This Canadian Star Chef Packs Panache

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While I’m a contributor to We Blog the World, the below blog post  is the copyright of the Canadian Tourism Commission.  Please link back and credit all content used to Canada is a Big Place.  You can also check us out on Flickr and @biglaceblog.

The scene was around 6:10 pm on the streets of Quebec. It was muggy, the sun strong, and a lazy energy in the air made it impossible for me to pick up the pace.  (I was sort of wishing at this point that I was sitting on a wooden porch swing, somewhere in the middle-of-nowhere, with a cold glass of Lynchburg Lemonade.)

But I wasn’t.

I was running – late – for a tasting at one of the most celebrated rooms in the country, Panache at the Auberge Saint-Antoine Hotel (Four Diamond rating from CAA-AAA every year since it opened), and the heels of my black stilettos decided to get cozy with the gaps in the cobblestones.  The chef was going to think I was a complete jerk.

Overheated, I finally stumbled into the “past present” hotel, which is famous for housing centurial (and older) artifacts.  Luckily, I was able to get calm and collected very fast, because everything about this place was sophisticated and cool.  The owner of the hotel, Mr. Price, was greeting guests for their weekly “meet-the-guests” drinks on the terrace.  Cool. The stone walls and thick wooden-beams that frame Panache made it a breezy space to be in, and the champagne was chilled.  Super cool.

What was more impressive? Mr. Chef Francois Blais.  Unassuming, handsome and friendly, Blais has been the recipient of numerous coveted culinary awards, including “Chef of the Year” by the Société des Chefs Cuisiniers et Pâtissiers du Québec (2007 & 2008), and the Renaud-Cyr Award for Best Establishment Chef in Quebec City (2008).  He is completely the opposite of what I thought a celebrated and innovative chef of his caliber should be (later I learned that he picked cherries in Osoyoos, BC), and that’s why I decided to sit with the chef, and get his take on cooking, life and Panache.

By the way, the composition of the menu echoed the chef’s personality and the ambience of the room:  Memorable, packed with a sophisticated edge, but lacking in pretense AND filled with warmth. (The buttery bacon-layered potato casserole was stellar!) Still, my favourite part of the evening was the conversation and the good company.  Some highlights of my interview are below.

What does your day look like? It’s starting early with my son.

What do you cook for him? He eats everything I eat, except shellfish.  I bring him everywhere I go, to Vij’s in Vancouver, we went to Whistler to Barefoot Bistro. Then I’m here at work between 10 and 11 everyday.

When did you know you wanted to do this? I was not supposed to do this.  I studied forestry.  It was an accident. I had a ski accident and I used to be a waiter, but I couldn’t do it anymore because I couldn’t walk. So, my friend said, “Why don’t you come in the kitchen to cook the fries and the chicken wings?”  That was my first job in the kitchen.

What’s the favourite part of what you do? Everyone is interested in what we’re doing.

How do you want to be known? You don’t need to be a monster to be a chef.   You don’t need to be a showman or lie.

What’s your favourite food?: Fois Gras, of course and lasagna.

What do you eat for breakfast? Toast with butter and cheese.

What’s the best meal of your life? French Laundry

(Thomas Kellar cooked at Panache last summer for three days and gave him the grey Crocs he wears. They also picked tomatoes at the farmers’ market for almost two hours to make sure they were perfect.)

What’s one of the things you’ll never change on the menu?
Duckling served for two, roasted whole. It’s beautiful.

What are you working on for the future? To put ducks and rabbits on the farm that we have on L’Ile d’Orleans.  Also, we are probably going to buy the truck from Sobo from Tofino, BC, the purple van.  It’s a mobile kitchen.  I think it’s a great idea.

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