Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
MONTREAL — Marc-André Jetté says he doesn’t like titles. That’s too bad because he’s going to have to get used to them. For starters, Best Young Chef in Canada would be a fit, and if he keeps up the level of cuisine coming out of his 18-month-old restaurant he may graduate to a top rank where age isn’t a qualifier. Jetté’s Les 400 Coups is that good.
The 30-year-old chef and his partners have already won numerous accolades. GQ’s Alan Richman named Les 400 Coups the best restaurant in Canada earlier this year. En Route’s Sarah Musgrave placed it fourth on her annual selection of best new restaurants in the country in 2011. And now Vacay.ca ranks it at No. 6 on its inaugural Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List, to be unveiled on April 26.
More importantly than what journalists think, diners have been delighted enough to keep coming back. It’s not unusual to see patrons walking into the kitchen — a small, open, clean space visible from the dining room — to thank the staff for delivering them a stunningly good meal.
The restaurant’s menu changes constantly, depending on the season and the whim of Jetté and his pastry chef/business partner Patrice Demers. Raised on a dairy farm in Rougemont, a rural community a half hour outside of Montreal, Jetté comes by his skills through hard work and a dream.
“When I was a dishwasher, I used to watch the chefs and sous-chefs working on the line and I knew that’s what I wanted to do. There was so much action and energy and you saw them yelling and moving constantly and sweating. It was very exciting,” he says, reminiscing about his early days in a Rougemont restaurant and noting that Anthony Bourdain also started out with soap in his hands.
Jetté wasn’t even in high school when dishwashing got him into the industry. He laughs and says the dream has become a reality of arduous effort. During his short career, Jetté has had a stage in France, been a chef at only 25, headed the kitchen at popular Laloux in Montreal’s trendy Mile End area, and immersed himself in his craft so fully that you quickly forget you are speaking to someone so young. When you talk to him, you know he’s got it, meaning that indefatigable will to get the most out of a product or recipe.
A DYNAMIC DUO IN THE KITCHEN OF MONTREAL’S LES 400 COUPS
Standing in the lower-level refrigerator, Jetté points at the beautiful, golden-brown ducks from one of the regional producers he relies on. They’ve been aged for a week and will be a highlight of that evening’s menu, which will include Duck Breast Ravioli among the entrees. Also hanging in the fridge is a fresh cut of venison, as well as crates full of vegetables. Everything is carefully sorted and labelled, meticulous.
“I’m proud of that,” Jetté says. “We keep it clean, we keep it organized, we’re concerned about the products and the 40 or 50 producers in the area who supply us.”
He speaks fast. He wants you to get it, to understand why what he and Demers are doing outside of the kitchen is so important to the result that ends up on the plate. He also wants you to know Demers’ creations are equally as important to the success of Les 400 Coups as his own.
“I’m on the savoury side and he is on the dessert side. We don’t get in each other’s way. He is so talented with what he does. I have a great deal of respect for Patrice,” Jetté says.
Demers, also in his early 30s, has been well known in Montreal food circles for nearly a decade and has even had a regular television show in Quebec. His desserts are sublime. Deliberately focused on getting their sweetness from a source other than sugar, there’s an immediate sense of artistry in his creations, whether it’s a Litchi Granité ($10) that features white chocolate yogourt, grapefruit, campari and hibiscus, or the mustard ice cream on the restaurant’s signature dish, a Beef Tartare ($15) that is a revelation. The combination of Demers’ ice cream and the savoury beef spiced with herbs from Jetté will induce laughs because of its inventiveness and feelings of pleasure because of its flavour.
“It’s simple with an emphasis on the freshness of the products,” Jetté says of the dish that’s been on the menu since the restaurant’s opening. “It also has what I do and what Patrice does in it. It’s a mix of both of our imaginations on the same plate.”
Demers’ sweet and salty Pot of Crème ($10), served in a mason jar, has been the biggest-selling item at the restaurant. “People will come in here just for that. I’ve been eating it for eight years,” Jetté says of the chocolate and caramel treat that Demers has served elsewhere, “and it still tastes great. It’s simple food done very, very well.”
TEAMWORK KEY TO SUCCESS FOR LES 400 COUPS
Jetté and Demers get along tremendously, says sommelière Marie-Josée Beaudoin, the third business partner who works in the restaurant. It’s easy to see why. Both are clearly likeable and easygoing, and their skills complement each other. “They like the same food and same technique but from a practical point of view they have a different approach,” Beaudoin says. “They’ve become like brothers. I look at them now as if they are brothers.”
There’s a beauty about Les 400 Coups beyond its cuisine and camaraderie. It’s in a 150-year-old building on the edge of Old Montreal. A large photo collage of the St-Germain district of Paris dominates the room, paying homage to the City of Light. In the restaurant that’s a few feet north of Notre-Dame-des-Bonsecours church, the food and those who create it seem suited for this part of Canada’s most elegant city. Les 400 Coups is delicate and graceful, not at all bold and brash.
“A lot of people say we do a feminine cuisine,” Jetté says, “because of our emphasis on the vegetables, fresh products and the lightness.”
The name of the restaurant has three sources of inspiration. One is the address at 400 rue Notre-Dame Est in the oldest part of the city. Another is the title of the namesake Francois Truffault film from 1959. And the third is the colloquial meaning of les 400 (pronounced “quatre cents”) coups, which is a French metaphor for all of the mischievous or erroneous things you’ve done before you become wise.
“We’ve all done our 400 bad things,” Jetté says of himself, Demers and Beaudoin. “We got them out of the way before we started Les 400 Coups. Now, we’re focused and serious.”
Young, good-looking and humble, Jetté is doing things closer to perfection these days, and with plenty of class. He apologizes for what he says is a less-than-fluent command of English, even though his speech is more than fine. When Jetté was talking about his dislike of titles, it was the rank-and-file mentality of a kitchen or restaurant operations that he was speaking about. (Accolades of any kind he will accept gladly and is grateful for. “It’s an honour and it keeps us working harder,” he said when told about ranking high on the first annual Vacay.ca list.) He has an egalitarian attitude, a one-for-all, all-for-one mentality toward Les 400 Coups. He points to the nearest waiter, the bartender, a sous chef in the open kitchen. “They’ve all come with us from Laloux. We are like family. We cannot do this without them giving as much as they give to the restaurant.”
It was at Laloux where Beaudoin noticed Jetté’s culinary skills taking shape, with Demers’ help. “I knew of Marc-André and went for dinner at Laloux and was like, Oh my god. His food was so much more refined and with Patrice, they influence each other so well. I knew Marc-André was going to be one of the top Montreal chefs in a couple of years for sure.”
He’s there now, yet he retains a humility that’s refreshing and endearing. “I’m not a rock star,” Jetté says. “All I do is cook for people. That’s all I am. I’m just a cook.”
Maybe so, but he’s an incredible one — and the world is starting to realize it.
MORE ABOUT LES 400 COUPS IN MONTREAL
Address: 400 rue Notre-Dame East (see map below)
Contact/Reservations: Telephone: 514.985.0400. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.les400coups.ca
Price range: Main courses are less than $30
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