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.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.
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.
[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!”]
[This salad started quite the conversation about how to “puff” foods. The general consensus was Picard’s pork rinds were near perfect.]
[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.]
[There was a sauce for the brain; a lemon beurre blanc to cut the “funkiness”]
[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).
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.
Tags: Au Pied de Cochon, Cabane à Sucre, featured, Martin Picard, Ottawa Food and Wine Show, sponsored