A few months back I stopped in for lunch at the bar at Toqué!, starting with an intensely flavoured chilled tomato-and-red-pepper soup laced with sesame oil, dressed up with a quenelle of foamed garlic cream and minuscule, buttery croutons. Next, a magnificently tender braised shank of lamb, glistening in the glaze of its reduced jus and nestled on a bed of mushrooms and sweet root vegetables. My companion, meanwhile, had it out for crustaceans, and began with a perfect gratinée of spot prawns, barely cooked and lightly dressed in mornay sauce, then moved on to a robustly flavoured lobster, broiled in its shell with bacon, asparagus and a generous dose of rich lobster reduction. For dessert, a refreshing dish of small, sweet Quebec strawberries, plated with a decorative tuile, crème anglaise and a little strawberry sorbet. Then I popped into the kitchen to thank chef Normand Laprise and his long-time chef de cuisine, Charles-Antoine Crête.
Of course they were there. They always seem to be there. Ever since Laprise first captured my attention with his onion-chive-antenna-sporting salmon tartare, his brunoise-sized ratatouille and the “foie gras fraîchement Toqué!” nearly 20 years ago at his original small room on rue St-Denis in Montreal, I have never once stopped in for a meal and not found him at his post, doing what he does best—cooking. For a chef this should not be unusual, but it is.
Draw up a list of big-name chefs of his generation and you will be hard-pressed to find one with a fresh stain on his whites—unless you count a little spilled blush from the makeup chair at the TV studio. Most of them are far more interested in inking a deal for a new line of monogrammed cookware than writing their next menu.
I happen to think that’s fine, and that chefs do not owe it to anyone to spend their middle years working 14-hour shifts and reading tickertape on the order printer through their sweaty half-frames. But I also cannot pretend that chef-driven restaurants are often anything but a shadow of their former selves once the chef in question moves on to the executive suite.
At Toqué!, meanwhile, that aforementioned springtime lunch was splendid but otherwise unexceptional—because it was just another great meal at Toqué! I’ve not had an indifferent one yet, nor even a bad course. So I have to hand it to chef Normand Laprise for continuing to lead by example where it counts, in the kitchen, cooking with passion long day after long day. That’s what makes the food at Toqué! a cut above—and it also makes chef Laprise chef of the year.