Normand Laprise's seal of approval
Probably no other chef-proprietor in Canada has worked as hard cultivating local suppliers
JACOB RICHLER | October 16, 2008 |
Join Maclean’s on Oct. 28 for an exclusive Taste evening at Toqué featuring Normand Laprise’s exquisite five-course chef’s tasting menu offering one-time only dishes. Buy your tickets today at macleans.ca/taste
Many an accomplished chef would admit to being daunted at the prospect of following Thomas Keller on the meal card, but not so Normand Laprise of Restaurant Toqué! in Montreal. At any rate, back on Sept. 7, when he returned to his hometown to close out the Québec Gourmande festival, just a week after the six-Michelin-starred owner-chef of the French Laundry and Per Se had passed through to show off some of his paces for its penultimate event, Laprise was looking very much his normal, relaxed self. In fact, when less than three hours before the start of the scheduled dinner I dropped by the host restaurant, Initiale in Quebec City, to see how things were coming along in the kitchen, Laprise was not even there.
"Interviews," explained his business partner Christine Lamarche, who has looked after the front of the house at Toqué! since its opening night back in 1993.
Of course, most of the prep work had been completed at home base in Montreal. But there was still much work to be done. At the back of the restaurant kitchen, Initiale's proprietor-chef Yvan Lebrun was working with two of his staff on canapés featuring some ripe red tomatoes sized no larger than green peas. At another counter on another flank, two members of the 10-strong Toqué! brigade were poring over tiny, wild Quebec blueberries, checking for quality and grit, while alongside another was inspecting some grapes. Others were gathered around the stove at the centre of the kitchen, tasting sauces, checking their mise en place. And directing it all from the pass was frenetic Toqué! chef de cuisine Charles-Antoine CrÃªte, one eye on the purposeful commotion unfolding around him, and another on the tray of fresh seaweed sitting in front of him — some six types in all, harvested the day before from the St. Lawrence estuary at Kamouraska, where Laprise spent a good portion of his youth on a farm.
"We dry it and then use it in the winter," Crête explained, and then, holding up a particularly broad and ruddy leaf, added, "This one — c'est comme un kombu Québécois." Kombu being the Japanese seaweed that lies at the heart of their ubiquitous dashi broth.
It was nearly four o'clock when Laprise finally rolled in, and he looked tanned and well, his wire spectacles and black leather jacket contributing somehow to his perpetually boyish look.
"J'ai un petit cadeau pour toi," Laprise said to Crête, smirking — and he should have kept quiet, for the warning cost him the opportunity to get the ghastly thing over his wary chef's neck. The plasticized apron was emblazoned with the life-sized image of a man meant to match up with the fellow beneath, and the image involved nakedness and — where you might expect to find something else — a length of sausage links.
Good thing, too: in only an hour and a half, some 70 diners who had each dropped $400 for the privilege of an eight-course Laprise extravaganza were to start trickling through the front door — hungry, thirsty and demanding. It was definitely time to get down to more serious business.
When a real chef is getting set to prepare a multi-course banquet — or for that matter even a single dish — off-site, the business comes with complications. Printing a descriptive menu is not enough. A prototype edition of each dish listed there must also be turned out in a trial run to ensure that the kitchen is completely in tune with what is required to make 70 identical editions in a steady flow that will last no more than six or seven minutes from first plate to last. And the wait staff, charged with delivering those plates to the dining room within that same time frame, must also have advance knowledge of what they are delivering — from the names of the ingredients to a cursory knowledge of the thinking behind their assemblage — lest a customer should ask.
So at this point, Crête summoned his chefs ("Amène tout le monde — et bam!" was his call to action). He demonstrated the first plate personally: it was the amuse-gueule, a spoonful of vibrantly coloured flower petals, fully seasoned, tossed and chased with a shot glass of diluted yuzu juice (this may sound absurd, but it tastes like a mouthful of summer). Laprise took it out to the dining room to show it to the Initiale waiters poised to serve his food for the first time and explained it to them.