“When I went to cooking school 37 years ago, all the great chefs were French from France, not Quebeckers,” says chef Normand Laprise at his restaurant, Toqué!, in Montreal, Quebec. “And they trained us very well.” The amiable Quebec culinary icon and Relais & Chateaux Grand Chef is sitting on a sofa with his back facing the restaurant, so friends and patrons won’t interrupt to say hello. The European influence is still evident in Quebec’s largest city, where the midday meal is often a leisurely four courses, with cheese and a glass of wine. Everything is as local as possible. Laprise even won a James Beard Award for his 2013 cookbook—a veritable ode to the producers and farmers from whom he sources his ingredients.
But back when he was just learning to make béarnaise and béchamel, eating local was still a foreign concept for Quebec restaurants. Everything came from France—from the spinach to the chefs themselves. The best kitchens used high quality fish, meat and vegetables that arrived frozen in Montreal and were shipped throughout the province.
But Laprise, who grew up in the countryside east of Quebec City, felt disconnected from what he knew the Quebec terroir could provide. His family had always stored vegetables for the winter in a pantry and canned tomatoes and fruit for sauces and jams in summer. “If we didn’t, we’d have had nothing in the winter,” he says.
So when he opened his first Montreal restaurant 25 years ago, his goal was to champion local producers who would deliver high quality products to him. At Toqué!, which he opened in 1993, he’s continued to do just that. “For me, to work locally is first and foremost about freshness,” he says. He swears by his lamb from Rimouski, his Ambrosia apples from St-Paul-d’Abbotsford and his organic iced cider from Frelighsburg, Quebec. Even in a province where blood-freezing winters can stretch into late April or May, there are always wild edibles, heirloom root vegetables and fresh meats available, plus the fruits his kitchen staff puts up as syrups, jellies, pickles and other preserves.
Laprise’s philosophy has helped inspire a legion of Quebec locavore chefs, including Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon, Stéphanie Labelle Patisserie Rhubarbe and Charles-Antoine Crete of newcomer La Majestique. “Now you have more kids from all over Quebec and Canada running kitchens in Montreal—not just French chefs from France,” says Laprise. “And that’s a good thing.” His gives a nod to his friends Derek Dammann of Maison Publique, David McMillan and Fred Morin of Joe Beef, Liverpool House and Le Vin Papillon and Claude Pelletier of Le Club Chasse et Peche, Le Filet and Le Serpent—all big names in the Montreal food scene and all proud to use local ingredients.
After 25 years of cooking local, Laprise doesn’t think of what he does as a passing interest. As for less long-lasting food trends, he says there’s always something to learn. “It’s what’s left after the hype that matters. The problem is people replicate them poorly. Like Ferran Adrià with molecular food—some people started copying him and doing whatever. But others started using those molecular techniques and bringing it higher.” At Toqué! he tells the young chefs in his kitchen that if they want to use liquid nitrogen for a dish, they have to have a good reason. “Like the foamer, we don’t do everything with that, but I like the texture it brings,” he says. “I also like sous vide, but I don’t use it everywhere.”
Despite Quebec’s established reputation as a food destination, Laprise says there’s still work to be done on the local food scene. His farmer in Rimouski has trouble selling enough lamb because of government regulations. “He’s a small farm. He can’t just sell the back or the legs because he doesn’t have $200,000 to expand his farm just to build a government-certified butchery,” says Laprise. “Sometimes I think about having a butcher shop that’s a little cooperative, to help the small growers—people who raise just 100 animals a year. Then they could take the animals and sell them to the general public.”
That way, farmers could also sell to smaller restaurants that just want a rack or shoulder, he says, because not enough chefs buy whole lambs and train their entire staff to butcher them. “I put a whole lamb on the counter here at Toqué! and I say to Julien, Pierre, Luca, Guillaume, ‘Clean me the lamb,’ and they do it,” says Laprise. “But it takes two years of working here before they learn to do that.”
There also aren’t that many chefs with the capacity to sell all those cuts quickly. Laprise, however, can sell the lamb racks, roasts and braises at fine dining Toqué! and offer customers at his more recently opened bistro in Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles, Brasserie T!, lamb brochettes, shanks, terrines and sausages. This leads to less kitchen waste, but it also helps both restaurants stay afloat in a fine dining market that just can’t charge as much as Paris or New York, says Laprise. “If I hadn’t opened the Brasserie T! five years ago, I don’t know if Toqué! would still be alive today.” He says that in Montreal diners pay a quarter of what they would pay in New York for the same quality. “We have the talent. Montreal is a good food destination, but to be really good, we need one or two more generations. We need more people, money and energy in the city.”
But diners don’t generally come to Toqué! and Brasserie T! for the traceability of their meals; they come for Laprise’s consistent and elegant cooking, flavour combinations and visual artistry. “It’s important to play with the palate, to make people discover new tastes. I think most people who come here to Toqué! like to be excited by food. Every ingredient has to taste how it’s supposed to taste, so when you combine everything you have the salty, sweet, acid and bitter flavours all together in your mouth. It’s an explosion of flavour.” The only flavour Laprise limits is “hot.” To him, heat can overwhelm other ingredients. “If I have rapini on my plate, I like to taste the rapini,” he says. And where those privately imported wines are concerned, they too should balance a meal. “Once a week my two chefs sit down with the sommelier and talk about the wine list.” The chefs tell the sommelier what they’ll be receiving that week and what they want to put on the tasting menu, and the sommelier finds something peppery or mineral or floral to match, he explains. “We try to make it work together so there’s no confrontation of taste.” But Laprise also says you shouldn’t be stressed about finding the perfect match. “Just enjoy the meal.”
What’s next for Laprise? A new restaurant? A move back to the countryside? “People call me to open something in the country—a restaurant or an inn,” he says. “But if I did something like that, I’d do something urban in the country, like the Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland.” To get to the isolated island, visitors usually take a plane, a car and a ferry ride, ending their trip in a suite at a boutique hotel with a lot of peace and quiet— and a jaw-dropping view of endless Atlantic Ocean. “It’s so wild there. For me it works to put a big modern place in the wilderness as long as you don’t find a lot of other fancy stuff around. Just one in the middle of nowhere is nice—it’s real. And I think it’s good for the area,” he says. “If I went back to the country, I’d like it to be like when I was young in Saint-Alexandre- de-Kamouraska. It was wild then, too.”