Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fou de Kamou, rev. ed.

kamou fig. a:  Kamou view 1

Until this summer, Michelle had never set foot in Kamouraska.  Oh, sure, she'd heard lots about it.  In this part of the world, Kamouraska is a fabled region.  Situated at the point where the salt water of the Atlantic mingles with the freshwater flowing east along the mighty St. Lawrence River ("entre la mer et l'eau douce"), at the beginning of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the largest estuary in the world, and encompassing verdant fields, lush forest, impressive rock formations that shoot out of the landscape, and fantastic views of the river, its marshes, a number of its islands, and the mountainous north shore, Kamouraska is a pretty striking place.

P1030074 fig. b:  Kamou view 2

Michelle felt instantly at home.

country girl fig. c:  Kamou girl

She took to the landscape, and the landscape seemed to agree with her.  And she quickly adopted Kamouraska as a home away from home.

We were only in Kamouraska for a little over two days on that visit, but we had a pretty active couple of days:

kamou style 2

sowing seeds figs. d & e:  sowing seeds

We attended a traditional seed-sowing ceremony, featuring live musical accompaniment and an elaborate fertility ritual, at Patrice Fortier's magical Société des Plantes.

parking de l'anguille

there will be eels

thanks for not touching figs. f, g, & h:  there will be eels

We visited a cultural centre dedicated to eels and eel fishing.  (Eel fishing has been a staple of the local economy for hundreds and hundreds of years, long before the settlers arrived.  Eel was a traditional part of maritime Quebec's diet, but has decreased in popularity over the last several decades, due in part to the misconceptions that surround it.  Still, the eel hunt persists, with most of the catch shipped to either Japan or Europe, but mostly to Japan.)

niemand summer fig. i:  Boulangerie Niemand

We checked out Boulangerie Niemand, perhaps Quebec's very best bakery (and almost certainly its most beautiful), and a real hub for the local community,

côté est fig. j:  côté ouest de Côté Est

as well as Côté Est, right next door, a fine new addition to the local dining scene, with wonderful views on the river, a convivial atmosphere, and a menu that specializes in local delicacies like eel and locally raised salt-marsh lamb, as well as natural wines from Montreal's own La QV.

smoked fish fig. k:  got fish?

We made sure to pick up some smoked eel, sturgeon, and salmon before we skipped town.

auto-stop kamou fig. l:  faire du pouce

And although the idea of hitchhiking from Kamouraska to La Pocatière to visit our friends at Fou du Cochon (the very same ones who'd made the wonderful charcuterie pictured above at Côté Est) held a certain romantic appeal, ultimately we opted for other means of transportation.

fou de cochon fig. m:  golden age

When we got to Fou du Cochon we were blown away by how meticulous an operation it is, but we were especially impressed by the hand-crafted maplewood architecture they'd created to age their vast array of charcuterie, which not only looked beautiful, with its golden hues, its aromas also imparted an additional goût du terroir to their product.

post-kamou feast fig. n:  après Kamou

When we got back home, we celebrated our trip with an après-Kamou feast.  And Michelle immediately started to put the plans together for an Hommage à Kamouraska menu for the fall.


Kamouraska is roughly 400 km away from Montreal along Autoroute 20/the Trans-Canada, but it pays to follow Hwy 132 along the river soon after you pass Quebec City--it's one of my favourite drives in Quebec.

beauty queens fig. o:  beauty queens

If you'd like to experience the flavours of Kamouraska, but you're not in a position to make a trip out to that region anytime soon, you might want to visit Seth & Michelle at Foodlab over the next couple of weeks for their Hommage à Kamouraska menu.  That's right:  it's now fall, and their Kamou menu has gone live.  It features bread from Boulangerie Niemand, charcuterie from Fou du Cochon, smoked fish from Poisonnerie Lauzier, and a truly amazing array of fresh produce from our good friend Patrice at la Société des Plantes.

For an extra special treat, you might want to attend tomorrow night's (November 15) Fou du Beaujo festivities at Foodlab, featuring the entire Hommage à Kamouraska menu, plus some amazing Beaujolais wines from La QV.  If you happen to be in Kamouraska that night, you can attend the tandem Fou du Beaujo event at Côté Est (!).  How's that for inter-regional togetherness?

