Journal Boire Vrai : Is Montreal a world-class scene?
Lesley Chesterman: Money is what is holding us back from getting that kind of status. Not talent, we have that, but money. The Robuchon / Montreal Casino restaurant/vanity project/waste of public funds really proves that point. I really lost it when reviewers wrote that no other Montreal restaurant works at that level. Jesus, give any of Montreal’s top restaurants a multi-million-dollar setting, high-salaried chefs, the best ingredients available and I guarantee you they would do better than the Robuchon restaurant. Certainly less dated than that red-and-black, dotted-plate temple of pretentiousness. They employ a full time mashed potato chef and people who spend their time wiping plates! Can you imagine working hard at cooking school to end up a mashed potato chef in the corner of the Montreal Casino? How grim.
JBV: In your opinion, who are some of the greatest chefs in the world in the last 20 years or so?
LC : Well of course the generation after the Nouvelle Cuisine fathers took cuisine up a notch, people like Joël Robuchon who pushed French cuisine to its limits before it all when to shit with overly fussy, tweezered, sous-vided, tasteless food designed for people who don’t like to eat as much as brag about where they ate. You can’t leave out Ferran Adria, though his molecular cuisine seemed to have been unique to his particular talent as no one is making that food anymore. When was the last time you saw an espuma on anything? But he made cooking adventurous and fun at a time when it was stuck in a rut. Thomas Keller, the king of perfection, gave all the chefs erections for a while there too. But there is a soullessness in that kind of perfection. I prefer many of the women chefs over the past 20 years. Alice Waters had a huge influence on cuisine today, Nancy Silverton as well. Everyone talks about David Chang, which is great but Morimoto was a huge influence pre-Chang. I’d get excited and make popcorn when he was on Iron Chef. The people I think had little influence are the TV chefs, people like Bobby Flay and Gordon Ramsay. Yawn, yawn. I can’t even name one Ramsay signature dish. But I have a lot of love for Jamie Oliver, who made a whole generation get their asses in the kitchen. The same goes for Nigella Lawson and even Martha Stewart. And I think on personality and work ethic and mentorship, Daniel Boulud has now taken over from the Bocuse as the king of chefs, probably more so than Ducasse, who in many ways reminds me of Keller. And we can’t forget Ruth Rodgers and Rose Gray of London’s River Café, who were responsible for rejuvenating Italian cuisine with their cool, minimalist style. You know, even Donna Hay was hugely influential. Oh and let’s not forget the magical pastry chefs like Pierre Hermé and Philippe Conticini. Geniuses those two. I admire a lot of what I see René Redzepi doing but I have never eaten at his restaurant, though it looks more intriguing to me than purely delicious. I don’t like to concentrate that hard when I eat. But we shouldn’t judge until we taste.
JBV: Are there trends that you find particularly interesting?
LC: No doubt the trend towards casual dining has been fascinating to see evolve. The trend towards local, organic, the rage for natural wines, all supremely interesting.
JBV: Some of the greatest/most innovative chefs in Quebec? What were they responsible for?
LC : Well Normand Laprise really pulled Quebec out of the dark (French) ages. Martin Picard is an absolute genius for reinventing Quebecois cuisine in his bombastic yet luxurious style. David McMillan certainly changed the restaurant scene with his huge personality and avant-garde ideas, placing a new emphasis on wine and making us fall in love with old-school, European cuisine all over again. I was lucky enough to eat the food of Nicolas Jongleux often before he died and he was an important player as well because he provided a contrast to Laprise at a time when everyone was going gaga for Nouvelle Quebecois cuisine. He said, hold on there, this is French cuisine and it’s cool and beautiful and there’s nothing stodgy about it. That was my favourite era in Montreal restaurants, when Laprise and Jongleux were the two top chefs in the city, battling it out for top spot on the plate. We place a lot of emphasis on chefs but restaurateurs should not be forgotten. People like Moreno De Marchi, Carlos Ferreira, Costas Spiliadis, Lenny Lighter and George Lau played a huge role in building the city’s upscale restaurant scene. If I could chose a few more chefs who are keeping the Quebec cuisine flame glowing these days would say Colombe St-Pierre, Antonin Rousseau-Rivard, Charles-Antoine Crête, Vincent Dion Lavallée, Fred St-Aubin, and Mike Forgione too. And there are many others. Look at those kids at Hélicoptère, the magnificent new Pastel or the stylish Un Po’ Di Piu. Amazing!
JBV: The fine dining scene has evolved tremendously over the years in Quebec. What are some of the major changes you have seen?
LC: When I started reviewing in 1999, the scene was already very strong but there was an abyss between fine dining and casual dining. Today those two scenes are melding together and the results are quite wonderful. The formality of dining has dropped out of the picture in everything from the food to the chef’s uniform to the room design. All that talk about the democratization of the restaurant scene is very true. Now when I eat in an excessively fancy restaurant, it sometimes feels dated, silly even. It can feel insincere — phoney — which it didn’t 20 years ago. I have also enjoyed watching this transition of restaurant food being focused on a certain style of national cuisine — say French, Italian, Quebecois — to now often being a reflection of a chef’s experience, taste and personality.
JBV: Are there some trends that you like more than others? Why?
LC : I don’t know if one could really call it a trend, but there is a whole new level of artistry in cooking that can only be admired. Chefs are digging DEEP in search of new techniques, new ingredients. All this intense creativity has pushed cooking into the realm of art. Chefs don’t like being called artists (“we’re artisans,” they say) but so much of the top cooking of late is just mind-blowingly artistic. I am also encouraged to see a newfound respect for so-called “ethnic” cuisines. The idea that Mexican and Asian food must be cheap is changing as chefs are using better-quality ingredients, and slowly everyone is waking up and realizing that no one cuisine is superior to another.
