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Filling out the Canadian Identity: Picard’s Cabane à Sucre Comes to Ottawa

Milles Feuilles Milles Feuilles with Maple Syrup, Chantilly Cream and Maple Butter
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To our readers who grew up in North America, if you think back to your high school years, what stands out? First date? First kiss? First taste of beer? Learning to drive?

I remember the cliques.

I grew up before the proliferation of the World Wide Web (www). The Internet was limited to the military and academia back then. There were no social networking applications. Cell phones were enormous and exclusive to drug dealers and teenagers of extremely wealthy parents. There was no “data,” only voice. For music, we carried big yellow Sony or sleek silver AIWA walkmen, powered by AA batteries. Albums came on cassettes. HD (high definition) movies came on laser discs, which were likewise unaffordable.

Survival for a 100 lb bespectacled boy with no viable athletic ability meant banding together with like peers; peers whose parents also wanted doctors, lawyers, or engineers in the family.

The wrinkle? I didn’t care to be relegated to a single clique, so I spent time finding common ground with young thespians, musicians, and writers. They were inspiring. Some followed their dreams, becoming actors, concert performers, and authors. Others became doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

Maclean's List of Canada's Best Restaurants

Maclean’s List of Canada’s Best Restaurants

Diversifying one’s network is what I think Maclean’s food editor Jacob Richler neglected when he put together his list of Top 50 Restaurants in Canada. I think his call out to “non-mainstream critics” (“capable of unexpected choices”) was for representative restaurants of Canadian cities, not necessarily exceptional ones.

Such would explain Ottawa’s choices: Stephen Beckta’s small plates and wine bar venture Play Food and Wine (1 York Street) and Caroline Gosselin’s Asian contemporary restaurant Sidedoor Kitchen and Bar (18 York Street). Both are good examples of finer dining. But, adored by the city’s conservative dining out culture, they are characteristic of a maturing food scene. They are careful forays into more adventurous eating.

Exceptional would have been Chef Marc Lepine’s Atelier Restaurant (540 Rochester Street), which has been likened to Chicago’s famed Alinea. Current Canadian Culinary Champion, Lepine employs modernist techniques to create unique tasting menu dining experiences. His is about the “now” of food.

So, it did not come as a surprise when controversy emerged, regarding the omission of lauded “Wild Chef” Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon from the list. Richler’s defense that Picard has shifted his focus to his Cabane à Sucre is baseless. Cabane à Sucre Au Pied de Cochon, an invite-by-lottery rustic popup, is seasonal. When it closes, Picard returns to the stove of the restaurant that sated even Anthony Bourdain’s appetite for fatty excess.

Wild Chef Martin Picard

Wild Chef Martin Picard

In the Globe and Mail interview, penned by Alexandra Gill, Richler goes on to say, “I love its gluttonous enthusiasm, but I can’t eat the food. I find it revolting.”

Unlike Richler, I feel Picard’s signature dishes are inspired. While they redefine what can be considered indulgent, they also challenge diners. His isn’t about serving fat upon fat. His is about exploring the foods we consider guilty pleasures. He delves into taboo eats with reckless abandon. Only, his chosen theme tends to be Quebecois Canadiana.

Case in point, what follows are the very French Canadian plates Picard served during a rare sojourn to the nation’s capital. Yes, the same city that spurned his advance in the past.

Two years ago, minor protest during the planning phase of the opening gala of Ottawa’s annual Winterlude festival moved National Capital Commission (NCC) organizers to instruct Picard not to serve foie gras, a divisive ingredient that is produced by force fattening ducks or geese. Picard politely declined his original invite and Food Network celebrity chef Michael Smith came instead. Many Ottawans demanded refunds for their advance-purchased tickets.

This year, Picard prepared a multi-course feast during the opening gala of the Ottawa Food and Wine Show. While only Norman Hardie‘s wines accompanied each course (Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir), the meal was thought-provoking.

Amuse

Foie Gras Bite (aka: foie cromesquis)

Foie Gras Bite (aka: foie cromesquis)


[Think deep fried foie that liquefies as the crumb coating colours and crisps. These flavour bombs caused many in the room to exclaim, “It just exploded in my mouth!”]

First Course

Pea Soup with Foie Sous Vide

Pea Soup with Foie Sous Vide (peas, carrots, celery, bacon, and foie)

Cretons with a bit of Baguette

Cretons with a bit of Baguette

Pea Soup with Foie Gras and Baguette with Cretons

Pea Soup with Foie Gras and Baguette with Cretons

Endive, Ham, Cheese, and Pork Rind Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette

Endive, Ham, Cheese, and Pork Rind Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette


[This salad started quite the conversation about how to “puff” foods. The general consensus was Picard’s pork rinds were near perfect.]