And if all that wasn't enough, the Hommage à Kamouraska menu features one my favourite Michelle Marek desserts in recent memory:  a phenomenal maple custard with caramelized apples and pecans.

Fou du Beaujo info:

Foodlab, 1201 boulevard St-Laurent, November 15, hours:  5 à 7

Fou de Kamou addresses:

Boulangerie Niemand, 82 avenue Morel, Kamouraska, QC, (418) 492-1236 
Côté Est, 76 avenue Morel, Kamouraska, QC, (418) 308-0739 
Poissonerie Lauzier, 57 avenue Morel, Kamouraska, QC, (418) 492-7988 
Site d'interprétation de l'anguille de Kamouraska, 205 avenue Morel, Kamouraska, QC, (418) 492-3935 
La Société des Plantes, 207 rang de l'Embarras, Kamouraska, QC, (418) 492-2493 
Fou du Cochon et Scie, La Pocatière, QC (available in fine food establishments across the province)

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Return of Generation F, rev. ed.

sign right outside the door fig. a:  peach, Morgan Hill, CA

You may remember our affection and admiration for Adam Leith Gollner's The Fruit Hunters:  A Story of Nature, Obsession, Commerce, and Adventure.  It was a book that easily made our "Best of..." list for 2008, a book that inspired us to interview Mr. Gollner on the subject of fruit and fruit obsession right here in the virtual pages of " endless banquet."

You may have also picked up on our affection and admiration for the work of Yung Chang, the acclaimed director of Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight.

Well, you may be interested to know that Mr. Chang's latest film is premiering this weekend at the Rencontres Internationales de Documentaire de Montréal (RIDM), and it's an adaptation of Mr. Gollner's book called (you guessed it!) The Fruit Hunters.

actions 2 fig. b:  fruit hunters, Los Angeles, CA

If you've read The Fruit Hunters, you'll see that some of the colourful characters that made the book so memorable reappear in the film version, but Chang's film is a fairly liberal adaptation, and he takes the hunt in a number of new directions and introduces us to a whole new cast of fruit obsessives, including Bill Pullman (!) and his gang of Merry Orchardists.

Hollywood Farmers' Market fig. c:  oranges, Los Angeles, CA

Chang's film is also much more graphic and sensual than the typographic version.  The cinematography is quite literally luscious--the sweetness, the complex flavors, and the fragrance of the world's most exotic fruit appears to have infused the very screen, and the experience is nothing if not tantalizing.  You'll feel the urge to satisfy your curiosity.  You might even feel the first pangs of your own fruit obsession.  Chang recommends attending screenings with a bowl of exotic fruit at the ready, and it's good advice, but it might not go over so well with the folks at Excentris or the Cinémathèque.*  However, Chang and his team have ever-so-thoughtfully organized an exotic fruit tasting at the Cinémathèque after the November 10 screening (in the RIDM's food- & drinks-friendly events room), so you'll have a golden opportunity to sate your cravings.

The Fruit Hunters screens on November 10 (16:30) and November 13 (17:30), at Excentris and the Cinémathèque Québécoise, respectively.  For more information, you can consult The Fruit Hunters' webpage on the RIDM site.  And if you're in need of a teaser, you can find the Official Trailer for the film here and the Official Website here.  And if film festivals just aren't your trip, The Fruit Hunters opens in theatres in Montreal and Toronto on November 23.


* I got busted for smuggling an apple juice into Excentris one time.  It was in a sealed bottle, and no spills were involved.  Forget about trying to even bring an apple, let alone a cherimoya.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Baby's Turning One

1st anniversary fig. a:  déja un an!

Foodlab/Labo Culinaire turns one this weekend [!].  With this in mind AEB conducted an exclusive interview with its chefs, Seth Gabrielse and Michelle Marek, at Foodlab, on the third floor of Montreal's Société des arts technologiques.

"A Brief History of Foodlab"

AEB:  First off, is it “Foodlab” or “the Foodlab”?  You know, like “Mile End” or “the Mile End.”

S:  Foodlab.

M:  Definitely just “Foodlab.”

dear Richard fig. b:  Michelle & Seth

AEB:  What was the first thing that ran through your minds when you were approached with this project?

S:  “You’re out to lunch.”  

Seriously.  I thought they were flat-out crazy.

