The Rendez-vous Québec trade show visited Toronto in late October, showcasing the best of Québec’s foodservice products – bread, cheese, beverages, chocolate, meat, poultry and more – for Ontario buyers.
One highlight of the event was a demonstration by Jean-Luc Boulay and Arnaud Marchand of Québec’s Chez Boulay – Bistro Boreal. These chefs are passionate proponents of boreal cooking – that is, the use of local, northern food on their menu. They took the opportunity of the trade show to share this love with attendees.
I spoke with the chefs before the first of three presentations, to find out more about them, their interest in boreal cooking, and how they’ve guided Chez Boulay to such success.
They met in 2010 on the set of a cooking show, Les chefs. Boulay was a judge and Marchand one of the contestants. Boulay was impressed by the young man and asked if he’d like to work together. They decided to open a restaurant focussed on using local products. Marchand says, “The first year we used 70% local products, but our ultimate goal is 100%.”
He gave the example of lemons, a standard product in many kitchens. “We’ve replaced lemon with vinegar wherever we can,” he says. “And there are more varieties of vinegar than lemon, so we can experiment with flavours, and arrive at a more precise taste.” Similarly, they use local oils rather than olive oil in their cooking. Greenhouses help, and when they can’t get local food, they sometimes use products that are grown in Québec, but are currently out of season.
They clearly love both the province and its food. “The forest is a treasure,” says Boulay. Marchand, a native of France, spent five years immersing himself in forest products so he could become an expert, and continues to learn. “Not a week goes by without me finding a new product,” he says.
They both clarified that the restaurant is accessible for all palates. “It’s a bistro,” Marchand says, “and we serve comfort food.” Although they cater to a lot of tourists, it’s the locals who are most surprised by how delicious boreal cooking is. And it truly is delicious: the restaurant was recently named one of the ten best restaurants in Canada by Tripadvisor.
Much of their success comes from a willingness to try new ideas. The chefs are busy with plans for the future. They’re working on a new cookbook to be released next year in English and French, tentatively called Le Garde-Manger Boreal (The Boreal Pantry). The recipes are meant to help ordinary people learn about native products and how to cook with them. The chefs also have a garden on the roof of the restaurant, where they grow wild boreal plants. They work together with biologists and chemists to protect plants that are delicate or rare (such as wild ginger), and to experiment with them in the kitchen.
But although they’ve been approached to expand to another city, they have no plans to do so. Marchand attributes the restaurant’s success to their 65 employees, and says it would be hard to replicate that success without their support. “I can’t divide my employees!” he says, with a laugh. When I asked how he creates a positive workplace for the team, he said he shares his vision with them, that vision being to change people’s preconceptions about food, and to teach them about the riches of the northern climate. When employees understand the vision, they’re better equipped to work toward a common goal.
It may have been a coincidence that Marchand and Boulay met each other and hit it off so well. But the payback has been enormous, both for their diners and for the food industry in Québec.