The first thing I thought of while contemplating the simple white cover of Normand Laprise’s long-awaited first cookbook was a conversation we had five or six years ago at a quiet table at the back of his Montreal restaurant, Toqué! As the scheduled interview wound down, I had asked him what he was planning next. “One thing’s for sure—it won’t be a cookbook. Everybody’s writing them these days.”
It was a fair point. Even then, close to 3,000 new cookbooks were being published annually in the U.S. alone, far too many by celebrity TV chefs equipped with teams of writers and researchers who spared them the trouble of writing—not to mention reading—the many recipes published under their names.
Amidst all that noise, the rare chef now and then releases a cookbook that is greeted as a genuine publishing event. Like Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli 1998-2002, say, and more recently Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck Cookbook and René Redzepi’s Noma. And that is precisely the way the original French edition of Toqué! Les artisans d’une gastronomie québécoise was greeted upon its release in Quebec last month.
This was no great surprise. Toqué! has been the best restaurant in Montreal for so long that it is difficult to remember the places that held that position before. Its nearly 20-year run of excellence has propelled Laprise into l’Ordre National du Québec and the restaurant that he co-owns with Christine Lamarche into the esteemed grand chef ranks of the Relais & Châteaux. Laprise is credited with changing the culinary vernacular of Quebec haute cuisine, from old French to something new, classically grounded but seemingly spontaneous, invariably executed with local quality ingredients in place of the imported norm. But I still wanted to know why he changed his mind about cookbooks.
“Well, Charles-Antoine came back and we had to keep him busy!” Laprise explained, referring to his culinary collaborator Charles-Antoine Crête, who, after getting his start on the line at Toqué!, left for a sojourn abroad, working in great kitchens such as Tetsuya in Sydney and El Bulli near Barcelona. “Before that, making all the recipes to take all those photos did not really interest me. But then, as we’re coming up on 20 years of Toqué!, I wanted to leave something behind.”
Toqué! Creators of a New Quebec Gastronomie, out Nov. 28, is much more than a conventional cookbook. It started to take form a couple of years ago in a room sublet in the basement of the building Toqué! shares with that other Quebec institution, the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec. When I dropped in the summer of 2011, the walls were plastered with lists and photographs, featuring recent Toqué! dishes, fisherman, farmers, foragers and friends, with some images linked to one another with an arrow scrawled on the wall. There was also an impressive collection of coffee cups, empty wine bottles and spent corks. “We had a little fun after work, and mapped out the philosophy of Toqué!, Laprise recalled. “Fifty per cent of what we did there stayed there.”
The better half looks like this: 462 pages that chart a year or so in the life of a great restaurant, the myriad characters that work in its kitchen and the front of the house, and the huge support staff of friends. Toqué! has always been a supplier-driven restaurant—and their stories are told here, too. Laprise pays tribute to subjects as varied as the thrifty culinary heritage of old rural Quebec, to which he traces his nose-to-tail philosophy, and the late Renaud Cyr, a Quebecer who pioneered the use of local ingredients back in the 1970s.
Along with all that there are magnificent recipes: monkfish liver mousse with vegetable roll, soy jelly and rice-wine vinaigrette; squab cooked in a jar with honey; and enough variations on foie gras for every day of the week.
You will be tempted to make some, and with time you can: the recipes are complicated, but broken down into manageable components. It adds up to nothing less than the complete philosophy of one of our great Canadian restaurants, which is, distilled by Laprise, this: “Respect for the products. Traceability. And savoir faire.” What a heritage—and what good news that he changed his mind about cookbooks.