Canada mentor Normand Laprise has been at the heart of a renaissance in Quebec cuisine. His Toque! restaurant in Montreal has been a shining light for the seasonal ingredients and recipes of the region, and his inventive and creative food has made waves throughout Canada and beyond.
In 2009 he was named a Knight of the National Order of Quebec, and his Toque! cookbook won a James Beard award in 2013.
Now, as mentor to Canadian finalist Sean MacDonald for S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2016, he talks to FineDiningLovers about traditional cuisine, ingredients and his kitchen family.
In the past, you’ve referred to your kitchen staff as being like a family – how important is that spirit of togetherness to a successful kitchen?
I feel it’s more organic this way. Instead of forcing things down, we all move in the same direction. There’s no place for disproportionate ego in my kitchen. It’s teamwork.
How do you introduce young chefs to that family?
I like to hire young chefs or apprentices and make them work from the bottom up. This way they can learn how things work and take in our philosophy. All my sous-chefs have been working with me for a long time, but to get to that level of confidence, it takes time. I’d rather have things develop naturally than to force things on my cooks.
Why is it so important for chefs to use local ingredients?
To use local ingredients is to support artisans and producers, families, here. It’s recognising our expertise and our capacity to produce quality. Using local ingredients also helps build our own gastronomic identity. The ingredients are what sparks creativity, they are the root of our work.
Tell us about some of your favourite Canadian ingredients, and why you enjoy cooking with them.
One of my favourite vegetables is the asparagus. It is very versatile, but also has personality. It also means we get to pair them with morilles [morel mushrooms] since they are in season at the same time. I also like the snow crab. It has such a distinct taste and is unique to our part of the word. I pair them with dandelion sprouts and they are perfect for each other.
Tell us about some of the highlights of traditional Quebec cuisine.
Seasonal cooking. It’s not typically from Quebec, but it makes sense. With commodity we have grown a little bit lazy. Our grandparents didn’t have this luxury. They had to use what was in season. Here we have the winter to think about, so canning and preserving during the summer is important to have products all year round.
How are you helping to modernise and revitalise the cuisine of Quebec?
Family owned farms, polyculture, natural farming, seasonal eating: none of those are new or modern. As time goes by, we are realising that they might be the key to a healthier planet and happier people. I think Quebec and Canadian cuisine needs to go that way to keep making diversified, quality food and to keep it coming for future generations. We use new and efficient technology with these old methods. It’s not so much modern as it is common sense, for me.
What’s new for you and your restaurants this year, and for the future?
I think what made Toqué! a success is that our goal has never changed. Sure, we adapt and incorporate new methods, technology and ingredients that fit our philosophy, but the core – to serve good, local, ethical food – remains unchanged. It has been so for the past 25 years and will be in the next 25.