The idea seemed to go against everything I knew about the business.

M:  Plus, there was a very specific notion about how this place would function.

S:  Yeah, they had this concept that involved doing a 5 à 7 every night, then stopping service for the show in the dome, then starting up again to serve food from 9:30 pm to 1:00 am.

AEB:  [laughter]

M:  And it all seemed very pie in the sky.

AEB:  But obviously both of you are here, so there must have been things that enticed you.

S:  More than anything, we were intrigued.

And there was the prospect of complete control over the menu.  It sounded like a rare opportunity.

Plus, there was the vast amounts of travel we’d be doing.

M:  And the massive staff we’d have.

S:  And the research budget.

M:  And the cleaning team.


We didn’t know at the time that we wouldn’t actually get a pizza oven.

S:  At one point we had the idea that we’d be baking bread and that the aroma would be vented out onto the street to entice any passersby.

People would be lured into the lobby and then they’d be overwhelmed by Michelle’s display case of desserts.  [This display case of desserts doesn't exist as of yet.]  When they saw those they’d be totally powerless.  They’d come up the 3 flights of stairs without any hesitation and they'd be ours.

AEB:  How did you settle on the rotating theme approach?

S:  We did one week that was all over the place.  No theme to it at all.  The only constant was that everything was small.

M:  And everything came with a $6 price tag.

S:  Including tax

M:  We knew we needed a direction, but we weren’t ready to decide, we weren’t ready to settle on a fixed menu.  And there’s something about this building, this space, that demands flux.

S:  Plus, the constant change allows us to keep our sanity.

We have something really special here.  There are no restrictions on which direction we take the menu.  We can change the entire menu in a way other restaurants just can’t.

We do these tributes to all these different regions, all these different cuisines, and we’re interested in doing them justice and being true to them, but, at the same time, everything is always our interpretation of these dishes.

Because, you know, Michelle and I aren’t Japanese.  [They ran an izakaya/manga menu last February, around the time of Nuit Blanche.]

AEB:  Really?  Because there’s a rumour going around town...

[dead silence]

foodlab by night fig. c:  Foodlab by night

AEB:  Okay...  Moving right along.  What were some of the crazier themes that you came up with, but ultimately passed on?

S:  Well, when we did our Fou de cochon menu, the idea that was presented to us was that it should have a mud theme.  It should be a mud menu.  Everything should either be brown or have mud involved in the dish.

AEB:  Or both?

S:  Yeah, or both.

M:  One plate was supposed to involve five different shades of brown, including something baked in mud...

We ended up kind of using that idea--we just went the opposite direction with it.  I thought, it’s spring in Montreal, we’re sick of brown.  We’re craving colour.  And that’s what we did for our Homage to Fou de cochon menu--we added colour--and everyone was really happy with it.

AEB:  How about some of the crazier themes you guys came up with?

[Michelle consults her notebook]

M:  Wedding menu theme.  It would be like attending someone else’s wedding.  Someone you didn’t know at all.  There’d be a fixed menu and you’d have to stay the duration, and there’d be a big, elaborate cake.  And a cake ceremony.  And dancing.

“Wartime Europe Under Rations.”  

AEB:  Ooh, that's a catchy one.  Who wouldn't want to relive the pleasures of Turnip Winter?

M:  “Real Cocktail Hour.”  Where the emphasis would be on mixed drinks and the food would only consist of snacks and they wouldn’t be sufficient to soak up all the alcohol.

S:  Is that the week that we take off?

M:  Yeah.

“Sommeliers’ Ball.”  This would be about the dancing.  We’d turn the dome into a ballroom and get some dancing instructors to teach everyone some moves.  It would be on a Monday night and all the sommeliers in town would come and learn to dance while they drink.

S:  “Expo 67.”  

We ended up turning that one into a TV episode.  [For the Les Touilleurs show.]

M:  “Dinner at sea.”

S:  Oh, yeah.  And we talked to Fred [Morin, of Joe Beef fame] about doing a train menu.  We’re still hoping that one actually happens one day.

AEB:  What was the kitchen like when you first started?

 S:  There was no kitchen--there was a folding table.

M:  No, there wasn't even a folding table.  There was a riser that the SAT used for their [music] shows.

S:  There was no running water on the third floor [where Foodlab is located].  You had to go to the first floor to do the dishes, and if you wanted to wash your hands you had to go to the second floor.

