Even before I met Alexandre Vachon I concluded he was a throwback. That’s because I tasted all eight courses on the Discovery Menu that Vachon has created for Manoir Hovey and surmised he was a chef from another era. His dishes at the Relais & Chateaux property — situated on a splendid freshwater lake full of fish, a forested shoreline, and endless horizons — seem anachronistic in a period when chefs are pushing new-age gastronomy that sometimes comes across as unnecessarily extravagant.
Vachon has been the chef at the 120-year-old country estate since October 2018 and has focused on what he defines as cooking that goes back to basics. The recipes are classics presented with attention to detail and skilful artistry that is masked by what appears like minimalism on the plate. The result is a dining experience with flavours primarily from Quebec delivered in a steady outpour of Vachon’s well-balanced, delectable cuisine.
“You don’t need 13 things in a dish. You pick one item and make the most of it, keeping it simple,” Vachon says of his culinary approach. “When you do that and do it right, you don’t need to throw in a bunch of salt or to sous-vide everything. You let the ingredient stand out on its own.”
Keeping it simple is far easier when you have Vachon’s talent and experience. He arrived with intention in North Hatley, one of the 15 main municipalities in the Eastern Townships, a 12,000-square-foot playground of lakes, natural parks, ski hills, and manmade charms, such as Manoir Hovey. Despite working most of his career in Quebec, Vachon knew little about the area that is near the United States border and between Montreal and Quebec City. He previously worked at Restaurant Boulud in Montreal, as well as properties in Europe, before applying for the chef de cuisine role at Manoir Hovey. The property underwent an extensive search for a replacement, calling in chefs from multiple countries, including one who had more than eight other Relais & Chateaux kitchens on his resume. General manager Jason Stafford said the property chose Vachon, the youngest candidate interviewed, for the most important reason why you would select a chef: “He had the best tasting.”
Stafford, a third-generation hotelier whose family bought Manoir Hovey in 1979 and lifted it to Relais & Chateaux status in 1988, said the decision was unanimous. “There was six of us at the tasting and we all agreed. Alexandre’s tasting was the best.”
A version of the dish that most impressed Stafford remains on the menu. It is a large raviolo stuffed with a duck egg’s yolk and served on a foamy cloud with touches of truffle. After cutting into the pasta, the yolk spills out like treasure and coats the dish before it lacquers your tongue with savoury goodness. The duck eggs now come from a local farm that Vachon began using as a supplier in late 2019, underscoring another key element the chef emphasizes.
“I want to bring the local community in as much as possible,” says Vachon, whose sensibilities for regional flavours and environmental practices is very much in step with his generation. “You have to do that to get the taste of the region.”
Fortunately for Vachon, the Eastern Townships is filled with culinary finds, as he continues to discover. On a visit to a pioneering cheese factory, Fromagerie La Station, Vachon learned the family-owned enterprise has created a parmesan that it has yet to release for sale. Vachon immediately negotiated to purchase a 20-kilogram wheel that will replace the imported Italian parmesan he had been using. The find thrills him as it might a sculptor who comes across an exquisite piece of marble that brings life closer to perfection.
“This is what I want. To be as local as possible,” he says. “It’s important.”
Vachon has recently found a Wagyu producer near North Hatley and plans to add the coveted beef to Manoir Hovey’s pub, Le Tap Room, some time in 2020. When he goes outside the region it is to bring in unique products that fit with his ethic of showcasing distinctly Quebec and Canadian flavours. For example, turbot fillet is sourced from Inuit suppliers from Nunavut’s Baffin Island. The turbot is served with a mushroom consommé and matched with a Viognier from France in a pairing that blossoms with flavour and earthiness.
Vachon, who is in his mid-30s, looks to Jason Bangerter at Langdon Hall — Canada’s leading Relais & Chateaux property — for both inspiration and direction. In 2019, he was a guest chef at the southern Ontario property and was impacted by the operations. Bangerter has managed to foster a dedicated, cohesive brigade in a country setting an hour’s drive from Toronto. Bangerter’s setting is similar to Vachon’s. Manoir Hovey is 90 minutes from Montreal and it has a rich variety of farmers and small artisan producers in its vicinity. During his visit to Langdon Hall, Vachon says he realized the broad possibilities of what he can achieve at Manoir Hovey.
“I want to make my mark,” he says earnestly. “I want to build something here. I know it will take time, but we’re already doing it and it’s going to get better.”
Part of that steady progress means continuing to learn from mentors. Executive chef Roland Menard, who has been at Manoir Hovey for more than three decades, oversees the large group and catering program while also being a guiding hand when Vachon needs it. Meanwhile, Bangerter and Vachon have maintained their connection, with the former scheduled to venture to Quebec in March for a collaborative dinner at Manoir Hovey’s flagship restaurant, Le Hatley.
Manoir Hovey has for years been recognized as a star among Quebeckers and Americans in the states bordering the province. Now, with a chef keen to champion flavours both classic and local, it is poised for newfound acclaim and recognition from travellers farther afield.
MORE ABOUT VISITING MANOIR HOVEY
Location: 575 Rue Hovey, North Hatley, Quebec (see map below)
Nightly Rates: A weekend night in March starts at $226 for a standard room, according to the property’s booking engine. For an additional $241 ($467 total), dinner and breakfast for two can be added to the one-night rate. Check the Manoir Hovey website for additional options and room rates.
Menu Prices: The eight-course Discovery Menu costs $139 (add $70 for wine pairing). The a-la-carte menu’s entrees range from $22-$45 each.
Special Event: Langdon Hall’s Jason Bangerter will be a guest chef on March 21 as Manoir Hovey kicks off spring with the launch of its maple-focused menu. Bangerter and Manoir Hovey chef de cuisine Alexandre Vachon will collaborate on an eight-course dinner menu. The cost is $75 for guests of the resort ($150 for non-guests) with an $80 wine-pairing supplement. More details can be found here.