Angus McRitchie
The affable Normand Laprise led Montreal restaurants away from a French-is-best model to one that focuses on Quebec and now beyond, with such dishes as sea urchin mousse (see next image).
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Ils Se Souviennent: In Search of California, He Discovered Quebec

Lesley Chesterman / July 2013

First carved in stone beneath the Quebec coat of arms that sits above the main portal of the provincial Parliament building in Quebec City and for the last 35 years hammered into license plates as the province’s motto, Je Me Souviens—I Remember—has resonated with Quebecois as a profound expression of their French heritage and unique place in confederated Canada. An amalgam of French, First Nation, English, and increasingly immigrant cultures distilled in North America, the province and its largest city, Montreal, have been expressing its search for identity through rancorous politics and dazzling film, music, and art for decades. Now add food to that. Once touted as the closest thing to Paris in North America, Montreal is now just Montreal, and for the better. Lesley Chesterman traces the transformation of Montreal from a French food city to one that can stand on its own. She first looks at how the chef Normand Laprise made it happen, and then at the contemporary chefs and restaurants he engendered.

Together, They Remember.

Click to read part two of Ils Se Souviennent: A Distinct Society.

It’s always a treat to see Normand Laprise. The man is always smiling. His chef’s jacket is always spotless. He always has some great new producer he’s eager to introduce or an unusual ingredient he’s pushing you to taste. This upbeat attitude of his is constant. Yes, he’s firm and exacting during service at Toqué!, his 20 year old fine dining restaurant in Montreal. But most of the time, Laprise is Mr. Nice Guy. Considering the fact that he’s widely considered Quebec’s—and arguably Canada’s—most influential chef, that complete lack of ego is refreshing. Laprise is never putting on an act, never boasting, never yelling, and never posturing.

And he has an added reason to be smiling of late: Laprise and Co. finally fulfilled a dream of writing a cookbook, Toqué! Creators of a New Quebec Gastronomy (Les Éditions du Passage, 2012). Published in English and French, the book nabbed a James Beard Award in May in the Cooking from a Professional Point of View category. “I’m not in this profession to write books,” says the 52 year old Laprise, “but after all these years, it was time to write about the Toqué! philosophy—where we’re from, how we got here, the people who helped us, and the team behind us.”

At a time when much of the world’s high-end food focus is set on Europe, and the upcoming restaurants are just as likely to be located in South America as in North America, one wonders if Laprise is weary that his small city, despite its big identity, often gets left behind. “It’s important that we work hard and not look elsewhere,” he says. “We must create our own signature and evolve. It’s not because we’re on any list that we’ve made it. There are lots of good chefs who make up our city’s food scene. And we’ll even help a newcomer like Daniel Boulud, because his coming here is good for Montreal [Boulud’s Maison Boulud is in The Ritz-Carlton Montreal]. There’s a fraternity between chefs here and it’s natural, sincere, and generous of spirit. Altogether, we make one colorful family.”

Laprise’s lofty position is one that many of his fellow chefs may covet, but none would challenge. Not only has he run a very successful upscale restaurant in a city increasingly known for more relaxed dining venues, but he also has trained dozens of the young chefs currently making an impact in Montreal and was the first to track down many of the province’s best products they now have at their fingertips. Laprise also was the first chef in Quebec to be entirely committed to the idea of producing a local cuisine instead of reproducing a foreign one. And yet there was no plan to his actions, no big vision, no parting of the clouds for inspiration from above. As Laprise puts it, “I didn’t know we were creating this Quebec cuisine. I was motivated, happy, and just having fun doing what seemed logical to me at the time.”

Opened in May 1993, the hotbed for all this creation was the 95-seat restaurant, Toqué! (meaning wearing a chef’s hat or a little bit crazy), owned by Laprise and his friend and kitchen colleague Christine Lamarche. By today’s standards, Toqué!’s first menu—with dishes like roasted Cap Saint-Ignace quail with micro greens and local raspberries—was ridiculously simple. Yet in an era marked by elaborate French cuisine, so modern! This rather shy guy from Saint-Alexandre-de-Kamouraska, a little town east of Quebec City, was taking Montreal cuisine in a new direction. And as every cook in town would testify, he’s still at the top of his game.