JBV: Besides Montreal and Quebec City, where are there interesting food scenes that you have witnessed in Quebec?
LC: I like going to the regions, places like Rimouski to eat, Charlevoix, Gaspésie. I have my secret spots that I return to every year, restaurants like Vices Versa in La Malbaie or Auberge du Grand Fleuve in Métis-sur-Mer. And it’s always an adventure to eat and hang out at Colombe St-Pierre’s table. She is such a star!
JBV: What are some of the biggest challenges facing the restaurant industry today?
LC : Staff
A very serious problem. I can’t think of one restaurant not looking for kitchen staff, even front-of-house. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. Today kids are smart enough to realize that cooking professionally is one tough way of life. And not a well-paying one either. Prices are sure to go up in order for restaurateurs to pay their employees well. And tips should be abolished. What a relic that is in the restaurant world.
As ingredients become more and more costly, customers are going to have to wake up to the reality that they will have to pay more for the goods. A duck magret costs $20 now in a supermarket, meanwhile people expect to eat a duck main course in a restaurant for about that price. Crazy.
Ah, hot restaurant today, dated concept tomorrow! Restaurants are like fashion. An initial cool concept will get them in the door, but trend seekers will move on faster than you can say razor clam ceviche. Restaurant owners should concentrate on keeping things simple and serving great food. The stage setting may be magnificent but if the play is a dud, it’s curtains.
Indeed, but there are still many customers who are faithful to their favourite restaurants. The key is to make people feel appreciated, welcome. I’m always surprised by how many restaurants do so little to entice people to return. I mean, just a proper greeting at the door and a thanks-come-again come bill time can make a world of difference, but you don’t hear that a lot. Well, at least I don’t. Maybe they don’t want me to come back!
Another challenge would be to even crack the surface and become a player. There is a thick layer of successful restaurants at the top and they aren’t going anywhere. It’s a competitive field. You have to be extraordinary to get noticed. The press is always looking for the next big thing, but it takes a lot of talent, hard work and a confidence to get there. It takes YEARS to become a great chef. Too many young cooks want it all to happen yesterday.
JBV: What about the wine scene? Do you think Montreal has a sophisticated wine scene?
LC: Yes. Absolutely. In restaurants, the wine program (God, I hate that expression!) has taken on SUCH importance. When I started reviewing it was all Bordeaux and Burgundy, or overpriced old-school Italian warhorses and dreary wine lists compiled by big agencies. Greek restaurants were serving French wines. Now it’s almost more fun to drink in restaurants than eat. Almost.
JBV: What are some of the highs? Lows?
LC: Well it’s fun to drink great wines, to discover, to trust the best sommeliers to pour you something brilliant. Prices are high, but now prices are high in France too because they are using wine to boost profits because everyone is yelling about restaurants being too expensive. As for lows, there is a snobbism creeping in to the wine scene that I find off-putting and a lot of that revolves around natural wines. I have developed allergies with wine additives so I always opt for biodynamic or natural wines now. But there is a faction out there that just disregards anything that is not from that category. I have had some natural wines poured for me that taste awful but God forbid you say that and risk looking like a rube. I send them back and say, pour me a natural wine, OK, but something that doesn’t taste like a wet paper bag or a dusty attic. I’ve heard natural wine proponents say, “Celebrate the faults.” Would we ever say that about food? As in, yes, that steak is overcooked, but isn’t overcooked steak great? Yeah, no.
JBV: Should a sommelier be a MUST in a fine dining establishment?
LC : Oh yes, absolutely. Look how much of the bill is taken up by wine these days. If I’m paying as much for wine as dinner, I want some help at the table. It has also become a key part of the experience. A fine-dining restaurant with no sommelier is a wasted opportunity. It’s a given.
JBV : What is missing in the food scene in Quebec? Having said that, are there too many restos in Quebec, especially in Montreal?
LC : The food scene in Quebec is quite diverse, but what’s lacking here are fine-dining restaurants. I really enjoyed dining at Monarque now that it has FINALLY opened. How much fun is that room, that ambiance, that elegance? Loved it. I’d also like to see more women-driven restaurants, more new, young chefs. I often feel like I’ve been writing about the same group of people for the past 20 years.
JBV: If you had to predict a new trend to hit Quebec, what would it be?
LC: I am the WORST person to predict trends. But internationally we are seeing lots of pop-up restaurants and I like that idea. I’d like to see some chefs get out of their restaurants and head out of town for the summer months to open up in the countryside. The choice is very limited out of the city and that’s a shame. It’s hard to make a go of it in winter, but in the summer it could be a real draw. Of course that’s easier said than done.
JBV: If you had to open your dream restaurant, what would it be, and where?
LC : I would want to be in Montreal, ideally on a street corner, and I would want a nice terrasse. I would like there to be a majority of women in the kitchen and on the floor, I would want to make fuss-free, ingredient-based food like Chez Panisse or Clarke’s Restaurant and The River Café in London, with a set menu perhaps. I would like a very personal, not too long, not too expensive wine list, with a good selection of Champagne and great rosés, where every bottle is there for a reason. The decor would be simple, and I would like cool music playing softly in the background. It would be happy place, with many regulars, an older crowd, and employees who are part of the whole. We would have great desserts, of course. I would want it to be elegant without being pretentious, simple yet sophisticated, friendly and fun. And since this is a fantasy question, I’d add a small bakery next door for take-out, breakfast, coffee and so on. I am very drawn lately to the style of restaurant run by women chefs like Suzanne Goin, Sally Clarke, Skye Gyngell, and those cool women chefs, Jess Shadbolt and Clare de Boer, from King Restaurant in Manhattan. To me, that is the future. That is what I want to eat. END