IN ANY CONVERSATION WITH THE FOUNDERS OF RESTAURANT TOQUÉ!, IT DOES NOT TAKE LONG BEFORE CHRISTINE LAMARCHE AND NORMAND LAPRISE ARE PASSIONATELY DISCUSSING THE RICH VARIETY OF MADE-IN-QUEBEC FOOD AND PRODUCE.
They had different career paths and interests, but fate brought the two chefs together. After earning a bachelor’s degree in geography and then studying at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ), Lamarche was looking for a restaurant to do her field placement. She ended up at Citrus, a restaurant run by a young chef named Normand Laprise. When Citrus closed several years later, the two chefs went into business together, in part because they shared the same values. Restaurant Toqué! (a play on the word for chef’s hat—toque—and a slang word—toqué—meaning crazy) opened on rue Saint-Denis in 1993.
The name was apt, because these two committed individuals are indeed mad about made-in-Quebec food and produce. “We share a passion for knowing where products come from,” explains Laprise. Although Lamarche was lucky enough to grow up with an epicurean mother who knew about wild mushrooms and plants, Laprise learned about our food culture by observing daily life on the farm where he spent part of his childhood.
This type of firsthand knowledge of products and their origins is perhaps the genesis of what can now be called Quebec gastronomy. For many years, Quebec cooking was simply a means of survival, and then borrowing from other cuisines perhaps overshadowed our roots. “I think cuisine should be site-specific. We had a tendency to compare ourselves to Europe, which has over 2000 years of history,” notes Laprise. “Now, I think we are more aware. When I worked in France, before running the kitchen at Citrus, I learned the importance of the food system and getting to know the local producers, gatherers and fishermen. We do not have to do what is done elsewhere. Take, for example, the Lower St. Lawrence wild rose, sea buckthorn, and morelle de balbis, also known as litchi tomato, which has rose-like thorns. Back in the day, these small fruits protected gardens from moose and deer. They were hard to harvest and used to take much longer to prepare. I think it is terrific that we are rediscovering these plants.”
“We often forget this, but Quebec has an incredible variety of local produce,” adds Lamarche. “We notice it when we host guest chefs. They are amazed when they tour our kitchens and we talk about our products and producers. Because we live here, I think we sometimes forget about the seasonal nature of food! There are times when certain foods are unavailable, but that simply spurs us to cook differently, to think about making preserves.” Laprise adds, “Today, we realise that this is a very smart way of doing things. Why order cauliflower from somewhere else? At Toqué!, we preserve many vegetables, including artichokes and white asparagus. During the summer, little chanterelles are served fresh, while in the winter, they are marinated. I think that Quebec’s image is associated with this idea of resourcefulness.”
Christine Lamarche and Normand Laprise have certainly shown plenty of resourcefulness over the years! They have found producers who provide high-quality products, sometimes encouraging them to plant new varieties. “The traceability of each product we serve to our clients is of utmost importance in ensuring quality. By traceability, I mean the producer’s name, the farm’s name or the fishing date. I’d like the retail sector to start doing the same thing,” says Laprise.
While their efforts have enabled them to build up their own reputations, they have also helped conscientious small producers make a name for themselves. This valuebased approach has led Lamarche and Laprise to extend their network, adapting French chef Paul Bocuse’s method to Quebec. Soon, thanks to the opening of a second Brasserie T location and a new restaurant, Beau Mont, which has a grocery counter, they will be able to offer quality products from their producers to a wider clientele. “Christine and I share the same convictions, the same philosophy concerning access to the products. For us, the Brasserie T bistros offer another way to make Toqué! accessible to more people,” explains Laprise.
If the richness of Quebec’s regional offerings is obvious in the eyes of Lamarche and Laprise, the latter believes we can still learn from our neighbours. The chef points to the example of French wines and cheeses, which are identified by region. Roquefort, Brie de Meaux, and the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux are the best ambassadors of French cuisine and culture, whether one is in New York City or Hong Kong. “The development of Quebec cheeses has been impressive; ours are just as good and sometimes better than those produced in France. We give them cute names, but maybe we should be identifying them by region!” However, there is no cause for despair; things are moving quickly in the field of Quebec agriculture. Lamarche recalls how some producers have decided to create an association to farm a particular variety of corn that is now certified for a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)—Neuville sweet corn, a perfect example of how to build our regional specialties.
When Lamarche and Laprise started their restaurant, they thought of Quebec products and Quebec people. “It’s important to remember that we are part of a long chain that starts with the producer, goes through the restauranteur, and then ends with the client,” notes Laprise. What kind of legacy would they like to leave future generations? Pride in Quebec output, of course, some expertise, but also the idea that cuisine is in a state of perpetual renewal. Although cooking may be an art, it is also a craft in the truest sense of the term, a pleasure for the senses that is consumed all too quickly. Finally, it is key to remember that both our history and our culture are expressed in our cuisine!