“Normand, like me,” says Boulud, Laprise’s longtime friend, “is a grand chef of the international Relais & Châteaux association, and he has been the most adulated chef in Canada. His cooking is ambitious, original, innovative, and very personal, fueled by local ingredients and great technique. His work is very detailed and concentrated on deep flavors, and all the young chefs who work with him benefit from his soulful personality.”

Frédéric Morin, co-chef and co-owner of Montreal’s Joe Beef, worked for Laprise from 1995 to 1997. “I staged there right after cooking school,” says Morin, “and worked 27 days straight. The options were few for a young chef back then. Everything was fancy French, and I wasn’t drawn to that at the time. Someone showed me a menu from Normand, and I was in awe. It was very descriptive, just so appealing. Even the name of the restaurant seemed so new to me, so well thought out. They bought their bread at the time from a local baker called Le Fromentier and Quebec cheeses from the Fromagerie Chaput. And the whole team in the kitchen was made up of people you could feed off of. We were such geeks. After we were done with service, we wouldn’t go out and drink. We’d clean the kitchen quickly to get to bed early so that the next morning we could all go to pick vegetables together.”

Vegetables were key in building the foundation of Laprise’s cooking. But just how that happened is an amusing story. “My first chef’s job in Montreal was at a restaurant called Citrus,” Laprise relates. “The owner told me he wanted the style to be California cuisine. I told him that I wasn’t Californian and that I had never been to California. What I wanted to do was make a cuisine with our fruits and vegetables, which seemed sort of Californian to me. And I liked vegetables, but I didn’t like the way they were always boiled and drenched in butter. I liked things like broccoli purees made with coconut milk, and I liked raw vegetables. I always wanted to know about the origins of the products, so I’d head to the markets almost every day and I’d meet people who knew people who grew things. In the off-season, I’d go to the Asian grocery stores to buy all sorts of greens. For me, every plate needed to have a different set of vegetables that worked with the different meats or fish. I never wanted to use any frozen produce. We butchered all our meats and made a variety of stocks, not just one pot of veal stock sitting on the back burner like so many French restaurants were doing at the time.”

So successful was Laprise’s vision at Toqué! that in 1998, he was hired by the New York City restaurateurs Thalia and Stephen Loffredo as executive chef for their new restaurant, Cena. The Loffredos had discovered Laprise a few years earlier when they dined at Toqué! The menu at Cena featured market cuisine and Quebec products like foie gras and venison. Although the reviews were outstanding, including a coveted three-star rating from Ruth Reichl of the New York Times, Cena was closed in a little over a year. The commute between the two cities slowed Laprise down, but back in Montreal full-time, his cuisine never ceased to evolve.

As early as 2001, the chef’s repertoire included such unusual ingredients as milkweed pods, wild purslane, glasswort, and wild spinach. He started collaborating with artisanal forager François Brouillard in the 1990s. So beloved are Laprise’s producers—like Boileau deer farmer Denis Ferrer, fisherman Ghislain Cyr, and organic gardeners Patrice Fortier and Dianne Duquet—that they’re given as prominent a place in his cookbook as the kitchen staff. And part of the fun dining at this chef’s table over the past two decades has been watching all the ingredients he sourced from such people gradually make their way onto the plate.

“What Normand did was push forward the profession,” says Morin. “As a young cook, you took away so much. Everyone who worked there caught the cooking bug from Normand. Everything about that restaurant was right. Everyone who worked at Toqué! knows how to keep a super clean fridge. The only thing in his freezer was ice cream. I can’t recall him once asking us to cut corners to save money. There was always that respect he had for producers. And he often bought from suppliers even when he didn’t need anything, just to support them. We always made an effort to use all the products. No one in Montreal was cooking with ingredients like sea asparagus back then, but Normand made it work. He was the guy combing the regions in search of the fisherman with the big halibut, the guy with the best scallops. And he can cook everything—meat, fish, desserts. Everything. And every dish was perfect, always.”

