Anyone wanting to meet a Canadian culinary icon need look no further than the delightfully unassuming Order of Canada recipient, Normand Laprise. A Relais & Château Grand Chef, Laprise was named Knight of the Order of Quebec in 2009, he made the list of 100 most influential Quebecers, his cookbook, Toqué, published in 2013 won a James Beard Award, and, in 2019, American Express honoured him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
Growing up on a farm on the south shore of Eastern Quebec, Laprise knew what fresh produce was from an early age. He attended culinary schools in Quebec and then in France. Returning to Canada, he honed his craft at several restaurants before he and his business partner, Christine Lamarche, launched Toqué in Montreal. That was in 1993. Toqué instantly became a shrine to a distinctly Québécois cuisine and Laprise developed a reputation as the godfather of locally sourced foods.
In the latest interview in Vacay.ca’s “Chefs Talk” series, Laprise discusses his bond with food suppliers and how travel has influenced his culinary career.
Vacay.ca: In 1993, when everything about haut cuisine came from France, you were cutting edge with your “eat local” philosophy.
Normand Laprise: My training was classic French but I wanted to cook with foods from around here. Even long before local cuisine was à la mode, I wanted to know where the food I ate came from and how the animals were treated and fed. It was the way we lived on the farm. Why would I want to have a California-style restaurant, as someone suggested, when I’m not in California?
Vacay.ca: Throughout your career, you have worked hard, building relationships with local suppliers. Why is this so important to you?
NL: If you know the people that have produced the food and have a question, you can get an answer. That’s not as easy with mass processed foods or if you’re working with a distributor. For me, the food doesn’t have to be organic, but it is important that it is natural. And above all, it is important to preserve the know-how of these individual craftsmen.
Vacay.ca: You spent several years at a restaurant in New York. And you have cooked with celebrity chefs at many famous restaurants. What do you like best about travelling the world to cook?
NL: I have cooked in the U.S., Mexico, all across Europe, and Asia. You go to other countries to show your skills and your food and, at the same time, to learn. On all of these trips, when I’ve finished working, I go out to discover the real local food. That’s my paycheque!
Vacay.ca: You love to travel, right?
NL: Oh, yah, yah, yah! You learn so much. When I was a student, I never dreamed I would have an opportunity to travel like this.
Vacay.ca: You could have made your home anywhere. Yet you chose Montreal. What is it about this city that is special for you?
NL: It’s many things. People originally came here from Britain and France and those cultures are still here today. That’s special. For Quebecers, the kitchen is the heart of the home. Before dinner, they would rather congregate in a kitchen than a living room. It’s also the young cooks that come here to study, the producers and the customers. And Montrealers enjoy good food.
Vacay.ca: What is it about Toqué that brings people back time and again?
NL: I think that people like to be excited by food. They come here to enjoy elegant cooking, interesting flavour combinations, and unique presentations. I like people to discover an explosion of new tastes. Every ingredient should taste as it is supposed to taste. The only flavour I limit is hot, which is capable of overwhelming everything else.
Vacay.ca: Toqué was an extremely successful restaurant in 2010, when you opened Brasserie T!, and indicated your goal to open other venues. What restaurants are part of the Toqué family today?
NL: Brasserie T! was just the beginning. Today there is a Brasserie T! downtown and another on the south shore. We plan for two more, in the north end and in the west end. In 2019, we opened Beau Mont and Burger T!, a burger station at the Time Out Market.
Vacay.ca: What was the thinking behind this range of restaurants?
NL: I like to work directly with farmers. By law, in Quebec, when you buy meat directly, you have to buy the entire animal. At Toqué, we serve only the rack and saddle of lamb, at Beau Mont, the sirloin, at Brasserie T!, merguez [spicy lamb sausage] and the shoulder goes to the lamb burgers at Burger T!
So, we are able to make use of the entire animal and all our restaurants serve quality meat from the same producer. It means we can ensure an increased volume for the small local producers whom we have been supporting since Toqué opened.
Vacay.ca: How would you describe the difference between Toqué, Brasserie T!, Beau Mont, and Burger T!?
NL: Toqué is elegance. Brasserie T! is conviviality. Beau Mont is halfway between the two with a café ambiance at noon and a little more formal in the evening. Burger T! is a takeout burger stand in the Time Out Market. [Read More: Time Out Market Is a Casual Home for Montreal’s Top Chefs]
Vacay.ca:What is it that motivates you?
NL: I work a lot and I love it. I want to keep all this sustainable to keep it going so that my children or my staff can take over when I am done.
Vacay.ca: Will fine dining survive the pandemic?
NL: Downtown, I think it will, but it will be different. For example, at Toqué we are thinking of replacing white tablecloths with beautiful Canadian wood. It would still be upscale but cost less.
Vacay.ca: Do you cook at home?
NL: My wife and I both cook. And one of our daughter cooks with me. When I cook, I keep it simple. I put the dishes in the centre of the table and everyone helps themselves. That’s the best way to be sure everyone gets what they want.
Vacay.ca: When the pandemic is over, where would you like to travel?
NL: Just before the pandemic, we had a family holiday in the Canary Islands. We enjoyed it so much, we want to go back. I love Asia and, for cooking, the next country I want to visit is Vietnam.
Vacay.ca: How would you like to be remembered?
NL: From the beginning, I wanted to create delicious plates that were lighter, brighter and more imaginative. May my journey continue for the people who will always love to eat well.