Canada is an enormous country with a generally conservative population and a culinary history that’s still in its infancy. No doubt our chefs look elsewhere for inspiration, reality being it’s tough for the average tourist to pinpoint a national style of cuisine recognizable from coast to coast. Yes poutine has crossed borders, but chances are you will not find a peameal bacon sandwich, tourtière, or Nanaimo bars far from our Great White North. Canadian cuisine is in a burgeoning state and foodies may even argue that it would be better to talk about a provincial or regional cuisine than a national one. Not only are food trends, favourite dishes, and local ingredients vastly different from Toronto to Calgary, they are even different in cities such as Montréal and Québec, located in the same province. In order to explore some of the regional similarities and differences in this country, we called on four of Canada’s top chefs who head the kitchens of the Hôtel Le Germain restaurants. Despite the vast expanses, it turns out we have quite a bit in common, primarily respect for Canada’s beautiful ingredients, resulting in a certain envy from one chef to another for each other’s best regional foodstuffs. And the differences are just as compelling.
Laurie Raphaël, Montréal, Daniel Vézina
“We work with the small producers that are closest to our city. But we also use products that I love from the west coast, like B.C. spot prawns, sockeye salmon, and those meaty and rich Kumamoto oysters. We can all get our hands on each other’s products if we are willing to pay. And I like to use something from the opposite side of the country and surround it with very local ingredients."
“Yet there must be a minimum of ingredients from Québec on the plate for me to be able to call my cuisine regional. Regional cooking is still strong, but there’s also an international flavour inspired by the trends happening the world over."
“The way we work now is to develop a vision for each season. We’ve cut down on the number of dishes so that everything is fresh and in keeping with our take on Québec’s rich culinary past. Tasting menu? Large portions? Doesn’t matter. When it’s good, it’s good.
“There is a serious emphasis on the environment of late. We’re always checking to see if the fish and seafood we buy is sustainable. We’re also working on making a more personalized cuisine based on our food memories and simply what we like. We cook with ingredients specific to Québec as often as possible, like wild berries from the Boreal forest, Atlantic trout, snow crab. I always aim to focus on terroir-driven foods like cheese, because we have the best in North America."
“We have evolved a great deal in Québec. It’s not the top 10 restaurants that have produced a Québec cuisine, though, but also the way people are now cooking at home.”
Charcut, Calgary, Connie DeSousa & John Jackson
Credit: Colin Way “Our main goal at Charcut is to evolve using simple ingredients, work with local farmers, and focus on ingredients that are indigenous to Alberta. That’s mainly bison, beef, and elk, but also vegetables grown locally like artichokes, Saskatoon berries, and, because we are close to the Rockies, all sorts of wild mushrooms. We import fish as well as clams and oysters, but we do have local lake fish, like pickerel and trout. What I envy most about east coast chefs is their access to seafood. I love their lobster and crab!"
Credit: Colin Way “The local and seasonal movement has evolved from a trend to a way of life in restaurants here (in Calgary). Chefs are going back to basics in their cooking. Wood and fire, this sort of caveman cooking is big right now. Dry-aged meat is an awesome trend too. We serve a prime rib that’s smoked and finished on a rotisserie to caramelize the crust. We also serve poutine made with duck-fat-fried fries, roasted chicken gravy with truffle oil, and Québec cheese curds. Quebecers say it’s one of the best they have ever tasted!"
“I believe we absolutely have a Canadian cuisine, but it’s more regional. We should really be talking about an Alberta cuisine rather than it being Canadian.”
Victor, Toronto, David Chrystian
“Our menu emphasizes Toronto’s multiculturalism, so we are taking on an ethnic spin rather than the usual European approach. The dishes on our menu reflect Toronto’s different ethnic communities, and neighbourhoods. We do use local ingredients, but I’d say our style is local/ethnic. You’ll find sushi pizza and beef carpaccio side by side on our menu. “There is interest in Niagara wines and produce, but Toronto is a city with an influx of people from all over the world, so ethnic cuisine is incredibly popular. Now if we’re asking local farmers to grow vegetables for us, they will include ethnic foods like daikon and tomatillos. Our pantry is more diverse than ever."
“Our cooking is not limited by our provincial borders. We source produce from the Okanagan and a lot of our inspiration comes from Old World Québec. But if we were cooking dishes from Newfoundland here in Toronto it wouldn’t really make sense.”
Bistango, Québec City, Annie Veillette
“The Québec City restaurant scene is very conservative. Of course people do want Québec products, but I would have trouble selling a whole fish with the head on, which I happen to love. “Healthy food, especially at lunch, is very popular right now. We are selling more vegetable dishes, less carbs, and more seafood. We avoid making Québec traditional cooking because we don’t evolve making rustic cuisine."
“We rely on everyone’s input from the kitchen, and the people here come from all over. I’m not sure there is a specific Canadian cuisine. Even if the product comes from Canada, the cooking style does not. Diners and chefs travel, and today we are influenced by what’s going on everywhere.”
Sharp Focus on Trends. What works in your city?
Daniel Vézina, Montréal – “Wagyu beef, hot foie gras, and raw fish.”
Connie DeSousa, Calgary – “Meat is still big in Alberta. And beer. Beer pairings now are even more popular than wine pairings. We even have a beer steward at Charcut!”
Annie Veillette, Québec City – “Duck, game, sustainable fish, and seafood.”
David Chrystian, Toronto – “Beef and duck confit.”
Daniel Vézina, Montréal – “Offal.” (Organ meats)
Connie DeSousa, Calgary – “Small portions! People like big portions here. Albertans are wealthy, but not stingy.”
Annie Veillette, Québec City – “We’re selling less pork.”
David Chrystian, Toronto – “Any dish that contains the word terrine.”
What’s your best-selling dish?
Daniel Vézina, Montréal – “Any dish with Wagyu beef.”
Connie DeSousa, Calgary – “Pig’s head mortadella.”
Annie Veillette, Québec City – “Rack of lamb with blue cheese and port sauce.”
David Chrystian, Toronto – “Cataplana with lobster, chicken, rice and chorizo.”
Which dining room trends are popular these days?
Daniel Vézina, Montréal – “Eating at the bar, interaction with the client, as in having them mix their tartare at the table, or having the chefs serve in the dining room. Enjoying the apéro somewhere other than at the dinner table. Service is more casual but not too casual. We still have white tablecloths.”
Connie DeSousa, Calgary - “In Calgary fine-dining is dying, as is everything that is stuffy and pretentious. People want a bit of a social scene, to be comfortable, enjoy a high-energy evening. Here we have an open kitchen where diners love to sit and interact with the chefs. It has taken over from the chef’s table. Communal tables are popular as well.”
Annie Veillette, Québec City – “I’m seeing more interest in eating several appetizers and sharing at the table. It’s essential to have friendly waiters and good ambiance.”
David Chrystian, Toronto – “Less expensive dishes work. We have to stay competitive in this big city. Communal tables don’t work in Toronto. Private dining rooms are not only popular, but an essential element for a restaurant to succeed here.”