A new chapter started in 2004 when Toqué! moved from its original St-Denis Street digs to a more expansive and modern space in Old Montreal. Though eye-catching ingredients were added or subtracted from the menu each season, the Laprise touch was always present. Despite the monumental rise of Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Roses, Spain, that was driving so many chefs in a more technique-driven direction, Laprise was in no hurry to radically change. Toqué!’s evolution seemed slow at times, but it was never forced or contrived. 

But the new space did require a new approach. And elBulli’s force field did eventually make its way into Toqué!’s kitchen, although not through Laprise. The restaurant’s regulars noticed a change in style, and it soon became obvious that Laprise was no longer the only talent in his kitchen. In 2006, he took a slight step back and began sharing the limelight with his new chef de cuisine, Charles-Antoine Crête. With a flair for delicate plate presentations and outré flavor combinations, Crête, who had staged at elBulli and Tetsuya (Sydney), helped Laprise invite new Australian textures and flavors into the modern French-Canadian cuisine he had started back at Citrus some 15 years before. 

Under Crête, Toqué!’s cuisine let loose, starting with plates like the warm salad of young vegetables—a collection of colorful tomatoes, beets, asparagus, and pea pods with herbs strewn throughout, along with a tiny pile of powdered olives in one corner and two cigar-shaped rolls of what appear to be blanched turnip on top. Also, there was a half lobster tail served with a “dry salad” consisting of oven-dried strawberries, parsley, nettle leaves, and oyster mushrooms that resemble bacon slices. The contrast of the soft seafood and the tissue paper-thin and crisp greens with a dribble of herb jus thickened with kuzu root starch to tie it all together astounded mind and palate. 

Crête and Laprise also began deconstructing products to take full advantage of every bit of peel, pit, seed, stalk, and flesh. Suddenly an ingredient like the humble tomato was being stretched in all directions, resulting in dishes like tomatoes with burnt bread, cold tomato soup, the backwards BLT, and tomato jam with wild ginger iced milk. Once the tomato had gone through the paces, next came peas, scallops, gooseberries, razor clams, truffles… Add dirt to that list, yes, plain old mud—gathered from Crête’s family garden, which he dries, infuses, sweetens, and caramelizes. The resulting thick syrup is served with chocolate sauce alongside a smoked sorbet and cocoa nougatine. A dirt dessert? Yes! And Crête has also paired his dirt-infused caramel with foie gras.

In June 2010, Laprise and Lamarche opened a second, more casual, restaurant, the very successful Brasserie T!. “We have a smaller team at the brasserie, with less complicated plates,” says Laprise, “but it’s busy. We’re turning tables three times a night. We have four cooks there and one person making charcuterie. We’re buying whole pigs and using the cheaper cuts. We use the duck gizzards and chicken livers, and guinea hen legs to make our sausages. We make between six and seven terrines in-house. When you have a name like ours, you can’t buy those things ready-made.”

Between the cookbook and the brasserie, Laprise seems more inspired than ever. His latest project is to open a butcher shop to sell the same cuts of meat he sources from individual farmers featured on his menu. “That kind of work is interesting and stimulating for all of us, because we’ve never done it before,” he says. “We worked hard for a long time before opening the brasserie. And now we see that people are giving us as many compliments there as at Toqué!. They seem as happy there as they are here. So we’re asking ourselves why we bothered working so hard here before opening a new place.”

Laprise has definitely been working tirelessly for over two decades, yet tries to fit in time to get in a game of golf, spend time with his family, and travel to visit his many chef friends in the international food scene growing around him. And yet most of the time, he’s right there in his immaculate kitchen, overseeing service in that pristine chef’s jacket.

“Through the cookbook he produced and the influence he has on the profession, he has been a great educator and role model to many young chefs in Quebec,” says Boulud. “He is honest, fun, and sometimes crazy. His passion, generosity, and camaraderie are contagious. A moment in his presence is always eventful.”

Says Laprise: “It took me 23 years to build my cuisine, and I’m still building. We have everything we need in Montreal to succeed, but the young chefs and restaurateurs must continue what my generation started. We’ve only just started to reach our potential in Quebec.”

Click to read part two of Ils Se Souviennent: A Distinct Society.