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Sea bream carpaccio so thin it’s translucent, egg and caviar mimosa, and avocado and crab cannelloni dotted with perfect cubes of grapefruit and dabs of curry and vanilla bean gel. Some might think the surgical precision needed to create Joël Robuchon’s famous dishes fussy – especially in Montreal, a city that generally prefers affordable bistronomy to tasting menus. But not Eric Gonzales, the chef of the newest L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Montreal Casino.
Gonzalez loves that attention to detail, which helped his boss earn more than 30 Michelin Stars. "Because if Michelin was in Canada," says Gonzales, "I think we could have maybe one or two Stars.” There’s nothing in Gonzalez’s quiet voice to indicate that he’s bragging when he says the restaurant deserves a Michelin Star or two. Originally from France, he trained under the famous Bernard Loiseau at La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, France, which grew from a Michelin Two Star restaurant to Three during his three years there.
Though it’s his first time helming a "Robuchon restaurant", he is now an expert at hand-whisking the famous Robuchon's mashed potatoes (“you have to be strong,” says Gonzales) and feeling what he calls “the spirit and power of L’Atelier.”
How were you initially selected as the chef of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Montreal?
When they decided to build an atelier in the Casino, the former president said, “I have one request: the chef is going to be from the Casino.” And M. Robuchon said “Okay, but he has to come for two months in the hardest Atelier [the One-Michelin Starred L’Atelier Étoile in Paris] and if he’s good, no problem.” And I passed. After that, I had to hire 25 cooks, six pastry chefs, including Benjamin Oddo, and two bakers.
How important is recognition by the Michelin Guide to you? Should Canada have Michelin Star restaurants?
I think Michelin is the best guide all over the world. When you have a Michelin restaurant, your business goes right. I think Canada deserves to have Michelin. Not only us at L’Atelier. Michelin only came 10 years ago in the United States. I’d like to know how many stars we can get.
You have five menus: A seven-course Discovery and nine-course Experience menu as well as tasting portion, vegetarian and à la carte menus. What percentage are classic Robuchon dishes and what percentage are collaborations or original creations?
Robuchon said, “I want this to be L’Atelier Plus,’” so we have some plates from the Three Michelin Star restaurants and some from the Ateliers. Right now, I think 60 percent Robuchon, 40 percent me. The Experience menu, I built it. We have about 40 plates total. Robuchon said, “You know Eric, we’re going to make a very good job together, but we have to think of the local products.” So I found the best products in Canada, we tasted them and started to build the menu from there.
Why do you use deer with the “Rossini style” foie gras with cranberry elixir?
Robuchon loved it. We take the filet of deer and measure with a ruler 14 cm and 300 grams. Then you put the same amount of foie gras on top – 14 cm, but 200 grams – roll it and cook it very gently. Then sear and slice it to order. Details make the difference.
You also replaced the beef in the beef tartare with bison. How do you prepare it?
We chop fresh truffle to make the top black, then we make a little hole in the middle and put the quail egg yolks on top followed by a quarter of gold leaf, so you have something black and gold. The foie gras is from Marieville [Quebec] and the bison from Pointe Aux Trembles [Quebec] and I think we have two of the best dishes I’ve ever made in my life with two Quebec products.
Did you work that way for all the collaborative dishes?
Almost all of them, yes. He’d asked me, “Eric, do they like chestnuts here?” I’d say, “Yes, it’s new for them, but they love it.” So we made a soup with bacon, onion and celery root croustade. On top, we put onion mousse with cardamom crème fraiche, Espelette pepper and bacon oil. This is amazing.
Does Robuchon trust you when he’s not here to taste your dishes?
Yes. He said, “Eric, you have all my confidence and I give you carte blanche. Make all the dishes you want, only one thing: keep the Robuchon spirit and the style.” And this is what I’m doing now for more than one year. I’m so happy. You have the top of the pyramid at this restaurant.
Does Robuchon come for surprise visits to check the menu?
They send you a chef. They’ve sent [former Robuchon MGM Grand and Robuchon Tokyo chef] Tomonori Donzaki, the chef at La Grand Maison in Maison, a two Star Michelin restaurant. And Philippe Braun [who opened L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Paris]. And they come and say, “Let me test. How you cook that? How you prepare that?” Or, “No, now we have to change.”
Does the Robuchon name give you access to ingredients you couldn’t get before?
I can have the best of everything. I just got an email from France saying now they can send the best poultry, Miéral. All the Three-Star Michelin restaurants in France use it.
What are the challenges of the restaurant’s location on Jean Drapeau Island?
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday are great. The one thing against us is the weekend. Sometimes the bridge from Montreal, it’s not that easy, but if you love Robuchon and the style of the restaurant, you come. People come from Montreal, New York, Toronto. Others drive from Quebec City [three hours away] and back. Even though we’re not downtown, we have regulars.