Salmon en Papillote

Salmon (stuffed with apple, basil, garlic and lemon) en Papillote


[It is quite the testament to the cooks Picard brought with him that the salmon was so prodigiously cooked. There were four hundred attendees, seated ten to a table. Our fish was succulent, neither harsh nor overdone.]

Second Course

Pig's Head Showing Parsnip and Carrots

Pig’s Head Showing Parsnip and Carrots

Pig's Head with Mashed Potato

Pig’s Head with Mashed Potato


[There was a sauce for the brain; a lemon beurre blanc to cut the “funkiness”]

Pork Stuffed Cabbage with Lobster

Pork Stuffed Cabbage with Lobster

Polenta

Polenta

Boudin Noir Tarte

Boudin Noir Tarte with Whelks, Smoked Herring and Potatoes

Dessert

Apple and Pumpkin Sticky Toffee Pudding

Apple and Pumpkin Sticky Toffee Pudding

Tire D'érable

Tire D’érable

Milles Feuilles

Milles Feuilles with Maple Syrup, Chantilly Cream and Maple Butter

Cheesecake

Cheesecake with Italian Meringue and Cranberry Syrup


[Many of these desserts were made with support from Chef Joe Calabro and his kitchens at Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana (200 Preston Street) in Little Italy]

I attended, dining with incredible company; restaurateur Martin Fremeth (owner of Mellos on Dalhousie), Chef Steve Mitton (owner of Murray Street Kitchen), Paul Dubeau (Sous at Murray Street Kitchen), Chef Patrick Garland (owner of Absinthe Cafe on Wellington Street W.), Sandra Isabel Diaz (manager of Kinki on York Street), Guy Berube (Gallerist at La Petite Mort Gallery), Katy Watts (fellow food blogger of Sheltered Girl Eats World) and once and again restaurateur Catherine Landry (owner of Cherry Pie).

Martin Fremeth with Picard

Martin Fremeth with Picard

Steve Mitton

Steve Mitton

Paul Dubeau

Paul Dubeau

Katy Watts

Katy Watts

Landry contacted me a week before the dinner, telling me to meet her at Mellos. She told me why later. “Trust me,” she said.

I am glad I did.

Our table celebrated life and all things pork, loudly. Every course began with a boisterous toast. Everyone took turns serving the family-style plates. Every morsel was savoured. We joked. We laughed. We partook of limoncello shooters, one of few reminders we weren’t eating at Picard’s actual sugar shack in St-Benoît de Mirabel.

During our meal, the faux-Italian plaster mouldings, well worn seats, and white linen covered folding tables, belonging to the Sala San Marco Italian dining hall (almost 8000 square foot of ballroom), fell away with the plated onslaught. Each course urged us to succumb to gluttony.

It was a meal I won’t soon forget.

Why do I revere Picard, having read about him but eaten his food once in my life? A rebellious anti-conformist, he demonstrates Canadians have a darker underbelly, likely owing to our ancestors living in the bush; hunting game for food; ravaging one another for warmth; and guzzling maple syrup for the necessary calories.

While the world may be familiar with the fiscally disciplined Canadian, whose sense of polity and decorum makes us welcome in most any country, Picard demonstrates we have baser urges.

The man trapped, prepared, cooked, reassembled, and presumably ate each of our national animal symbols: beaver and Canada goose.

To make peace with vermin, he invented Osaka-style squirrel sushi.

His self-published cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, begins with a short story by Marc Séguin about a woman, the last person on Earth, spending her final days working a sugar shack. The poignant piece of fiction intertwines personal history and food, touching on mortality and Quebecois culture.

Sometimes, I think we should indulge as if our meals were our last. The question is what would you like your last meal to be?

Picard, through the menus at Au Pied de Cochon and Cabane à Sucre, shares his.

To Catherine, thank-you for including me in this amazing feast.

Mild-mannered IT professional by day and food blogger by night, I founded foodiePrints with a single intention, to share my love of all things food. My first post shared a recipe. Many followed. Eventually, I learned Ottawa prepares and serves great food. Thereafter, I started meeting restaurateurs, chefs, cooks, farmers, and other local producers, all good people. Ideas for food-related content swirled in my head. foodiePrints grew into a place to put them. From exploring foreign and domestic cuisines to shopping for exotic ingredients and cobbling together my takes on dishes in my meager kitchen, there are stories to tell. Welcome to foodiePrints. Here, you will find stories about food and drink, cooking, and eating in Canada’s capital. Be it food-related or just food-for-thought, I hope you find something tasty here.