The first time I went downstairs to find the facilities at Le Comptoir charcuteries et vins, chef Ségué Lepage’s wine bar in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, I opened the wrong door and ran straight into that week’s pig. He was hanging out (or rather hanging up) in a cold room. Across the hall – still not the loo – was Lepage’s cutting room and charcuterie lab, full of gleaming stainless-steel instruments, a fermenter, an oversize sausage stuffer and a water-circulating oven for cooking sous-vide. It all looked more like a surgery than a kitchen, nicely framed by a large museum vitrine. Clearly, at this address, the basement is where the action is.
From the olive oil amphorae stored in the Arcadian hills of ancient Greece to Arcadia, Iowa, where my grandmother stored bread-and-butter pickles in her farmhouse basement, a cook’s stockpile of the year’s yield has always belonged in a cool, dry place – in the cellar, among the roots. But since cook-to-order menus and open kitchens have become the norm, the preparation of dishes has transformed into a spectator sport. Chefs everywhere are turning to their subterranean quarters for a little privacy.
Le Comptoir is, as the name dictates (and as you read here), mostly a counter where diners perched on bar stools can watch chefs in the open main-floor prep kitchen construct the dishes listed on a wall-mounted blackboard. All of the curing goes on one floor down, but, more importantly, the basement is also home to Lepage’s office, on the desk of which sit his bibles: Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide and La cuisine raisonnée, a recent edition of the 1919 classic of Québécois cuisine, which was collectively authored by members of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame in Kamouraska, near where Lepage grew up. In his private lair, he has the space to experiment with recipes that express his belief that his grandmother’s cooking can be a great basis for modern food.
At Joe Beef, the basement houses woodworking equipment, an old sewing machine used to make the muslin sacs for its homemade bologna, a starting bed for next summer’s greens – and absinthe.
The basement at Frédéric Morin and Dave McMillan’s Joe Beef, in Montreal's Saint-Henri neighbourhood, houses the woodworking and welding equipment used to build their prodigious smoker, as well as an old Brother sewing machine used to sew muslin sacs for their homemade bologna. But the chefs are gods of green, and many of their true passion projects are vegetal in nature. Their vast lower levels house an irrigated starting bed, where, in the winter, they sprout greens for next summer’s backyard urban farm. Once the frisée and peppercress are flourishing, Morin turns his attention to the Green Fairy: His basement shelves also house a personal stash of hand-steeped absinthe made from wormwood plants he has growing among the lettuces. (The recipe is really quite easy.)
A few kilometres east, Toqué!’s cellar is a gallery of reds and pinks; a secret storehouse of crimson inspiration. Over the last decade, chef Normand Laprise has refined the traditional canning process for tomatoes into a skin-to-seed method in which unique textures and flavours “conjugate” the tomato essence in his dishes throughout the year. During the season, Toqué! uses up to 15 varietals of fresh tomatoes, but in early fall, the Roma reigns. Laprise’s team processes between 2,000 and 3,000 litres of the Quebec-grown fruit, which they pull out from the cellar whenever a dish calls for a scattering of tomato powder, a splash of tomato water or a smudge of tomato caramel. It’s a little-known fact that tomatoes are actually berries, but Laprise makes room for the more commonly known cousins as well. Alongside his red wall of jars are industrial freezers dedicated to his $18,000 annual inventory of Quebec buckthorn berries, rosehips, black raspberries, red raspberries and sweet, sour and savoury strawberries, all fresh picked, flash-frozen and ready to be plucked from the underground at a moment’s notice.
A restaurant’s downstairs has become more than a cellar storehouse for summer’s bounty; it’s now also a place where long-term projects can take root and grow and where chefs’ creative energies can lead to results that are more than just instantly gratifying.
“Many chefs won’t admit it, but the day-to-day operations of most restaurants are quite ordinary,” says Frédéric Morin. “Basically, we put stuff in a pan, heat it and then serve it to you. When we opened our restaurant, we promised ourselves it wouldn’t be like that. We’re pretty ADD: We change our minds all the time and think up experiments we want to try. One of the reasons I love coming to work is because I like tending to my many projects, and the basement is the place where I have space to realize them. It’s the workshop of the restaurant.” ®
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