Bidding summer adieu can be difficult but autumn does have its cheering notes—spent leaves rustling in the earthy breeze, say, and of course the sound of gunfire out there in the woods, ripping into deer, wild duck, rabbit, hare, and any number of other iterations of dinner in its wild state. Over in Britain, where Toronto chef Marc Thuet spent his formative cooking years, the harvest of greatest culinary consequence begins earlier, on Aug. 12—“the Glorious Twelfth”—which marks the start of the shooting season for that most coveted of all game birds Lagopus lagopus scoticus, the red or Scotch grouse. And it is “la grouse,” as the French call it, that one chilly mid-November evening last year drew me down to Bistro & Bakery Thuet in downtown Toronto. (He has since renamed it Bite Me, but this story is strictly about taste of the culinary sort.)
The week before, with a little help from a stateside importer with an enviable line on Scotland’s finest, chef Thuet had conspired to smuggle a few dozen brace, locally unavailable, into Toronto. And now I was sitting at his bar hungrily contemplating a plate featuring the two breasts of one of the plump little birds, each skinned and then lightly seared in a pan oiled with butter, cooked until dark brown without, crimson and barely warm within, stacked one atop the other over a hefty slab of foie gras de canard poêllé, which was in turn perched on a slice of brioche toasted crisp and smeared with a foie gras and pork liver mousse, heavily spiked—Alsatian-style—with marc de Gewurztraminer. The periphery of the plate was dressed up with a judicious scattering of jackfruit brunoise, jackfruit purée, and a reduction of elderberry. It was my first grouse of the season and the dish was classic Thuet.
Very few chefs can conjure so many different flavours to come and play together on the palate in such harmony—even as they each assert themselves so distinctly. The Thuet style also often shows off a casual expertise in the preparation of game and foie gras. It involves unexpected flavours—like the jackfruit and elderberry. It also leans knowledgeably on tradition, giving it a sensible and often playful rethink, and there is usually an inclination to be a little over the top.
Thuet hails from Blodelsheim, a small town in the Haut-Rhin region of Alsace, France, where to this day you will find a modest and ancient Boulangerie Thuet, as well as one Hôtel Restaurant Chez Pierre, where young Marc first honed his craft, for Pierre was his uncle (although not the first but rather the third Pierre Thuet to run that kitchen). Marc’s first kitchen job at age six was restaurant garbage duty. Then he was put to work peeling asparagus and skinning hare. At age 12 he became cheap kitchen labour, helping out at all stations like a junior tournant. And he also got to join his uncle on his biannual hunting trips with his chef friends. And they were quite the chefs: young Marc finessed his understanding of the connection between guns and dinner in the company of hunters like Emile Jung (Au Crocodile, Strasbourg, three Michelin stars), Antoine Westermann (Restaurant Buerehiesel, Strasbourg, three Michelin stars), Pierre Gaertner (Aux Armes de France, Ammerschwihr, two Michelin stars) and Bernard Loiseau (La Côte d’Or, Saulieu, three Michelin stars), the latter the brilliant chef who in February 2003 tragically turned his hunting rifle on himself.
At age 19, after cooking school and a series of apprenticeships, Marc was dispatched to London, England, to serve under Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester Hotel. Mosimann—now by royal warrant official caterer to Prince Charles—was then developing his concept of Cuisine Naturelle, a style of cooking that incorporated the healthful lessons of nouvelle cuisine in a new culinary philosophy that was far more substantive, and emphasized seasonality and the purest, unadulterated flavours. “I had worked in three stars all over Alsace—I never saw cooking like that,” Thuet reflects of the cooking there in those early days.
The restaurant soon became the first hotel restaurant outside of France to be awarded two Michelin stars. Meanwhile, after two years in London, Thuet was growing restless and seeking a posting in the United States. Mosimann intervened, and instead secured him a job in Canada, a stepping stone, with his mentor, the great Swiss chef Albert Schnell, who had been executive chef at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal when Mosimann, drawn by the promise of Expo 67, signed up there as a sous-chef in 1966. Now, 15 years later, Schnell was at the Hilton in Toronto.
