Québec's rich culinary heritage is one of Chef Guillaume Cantin's main focal points as a chef at this point in his career. He says he wants to bring people's attention to culinary traditions and products that have been forgotten through the dishes that he creates. He combines this focus with modern culinary technique and a creative flair.
Canadian Chefs: Chef Guillaume Cantin, Montréal
Chef Guillaume Cantin showcases local and traditional Québec products at Les 400 Coups in Montréal.
Chef Guillaume Cantin
1. What is interesting to you as a chef right now?
I'm trying to gain more knowledge about our culinary history here in Québec. A lot of people are doing modern things and that's okay, I like modern technique but at the base I'm interested in what was happening in Québec in the past. I think people don't know what we were cooking here two hundred years ago. I'm working on this with a historian. His name is Michel Lambert. This man worked for thirty years writing five books about Québec's culinary history. As I've been going through these books there's so much information. People here think we don't have any history but there were a lot of different ethnic groups coming in and there's so many things to know. I'm really interested in that so right now I'm working around that. Right now I think my identity as a chef is moving in that direction.
2. How have the experiences you've had cooking shaped you as a chef?
I did a lot of competitions at the beginning of my career because doing competitions when you're young, you learn a lot and you meet lots of people and make contacts. I did that lot in my first five years cooking, worked really hard and did all the hours. I'm still doing that. I've been to Germany, Norway and Australia. When I was in Australia it was really difficult for me. It wasn't working well and it was really, really hard on me. Right now all those of experiences make me stronger for the next test.
I also worked in several good restaurants in Québec but I think traveling alone almost all the time made a difference. When you're alone, there's no one to look out for you so if there's a problem you're by yourself. When I'm working now and there's some problem, I don't panic. I'm not saying I'm over everything but I'm able to go through it and be a chef, I'm able to be calm and not stress about the things going on around me.
3. Talk about your approach to food and cooking now.
I'm trying to work with Québec products and some from Vermont and Maine as well as from the Maritimes. This is my first chef position so I have an idea of what I want to do but I have to think about reality because it's also a business. Step by step I'm changing some of the products here because I don't want to use things that are coming from the other side of the world. I'm trying to get to away from that but it's not 100 percent yet if I'm honest. I'm also trying to use Quebec products that people don't tend to know. I'm trying to work with products here that people don't see every day or they were here historically but people forgot about using them.
Larded liver paté, tarragon puree, maple syrup jelly and pear
4. What is your view on local food?
At some point when you're a chef you educate the customers that are coming to your restaurant. Some people don't know about the things you're serving. Yes it's a business but it's also like I'm inviting people into my home. I want to do what I think reflects me. I want to reflect what's coming from the markets here and I want people to see new products that come from here. I want people to understand the meaning of their history. It's a way of thinking and I want people to understand that which is why I'm trying to work with more local food.
5. How do you build your connections with local suppliers?
Some of them have never worked with restaurants before. They have only sold their products in a tiny region. I just talked with a new fish guy. He'd never worked with a restaurant before. Right now the Arctic char I'm getting from him is in rigor mortis. When I receive a fish and it's like that it means the fish is really, really fresh. I've never seen that in Québec before so I'm trying to work with people like him. His product is nice but I need to work out the logistics about the transport and everything. There's a lot of phone calls and a lot of work but it's going to make us different in the end. I've only been here for three months so it might take one or two years to build connections. I'm going to change things item by item and by the end I will get better products and good relationships with producers.
6. Walk me through your creative process from your idea sources to how you put those ideas on the plate?
I've been taking notes since I started cooking. I've been working in kitchens for more than ten years. It was always a real fight for me to take notes about what I was thinking and what flavours went well together because it was never expected. I have hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes about my ideas that are classified alphabetically. It's really organized and it took me a long time to do that. I'm always adding stuff so there's a lot of ideas already there but they aren't ready to go. Sometimes there's an idea that was missing an ingredient or a way of thinking. I'll see a new product or taste something different and I'll go back to that idea.
Sometimes I'll read a book about culinary history in Québec and get a new idea. After I get that idea, I write it down and if its missing something or I need to work with it, I write everything I'm thinking down and keep an open mind about it. I leave it for one or two days and get back to it. I start thinking of it again and doing some research, going through the ideas and keeping what I think is best. I might do some tests but still keep an open mind. I taste it with the employees too. It's very important to get some feedback because sometimes you're in your own brain and you forget some of the details of the dish.
Sometimes you need to be able to step back and say, "Ah yes! The idea for the garnish was fine but maybe the way we were working with it wasn't right." You need to stay open minded to go back and change things if they aren't working well.
Beef tartare, romaine lettuce, carrots, caraway, rye bread
7. What are the qualities that you think make up a good chef?
I think being a chef doesn't just mean that you're a good cook, it means that you're really, really organized. I know a lot of chefs who are not and I think to be a chef the way I want to be, I have to be organized about all the things going on in a day. There's so many phone calls to make and so much going on that I keep a list of what I have to do. I don't have to think too much about it, I just have to do my list. At the same time. I think it's also about communication. You need to be really clear because you're giving the business direction in the kitchen. If you're not there enough, if you don't talk enough with your cooks they're going to be lost.
Sometimes with the old mentality, it was just about shouting at the employees and giving orders. Its not the way I think a chef needs to be. If you select the right employees and people are professional, you don't have to yell, you just have to be there and have good communication and be organized. You need them to work with you, not under you.
8. What makes up a good kitchen team?
I think its really important to have a girl on your kitchen team because if it's just boys, it's different. There's more boys in the kitchen than girls but I think its good to have at least one girl in the kitchen.
You need people who are really professional and who are there to do the job and they love what they're doing. They also need to know how to take advantage of that passion. They need not to calculate the time that's passing in the kitchen because if you're thinking about that, it isn't the right career for you.
I think team spirit is about working all together. We have a family-style staff meal all together at 5:00 p.m. before the 5:30 p.m. service. Everybody gets together and I think the team spirit is better with that. It's about taking care of the people that are working with us.
8. How do you stay fresh and inspired as a chef?
I'm open minded about what my cooks are thinking. I'm still learning. I'm not God, I'm just a good cook who was lucky to get a chef's position. I'm still open to all the ideas my cooks have. I don't like to copy and paste but I do like to be inspired by my cooks. I'm always reading books and flipping pages to get ideas. The inspiration is also about meeting new producers and going to the market almost every day because I'm five minutes walking distance from it. It's really important for me to have a relationship with people there because they'll show me products they only have that day. I think all these things together are keeping me inspired.
Apple three ways, cranberry, hazelnut, cilantro (by Les 400 Coups pastry chef Bryan Verstraten)
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