Over the past four years I’ve learned to appreciate the finer aspects of the world of food, mainly the benefit of eating in restaurants with chefs who create dishes using local ingredients, when they are season. It’s about freshness, flavour, and experimenting with food. And as a girl who likes to experiment and play around in my kitchen at home, it’s a mode of thinking that I can get behind.
Canada is going through a food revolution, with talented young chefs popping up who are pushing past the boundaries of conventional food, and creating dishes that are fresh, unique in flavour, texture, and composition. It’s an exciting time for chefs, and food-lovers. And I’m lucky enough to live in a city that has several chefs with this foodosophy (yes, I just made up that word, and I’m keeping it!). Chefs like Mathieu Brisson from Le Clocher Penché.
A contemporary bistro in Nuovo Saint-Roch, Le Clocher Penché started 15 years ago as a café, serving croissants and a couple sandwiches.
“We started with serving café, croissant, and sandwiches, and slowly we started adding dishes, one at a time and slowly building into a restaurant. It developed as fast as the area changed, so it took some time”.
At the time Saint-Roch was rough around the edges, however over the last few years the neighbourhood has been transformed into a trendy neighbourhood featuring cafés, bistros, boutiques, and is now the ‘hip’ place to hang-out in Québec.
Beginning his sixth year as a chef, and the fourth year as co-owner, Chef Mathieu Brisson has worked in Toque! in Montréal, and spent time in France, and Australia, before settling into his role at Le Clocher Penché.
“Is is easy to stay inspired?”, I asked Chef Brisson, “In the beginning it was terrible. It took me about two years to learn how to work with this kitchen, and the same thing with the food, because I came from gastro and when I arrived here I was trying too much to be like a gastro. Then I realised here is a different style, it’s more about using all your ideas to build a bistro. That’s when I started to realise … I want [the food] to look very nice, very beautiful, but more simple. It’s very generous but refined.
Here the kitchen is very small, but we also have a kitchen downstairs, and across the street, we have a hidden kitchen as well. Because of the structure of the kitchens, it gives me a lot to think about. If my kitchen was perfect it would be very boring because I would be too confused. [The kitchens] keeps us very creative because a dish can start in the basement, then goes up to the finished upstairs. It’s not like you think ‘Oh, I’m going to do a dish’, it’s like ‘Oh, I have to make this dish like that’. Sometimes you create very fun things that keep me very out of my shoes. Always on my toes.”
In Chef Brisson’s kitchen, the focus is on the ingredients, and the menu changes a lot depending on what is available from local producers. In summer, the menu will change daily, but for now, the lunch menu generally changes every two weeks, while the dinner and brunch menus change a dish or two at a time.
Simple. Flavourful. Refined. Generous portions.
Le Clocher Penché has always served generous portions, and Chef Mathieu Brisson has no intention of changing that.
“Here, it is important that our prices are competitive. For me it’s not oh I gotta buy beef chops and I got to sell for $70 for 2 people. I always try to be affordable. I have a price range, and I don’t go out of that price range. I won’t just buy, I want to stay in my price range. It’s important for me. That is why I buy whole beef and that’s what makes the fun of it for the customer and for me.”
When asked about his favourite thing about being a chef, Chef Mathieu laughs, “Always working? It’s great because I have total freedom. I can order whatever I want, do whatever I want. I try anything I want. The great thing is that I’ve done lunch, so now I go into the kitchen and the guys are going to work, and I’m going to help them and make sure everything is fine, and then I’m going to try different things, test new dishes and play around. That is the coolest thing. I do a lot of experimenting in the afternoon” [his favourite cookbook is Ripaille by Stephane Reynaud]
This is when I think I could be a chef, for about five minutes, then I remember that there is more to being a chef than playing in a kitchen.
It’s hard work.
“In the beginning I was always here, in the last six months I have started to slow down a bit, I started feeling a little tired. I want to keep my mind good. My team is doing very well. When everything is good, enjoy it because one day all these guys will leave and I’ll have to start doing it all over again.”
If one wants to be successful, one need to be both skilled, and passionate. And while school is a good step, learning from experienced chefs (who are passionate about mentoring) in a real-time environment is even more valuable.
“I work with the guys. My teams loves it because they learn a lot. I show them. My fun right now is more to show my cooks, than to do. They are learning. That is what they want and why they stay here. I always hire guys that are just out of school. They come here for stash and I hire them, and they stay with me for 2-3 years, then they leave to cook somewhere else, but I always try to show them as much as I can.”
And when Chef Brisson’s team members move on to new kitchens, they will take the skills he taught them, and continue to hone them, and perhaps run their own kitchen further down the road – and hopefully inspire another generation of chefs.
This is what makes chefs like Mathieu Brisson, and restaurants like Le Clocher Penché high on my foodie lists. It’s about passion and creativity, not just with the food, but in all aspects of the restaurant. It elevates the dining experience, and eating goes from being a chore (I often forget to eat, or can’t be bothered), to being an exciting adventure where one cannot wait to ‘unplug’ from the world, and immerse themselves in the culinary treats placed before them.