Some years later, in 2001, when Marc Thuet was chef and co-owner of Centro Bar & Grill in Toronto, he invited me and my family to brunch at his farm, an hour out of town in rural Pefferlaw. When we pulled up around noon his truck was nowhere to be seen, and when I knocked on the door it was his wife, Biana, who answered. “Marc’s next door. He had to kill a bear,” she explained matter-of-factly.
Indeed, as it turned out, his neighbour was an apiarist, and for some weeks a local bear had been availing himself liberally of his honey supply. So the neighbour appealed to Marc for help, and that night, when he arrived home from work, he grabbed a hunting rifle, drove into his neighbour’s driveway, focused his headlights on the apiary, and with his gun hanging out the window, he watched and waited, waited some more, and dozed off. Some time later a little rustling woke him up and he let off a quick shot, but the bear stumbled off into the darkness. “Never follow an injured bear into the woods at night,” the old Alsatian saying goes, so Marc rolled up the window and went back to sleep. When he awoke he found that the bear had made it only a few feet away. And now as I approached, there it was on its side, with Marc’s young son giving it a prod with his foot, which was causing blood to spurt from the wound. Marc meanwhile was hammering its rear paws onto a two-by-four so that he could hoist it over a tree branch to dress it. At which point my daughter Simone, just three at the time, asked me why Marc had killed the animal.
“He was a bad bear,” I explained. “He was stealing honey.”
Then, remembering that she was big into Winnie the Pooh who had very similar habits, I dispatched her and her brother Max and their mother back to Marc’s house to wait. And just in time, for they cleared the shielding hedge just as the bear’s entrails came tumbling vigorously out of the carcass and onto the ground. Marc was shoulder-deep in the thing when I opted to put a hand on the shoulder of his seven-year-old daughter Robbi, who was standing and watching right in front of me, and asked her if she wanted to go back to the house too. She looked up at me, eyes open wide, wrinkled her nose and giggled a little. “This is the grossest thing I’ve seen Daddy do since that time he cut the head off that pig and it ran off into the road and he couldn’t find it!”
The bear yielded some excellent tenderloin, and a year or two later, its hind legs—like those of so many of Marc’s pigs, raised on Centro slop—matured into superior prosciutto. And this was just one in a long sequence of local wild game meats he has prepared for me. I will never forget his sensational civet of deer (“Bambi walked in front of the wrong house,” he explained at the time), or the terrines featuring noisettes of wild Arctic hare, and breast of wild pheasant and woodcock adrift in the binding mousse of foie gras.
This winter Thuet is scheduled to prepare a banquet of genuine wild game and other exotic foods that will include more woodcock, soup of shark’s fin, the coveted hairy crabs of Yangchou Lake in Jiangsu province, a truffled daube of Alsace-sourced wild boar, and a roasted loin of bear with local chokecherries. Yet the event is top secret, and rather than prepare it for paying customers at his restaurant, he is obliged to do it for a few friends at home, for fun,
because just like the Scottish grouse, every item on the menu is wholly illegal, banned by one level of government or another, be it the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which protects us from tasty imports too numerous to list, the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources, which forbids hunting for profit, or the municipal department of public health, which makes it illegal for a restaurant or a food shop to sell for consumption anything caught in the wild and processed anywhere other than a federally approved abattoir.
“A Sikh can wear a turban in the f—ing RCMP but a f—ing French chef can’t cook grouse?!?” Thuet bellowed at me one day when I walked into his restaurant right as he got off the phone with customs, who had intercepted a recent shipment of grouse. “It’s a f—ing outrage.”
And it is. Our own wild grouse, wild turkeys, deer, hare, rabbits and every other game animal across the land make up one of our greatest natural resources. Except we are not allowed to eat any of it unless you hunt it and cook it yourself. Me, I’d much rather have a real chef do it for me—and I do. But our culinary culture would be in much better shape if the rest of the country could share in the pleasure too.