrealers to many of the wines that the city’s best sommeliers are recommending tableside, this trio of two sommeliers, Theo Diamantis and Aurelia Filion, as well as the business brains, Alexis Fortier-Lalonde, have compiled a portfolio of terroir-driven, natural wines with an Old World-centric palate.
The emphasis is also on wines that marry well with food, and you’ll find their products everywhere from the casual Nouveau Palais to the Relais & Châteaux Toqué!
Though they import a good number of French and Italian wines, their biggest strength has been the introduction of fabulous Greek wines that had limited exposure in the Montreal market.
Chances are, the next time you’re offered a delicious Greek wine in a restaurant, that bottle comes from Oenopole.
Yet, besides their impressive private import portfolio, they have about 60 listings at the SAQ. Just look for their name on the back of the bottle. And if you’re interested in meeting some interesting wine producers, check out their website (oenopole.ca), where they announce coming wine and food-tasting dinners in some of the city’s top restaurants.
Shaking up the scene: Boulud and Ramsay
This year, no news marked the Montreal restaurant scene as much as the coming of Gordon Ramsay. The fact that he was not going to open a new restaurant, but revamp a Montreal institution, Outremont’s Laurier BBQ, left everyone gobsmacked. Then in June, he arrived, charmed everyone to the best of his abilities, and took off after less than 24 hours on-site. But what he has left behind is a fun little restaurant, not in the least bit Michelin-star worthy, but a great family eatery where the food is better than it could be and the prices are more than reasonable.
And Ramsay wasn’t the only star to set his sites on Montreal in 2011. Uber French chef Daniel Boulud also announced his intentions to take over the restaurant in the soon-to-be-reopened, and even more iconic, Ritz Hotel. The 56-year-old chef, widely regarded as one of the world’s best, said of our city: “After a love affair of many years with Montreal, I’m proud to be coming to North America’s most European city to join its roster of fine chefs – many of whom are dear friends – and to take part in your love of fine food and vibrant culinary culture.” You’d think the local chefs might be worried about a bigwig like Boulud coming to town, yet not so. “I’m excited,” said Marc-André Royal, the chef-owner of Le St-Urbain and bakery, La Bête à Pain. “I like his New York restaurants and what he does. It’s pretty French, classic, and I like that. It will be a perfect fit for Montreal. For sure, I’m going to try it. It will be great to keep us on our toes. We’ll definitely feel the pressure.”
Here’s hoping chef Boulud will have as successful a run in Montreal as chef Ramsay – and that he gives us a little more face time. (Gordon, where art thou?)
He slayed the Flay: Chuck Hughes
Chuck Hughes opened a new restaurant in 2011 called Bremner, but that’s not the reason everyone was talking about this Montreal chef. No, Chuck’s a star because in 2011 he competed on the U.S. Food Network show Iron Chef and beat American Bobby Flay. It was only the second time a Canadian chef had won an Iron Chef battle (the other being Vancouver’s Rob Feenie), and Hughes was also the youngest Canadian to compete. When the Canadian Food TV episode aired last March, local foodies exploded with joy and pride. Social media networks like Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with news of Hughes’s victory. Though millions watched the show, there is one person who has yet to see it: Hughes. “I can’t do it,” he says. “I think about the number of people watching and I get too nervous.”
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