The title of your book is Toqué! Creators of a New Québec Gastronomy. What is “new Quebec gastronomy”?
Growing up in Kamouraska [Quebec], the farm fed us: Our chickens came right from the coup, and we slaughtered a calf once a month. To prepare for the winter, we canned fruits and vegetables when they were in season, and that’s what we ate. Those qualities are what I think make up the new Quebec gastronomy
When did you adopt the “local first” mindset as a chef?
When I started working in kitchens in the 1970s, chefs in Quebec would import all their ingredients. Then I moved to the Burgundy region in France to intern with chef Jean-Pierre Billoux at Hôtel Sofitel Dijon La Cloche. Chef Billoux knew all his suppliers; he trusted their products, and he cooked with whatever was available. This focus on quality, transparency and ingredients left a lasting impression on me. I moved back home in the early ’80s, and it took almost 10 years before I started developing a similar network of producers. Farm-to-table cooking is a trend right now, but for me, it’s a vision that I’ve had for the past 35 years.
How does this idea translate to the menu at Toqué!?
At Toqué!, much like on the farm, we survive with what we’ve got. In the summer, when there’s abundance, we build up our pantry by canning everything from garlic and pickles to berries. This year, we’ll probably can up to 2,000 litres of tomatoes, and I’m proud to say that we haven’t served a tomato grown outside Quebec in 15 years. I won’t sacrifice quality for geography, though. If my neighbour grows excellent leeks, I’ll buy them. But if he doesn’t and my neighbour eight doors down does, that’s where I’ll go. I mainly try to buy ingredients from Canada, but in the winter, for instance, I’ll buy fish from the east coast of the United States. We don’t have truffles in Quebec, so I import them from France.
Toqué: Creators of a New Québec Gastronomy is your first book. Why now?
I didn’t become a chef so that I could become an author. I always told myself that if I ever write a cookbook, it’s because I have something to say. I feel that after 35 years in this profession, I do. Toqué! has plenty of recipes in it, but it also tells a story about my journey and the team that has helped me along the way. It’s about the farmers, the cooks and the people who supported me.
What was the biggest challenge in putting the book together?
It took us two years to write. We could have finished it in a month using raspberries from Chile or California for the photos, but that’s not who we are. It had to be authentic. If we wanted to photograph white asparagus for a recipe, we waited until they were in season.
Do you have any advice for would-be chefs trying to recreate some of the more complex dishes at home?
The way I see it, people shouldn’t go out and try to recreate exactly what’s in the book. It was envisioned as a guide. Go to the market, buy the best-quality ingredients that you can find and when you get home, take 30 minutes to flip through the book to find a recipe that you can adapt to what you have in the fridge. Also, there are many shorter recipes that fit together like pieces of a puzzle to make more complicated dishes; you can start by making just the strawberry sorbet, for instance, and then move up to making the complete strawberry dessert with all its fixings.
How did you decide which recipes to include in the book?
The products decided for us. When chanterelles were in season, we decided to create recipes around the mushroom. The menus and plates at Toqué! are constantly evolving. In general, we use the previous year’s recipes as our base and build from there. For instance, our cod confit became a brandade, which we served the next year as a soup and then a mousse. That’s the book’s message: Cooking is about taking what you have, transforming it and serving it.
The French version of Toqué! Creators of a New Quebec Gastronomy is on sale now. The English version will be released on November 28.