A funny thing happened at the $1,500-a-seat Relais & Châteaux Dîner des grands chefs at Gotham Hall in Manhattan: New York chef Daniel Boulud teamed up with Normand Laprise of Toqué! in Montreal and Jonathan Gushue of Langdon Hall, in Cambridge, Ont., to form an unofficial Team Canada.
“It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this—it’s all in a great spirit,” Boulud told me later from his office above his flagship restaurant, Daniel, in New York, whence he orchestrates an 11-restaurant empire spread over three continents.
The reason for his change of flag was simple: he is poised to plant a fresh one here at the end of the month when he opens a Maison Boulud at the renovated Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal. Then in August he will open his Café Boulud in the new Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto.
Such plans easily make the New Yorker the most ambitious chef operating in Canada this year. But it was not the scope of that ambition and the prestige of the locations that made him the talk of the small Canadian contingent at this prestigious gathering. Rather, it was Boulud’s timing.
His Montreal opening falls just weeks before the Grand Prix, and then his Toronto date falls on the dawn of the Toronto International Film Festival.
“Is he crazy?” Chef Laprise asked me over bubbly at a reception at Per Se, where Thomas Keller was hosting most of the 45 grand chefs participating in the dinner. Of the 520 Relais & Châteaux restaurants and hotels around the world, only 160 have the exclusive “grand chef” designation, and Canada has just four: Langdon Hall, Toqué!, Montreal’s Europea and Initiale in Quebec City. Across the room I spotted Keller warmly greeting the legendary Marc Meneau from France’s L’Espérance in a nine-Michelin-star embrace. I had just plucked a pâté de campagne canapé from a silver tray that had last served César Troisgros, of the iconic Maison Troisgros. Boulud was on a flight back from Asia, so I had to wait until the next day to ask him if he was feeling completely well.
It seemed to me that Boulud was accustomed to such challenges. And I know that Montreal for one is looking forward to having an international culinary star with three Michelin stars setting up shop in a manner more convincing than, say, Gordon Ramsay, who simply affixed his name to a take-out chicken shop. Even Laprise—whose long reign of local fine dining makes him look like the Montreal chef with the most customers to lose to the new Maison Boulud—has nonetheless responded with public enthusiasm and private support. In particular, by handing Boulud his complete list of Quebec suppliers, commonly acknowledged to be the finest in the province, “I gave him everything,” Laprise told me.
If that seems crazy, be advised that restaurant suppliers are in a notoriously precarious business, with the chefs who champion them sometimes running up bills for months and then casually going bankrupt before starting a fresh tab. As Laprise saw it, setting up his suppliers with another solid customer could only be good for everyone.
The Relais & Châteaux grand chefs dinner was launched last year at the Château de Versailles, where 60 grand chefs (and one catering company) collaborated on an elaborate meal to commemorate UNESCO’s 2010 designation of French gastronomy as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity.” Alas, the meal was not as well received as the wines. The second dinner in the three-part series was seemingly not much different. The fact is chefs always cook far better in their home kitchens; these big banquets always taste like cookbook demonstrations. Each trio of chefs cooked for three tables. Mine prepared a lobster “tiramisu,” which was overwhelmed with gelatinous cream, barely warmed and served over scallops with a bland slice of veal. I was relieved to hear that Team Canada did a better job with their food than those who prepared mine.