Foodie heaven may not be the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of a remote chain of tiny islands deep in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But this is Les Îles de Madeleine, or the Magdalen Islands, a mecca for anyone who longs to take a step back to a tranquil time and place to enjoy fabulous cuisine, particularly seafood. At the forefront of this lively culinary scene, 49-year-old executive chef Hugo Lefrançois helms the kitchen at Hotel Madelinot’s Resto Bistro Accents.
Born on the Magdalen Islands, Lefrançois and his family moved to Montreal when he was five, returning each year for summer vacations, cementing in him a love for the island and its lifestyle. An award-winning chef, he prides himself on being self-taught, gaining experience in the many moves he made early in his career at restaurants in Montreal, and for 18 years in the Eastern Townships, and, for more than 13 years, as chef-owner at La bicoque in Eastman. Five years ago, he returned to the islands to take charge of Resto Bistro Accents, the hotel’s dining room.
He recently chatted with Vacay.ca about his culinary focus and life in Quebec’s seaside playground.
Vacay.ca: Why did you return to the Islands?
Hugo Lefrançois: My cousin bought the Madelinot Hotel in 2017 and asked me to come. She said I was the only one to bring the hotel to the level she wanted. I am proud to be back home where I can put my experience to work. And there’s room for my creativity.
Vacay.ca: Apart from a challenging job, what was special about île de la Madeleine that made you want to return?
HL: As soon as I get to Souris, PEI to take the ferry to the island, and smell the sea breeze, I start breathing again. When I wake up here in the morning, open the sliding door and smell the sea, I feel alive, and all my family memories come flooding back.
Vacay.ca: How did you come to choose cheffing as your career in life?
HL: After school, I started working as a carpenter. When I was 18, I had my first dinner at a fine French restaurant and thought, ‘This is for me.’ I bought my first restaurant when I was 19. It was small, breakfast only. I would work there for the morning, then at another restaurant the rest of the day.
Vacay.ca: Tell us about the dining room at Resto Bistro Accents.
HL: The main dining room seats 80. In addition, we have a large adjacent room to accommodate groups of tourists. To serve between 400 and 500 meals a day, I need a team of 10 cooks. I have hired from the Philippines, Mexico, and France to have enough staff. My mother even comes in to help sometimes.
Vacay.ca: How would you describe your cooking?
HL: Savoury gourmand. I think of myself as a creative cook who loves challenges. I like to surprise guests and for them to have an explosion in the mouth with a variety of small things on the plate. I like to have flavour, acidity and spices blend. Colour is very important to me. I like lots of it on the plate. Everything here is homemade — even the marmalade and raspberry jam at breakfast.
Vacay.ca: You are known here for your signature seal dinner.
HL: When I first tasted seal, it was overcooked like a stew and had a metallic taste that I didn’t like. Then I saw a TV program where the Inuit ate raw seal meat. Voila! Seal tartare, I thought, just like beef. I discovered that anything you do with beef or lamb you can do with seal. I like to serve it rare when it is so tender that it melts in your mouth. I cook more seal than anyone else on the islands.
Vacay.ca: You also have a reputation for cooking scallops to perfection.
HL: Most chefs over-cook scallops, turning them into rubber. I learned how to cook them from my grandmother, Mémé Jo, who is from the islands. I add a little butter to a hot pan and sear the scallops on one side for 30 seconds, then turn off the heat and turn the scallops over for 15 seconds and serve.
Vacay.ca: How closely do you work with local producers?
HL: I have a passion for local products. From May to October, it’s easy and I use as many as possible. We are open all year round and trying to promote local in November is a challenge.
Vacay.ca: Where do you go for inspiration?
HL: I’ve been to Bali and Mexico and I spent two months in Thailand a few years ago. I was inspired by their flavours. I came home and experimented, for example, with honey and Asian spice with calamari, which our guests really enjoy. I am very curious. I love to talk to people about food and share recipes.
Vacay.ca: What’s on your travel bucket list?
HL: I want to go to everywhere, especially Paris, Rome, and South America.
Vacay.ca: New restaurants have opened on the Magdalen Islands in recent years. Has this trend increased the competition?
HL: I am friends with all the chefs and I have eaten at every restaurant on each island. We get together to do fundraising events for the hospital. But at the end of the day, we like to compete. And this has resulted in better dining across the islands. I am pleased that young people have recently opened restaurants here. It makes for good competition.
Vacay.ca: What would you like all Canadians to know about île de la Madeleine?
HL: It’s like a small paradise in summer. Not too hot. The ocean is cold, but stunning and we have the most beautiful beaches. Everyone is very welcoming. It’s the best place to make a party because nearly everyone plays a violin or a guitar.
Vacay.ca: What’s the biggest compliment you have received since returning?
HL: That Resto Bistro Accents is the best place to eat.