As anyone who’s ever put fork to fry knows, poutine is a deliciously unholy mess—not exactly the kind of food you’d expect beautiful people to hawk. But that’s just what Quebec-born model Thierry Pepin plans to do. This Saturday, he’ll throw open the doors at TPoutine, a New York City restaurant devoted to the Quebec comfort food. “When I moved here, I couldn’t believe people didn’t know about it,” says Pepin, who’s modelled for Armani and Ralph Lauren. “It’s so popular in Canada, there’s no reason it can’t make it here, too.”
Poutine’s been threatening to take New York by storm since at least 2007, when the Times called it the next big thing. Back then, the posh Inn LW12, in the Meatpacking District, was offering an upscale version with spiced pork belly. But the Inn has since closed; today, just a few of the city’s restaurants offer poutine. Sheep Station, an Australian pub in Brooklyn, has it on the menu, for example, but that may be no surprise, since chef and owner Martine Lafond is from Quebec. It’s still a niche product, Lafond says, but those who like it, like it a lot: whenever a customer orders it, “the plate is licked clean.”
Part of the problem with exporting poutine, Lafond notes, is the cheese. When it comes to the standard—fries, curds, and sauce, typically a chicken velouté—the sweet, squishy cheese curds are “the most important ingredient.” (A test: they should squeak between your teeth.) Yet curds, a by-product of the cheese-making process, can be hard to come by outside dairy-producing regions. Bob Rutledge, a McGill University astrophysics prof and poutine connoisseur, recalls trying to make it for his nieces in San Francisco. It was the curds that tripped him up. “It’s a foodie capital, so I assumed, how difficult could it be to find cheese curds?” Rutledge recalls. After phoning “every single cheese shop within a 100-mile radius of San Francisco”—a strategy that would surely work in Toronto or Vancouver—Rutledge admitted defeat and used grated cheddar. “And I have to tell you,” he says, “it wasn’t that great.”
Born and raised in rural Quebec, where he ate an untold number of poutines, Pepin moved to Montreal at 16 and was promptly scooped up by a modelling agency. After bouncing from Milan to Paris to Vancouver, he settled in New York in 2004. His 27-year-old face has graced the pages of GQ, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar—but what Pepin really wants to do, he says, is sell poutine. “I always wanted to run a restaurant,” he says, which might provide a more dependable income than modelling. Besides, food is his first love, maybe even more than fashion. “I’m French Canadian; I grew up eating poutine.”
TPoutine will bring in cheese curds from a farm in upstate New York, but most of its poutines will be anything but traditional. Giving Montreal institution La Banquise a run for its money (it sells 25 different kinds), TPoutine boasts several souped-up options including Breakfast Poutine, with scrambled eggs and bacon; French Quarter Poutine, with Cajun shrimp; and Asian Poutine, with soy and ginger sauce. (There’s the Classic Poutine for traditionalists, too.) Pepin plans to target the after-hours crowd, a tried and tested market for greasy food.
He’s not the only Canadian bringing poutine to New York. Over in Brooklyn, another new restaurant will be selling poutine, but with a different philosophy. Instead of the bar crowd, law student Noah Bernamoff is after starving artists who could use a stick-to-your-ribs meal. Slated to open this fall, his Mile End restaurant (named for an artsy neighbourhood in the Plateau Mont-Royal) “is meant to embody that incredibly laid-back vibe that Montreal has,” he says, offering cheap, wholesome food any Montrealer would recognize. Bernamoff will have fresh-made bagels, imported Quebec beer, and smoked meat and fish he’ll prepare himself. As for the poutine, he plans to make it with two kinds of sauce (traditional chicken stock gravy, and wild mushroom). Cheese curds will likely be imported from Quebec.
So, could poutine be ready to finally take New York? Pepin thinks so; he’s already talking about opening other TPoutine locations around the city. To become a true staple outside Quebec, though, it still has a long way to go. Montrealer Amélie Vanier, who lives in New York, says she often finds herself explaining poutine to friends and co-workers. “They say, ‘Oh, you mean cheese fries,’ ” Vanier sighs. “I say, ‘It’s not the same thing.’ ”