We cooked at my house and biked everything in.  And all our equipment came from home.  Most of it is still here.

AEB:  Believe me, I know...

M:  There were no plates and no utensils.

We had two induction burners and during our first week one of our staff broke one of them.  So within a week we’d lost 50% of our cooking power.

S:  We had actual stoves for our first menu, but not for the first couple of events we did.

M:  We pitched the idea of just buying two electric home stoves--$450 for both.  We still have them.  They’re the only stoves we have, and one of them is still going strong

S:  Of course, we can only use four burners at a time between the two of them, otherwise the breaker jumps.  So it makes the logistics of cooking here pretty interesting.

AEB:  Did this situation pose any problems when you hosted Omnivore?

S:  Oh, my god.  Did it ever.

Actually, our ovens were doing great until then.  They really took a beating that weekend.

That Saturday we had thirty people in our kitchen area for most of the day, many of whom weren't necessarily chefs.  It was bedlam.

And the fact that our walk-in fridge is down in the basement caused a lot of headaches.

AEB:  What’s still on the wish list?

M:  A sous-vide machine.  A Hobart mixer.

S:  A blender.  A telephone?

M:  A gas range.  They’re on order right now.  They should arrive tomorrow [!].

AEB:  And what was your staffing situation when you guys got started?

S:  For the first few months, till January, Michelle and I did all the prep, the cooking, the cleaning, and the serving.  Michelle was also responsible for ordering the wine.  In mid-January, Heidi [Gindl, Michelle and Seth's trusted assistant] came on board.

Maude [Rochette, Foodlab's sommelier] got hired just before the summer started and she took over the wine list, the service, and the hiring.  Things have been much smoother since then.

M:  Originally, we inherited a bunch of bar servers who didn’t know anything about serving food.

S:  They were used to running kegs up and down the stairs.  And suddenly they actually had to wear [button-down] shirts, and they had to serve food, and learn a menu.

michelle & theo fig. d:  Foodlab + Oenopole

AEB:  What has been your proudest moment?

M:  During our summer boom, when we were suddenly handling way more customers with exactly the same amount of staff.

Especially that special night we did with Theo [Diamantis, of Oenopole fame]--the kebab night.  That was really crazy-busy, and really magical.

I’ve done stuffy events my whole career, but here we’ve had the opportunity to do these special events that are totally different.  There's a freedom and ease to them that I really love.  And we've gotten to work with some of our favourite people.

And people have responded.

S:  With the help of Theo, we got them to come to an Izmir-style kebab night.  No one had any idea what an Izmir-style kebab was, but people loved it.

theo brings it fig. e:  Theo brings it!

M:  And the Richard Olney night.  There were probably some people who had only the vaguest idea who Olney was, but they turned out, they stayed late, and everybody had a great time.
S:  I've worked in a couple of places that were well-known, well-stocked,  and well-managed and that made it into The New York Times.

But we got a mention in The New York Times in our first year, and that made me pretty proud.

AEB:  What can we expect from you over the course of Year Two?

S:  Gas stoves!  Of course, we have no budget for pans, but that's another story.

AEB:  You'll just have to raid your home kitchens again.

S:  More stuff from home!

M:  A Chinatown menu.  My Chinatown menu.  I can't wait.  All the things that I want to eat when I go to Chinatown.

And more events.  We had this other great idea:  a Masters Dinner.

We'd invite all the old-school chefs in town.  All the chefs that have been working the line for decades.

They all know each other, so it would be a reunion.  It would also be a beautiful night of beautiful technique.
AEB:  Anything else?

S:  The release of our first cookbook.  And the launch of our Food Network show.
M:  And our line of cookware.


AEB:  Thanks, guys.  And congratulations!

Foodlab's First Anniversary Party takes place this Saturday, November 3.

On the menu:  
Oysters:  Thrumpbacks and Sea Angels 
Consommé with bone marrow dumpling 
Seafood terrine 
Beef carpaccio with lemon and watercress 
Carrot, cumin, currant, and cilantro salad 
bar snacks 
cake for all!

Festivities begin at 5pm.  (Makes for a great stop after RASPIPAV 2012.)

Foodlab, 1201 rue St-Laurent, Montreal, QC