There’s one place a food network fan has to go when visiting Montreal; Garde Manger. The charismatic Chuck Hughes heads up this trendy yet rustic eatery in Old Montreal. Sampling the Iron Chef winning lobster poutine would be on the bucket list of any food porn junkie.
We had dinner reservations elsewhere but decided to hit it up early for an appetizer or two including, of course, the aforementioned iconic dish. Somewhat hesitant to drop in on a Friday with 4 people, I prayed to Julia Child (who in my opinion should be on the list for sainthood) and walked in. In a squeaky yet deflated voice I explored the possibility of a table. Without hesitation, the waitress (who in the food porn world would be a dominatrix) pointed to four seats at the bar right by the front door and kindly but firmly said “Sit here but you have to be out by 7”.
One of my first observations was the limited booze list. Sure, there is no shortage of wine, but the beer and cocktail list is minimal. One of the signatures was the giant caesar ($15) garnished with clams, steak spice and celery. The caesar itself was good, but just good. It was easy drinking but didn’t knock me off the stool.
I’m a big fan of the craft beer movement (which is once again in style). I asked the bartender about local brews and she suggested the bierbrier ale from Montreal. I thoroughly enjoyed this beer. It had a traditional ale flavour and was neither too intense nor too weak.
Given the time constraints, the menu choices were a bit limited. Anything we suggested that fell outside our allotted time was politely shot down by Madame Caesarmaker at the bar. As mentioned, the lobster poutine was a must and available within our time limit. Interestingly enough, it was the only menu available in three sizes and the only item without a price listed. We took the “go big or go home” mentality and ordered the large and hoped that the credit card wouldn’t get declined when we left (it was a close call at $45). Was it worth $45? No. Was it worth $45 to tell random food geeks and friends and family that you tried the dish that brought down Bobby Flay? Absolutely. The fries swam with abundant lobster and cheese curds in a gravy with a good balanced flavour.
Don’t ask me why, but I love creamed corn. It’s one of those comfort foods I crave regularly so I was pleased to see it as part of a clam, speck and jalapeno dish (I think it was $12). This one was magic, a symphony of land and sea and sweet and spice. The speck added just enough salt and texture to round out the starter.
My buddy ordered the lentil and goat cheese bruschetta with sausage ($16). I only had a few bites due to my dislike for goat cheese. The lentils were done well and the sausage had a pleasant taste. All in all, it was a complex blend of flavours that could have as easily been thrown in a bowl with a spoon and called a good soup or stew.
Eating Chuck Hughes’ lobster poutine was on my bucket list. So was meeting him. I’m not sure how often he actually cooks at his own restaurant (unless it’s his day off of course) so I wasn’t surprised he wasn’t there. Then a funny thing happened. Less than a week later I got an email from the gastropost people (it’s a feature in the national post showcasing home cooks by issuing challenges and published results) inviting me to meet Chuck Hughes in Toronto if was one of the first 20 people to respond. I quickly hit reply and made the cut. He was in Toronto to promote the culinary showdown to raise money for Breast Cancer research. It was a catered event at a swanky house in north Toronto. I showed up, mingled with fellow gastroposters, got in line and met Chuck in person. Yes, I’m a dork.
As for Garde Manger, it is an experience. I’m not surprised that reviews are often so polar. It all hinges on when you go, where you are seated, who serves you and how high your expectations are going in. The fact that I went before the dinner rush, was seated at a cool spot along the bar, was served by Lady Bierbrier and was intent on stroking “Ate Chuck Hughes’ lobster poutine” off my bucket list, I can’t complain. That and it likely beats a visit to New Jersey to dine at Bobby’s Burger Palace.
I decided to test my luck by trying out for the Masterchef open casting a little while back. I watch the US show and often wondered what it would be like to stand face to face with Joe Bastianich and watch his blood boil after I called him a mama’s boy and prepared for a cast iron pan to the side of the head (or at least a good tongue lashing and that ridiculous stare). I also dreamed of witnessing Graham Elliot piercing a perfectly cooked poached egg yolk from up close and watch him savour the flavour while staring intently toward the roof as he chewed. Finally, I wanted to hear Gordon Ramsay up close, referring to everything as the most delicious, freshest (insert food name here) and explain and maybe demonstrate the appropriate means of cooking such food.
On the other hand, let’s be real. The odds that any of these judges do more than make a guest appearance are astronomical. Instead, I anticipate Canadian contestants will be dealt one of the half dozen celebrity chefs which grace the airways (that of course depends on whether Bell’s CTV and the Shaw’s Food Network Canada can play nice in the kitchen). Might we see the likes of Mark McEwen, Lynn Crawford, Chuck Hughes or Anna Olson? Or may we see a new crop of judges, possibly chosen with the same rigor and cookie-cutter approach as the contestants themselves.
One option was sending in an application with a video in advance; the other was just showing up, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best. I put my cinematographic hat on and planned to film myself caressing grape leaves in my back yard in my best seductive voice while explaining how to stuff and serve them. Instead, I ran out of time and just decided to show up on day 2 and roll the die. I decided on street food, choosing to make my Poppin’ shrimp tacos in hopes of showing my knowledge of food trends coupled with some pretty standard culinary skills (I’m planning to post the recipe to my Veg..Eat..Ales blog shorty). I spent a number of hours refining everything from the taco shells to the corn pop coated shrimp to the sauces which would slathered on top of the finished dish.
I live 2 hours away from the tryouts, so I arranged to stay at a buddy’s place, figuring I could awake at the crack of dawn and compile a winning dish with plenty of time. The night before I hunted Kensington and Chinatown for an Ontario grown cabbage and fresh shrimp. With the mission accomplished, I grabbed a quick bite at Valdez (review later), got back and crashed, setting the alarm for 4 am, giving myself plenty of time to prep in time for the 7am start.
Different shrimp, different pans and a different stove makes for a different product. I burnt my first four shrimp in seconds. I’m sure I impressed my buddy’s floor mates as I filled his apartment with smoke at 430 am. I eventually figured it out and produced 4 pretty decent looking shrimp. I made the tortillas, fried them and stored them in paper towels to keep moist, mixed the jalapeno lime slaw, packed it all into my cooler and walked over to the open casting a few blocks away. The dish had to be served at room temperature many hours later, so I hoped each component would maintain its integrity. I opted for three small tacos as opposed to a single large one in an effort to showcase the three different sauces I prepared as well as the fact that I made my own tortilla shells from scratch.
I arrived at about 635. Once in line, I received my green wristband marked #43. Shortly after, the line grew longer and I was confident that I would have my turn prior to dusk. I waited patiently and we were soon greeted by the staff to be happy when the cameras came by. Some of us were even given signs like “I want to spoon with Gordon” to rouse the cheers.
Eventually, I was whisked into the hotel and followed a tedious process to get registered, sign my life away and get my mugshot taken. I went from number 43 on a wristband to H6 on a blue sheet and was sent into a holding room with about 100 others to await my fate. The cast of characters ranged from 18 year old aspiring chefs to a guy who look in his 60’s wearing a blue blazer and red converse shoes. At first, most of us held their coolers like they were live organs, unwilling to share any trade secrets (although our food was already prepared) As we warmed up to each other (unlike the food which had to be served at room temperature), we started to divulge stories about ourselves and our dishes. It was surreal. For example, there was:
a stoic, retired RCMP officer who started saying next to nothing, told us countless stories about the police force before, in a authoritative voice, disclosing that he had made blueberry lavender butter tarts as his signature dish.
A self proclaimed bitchy mom who actually became a bitchy mom when everybody started calling her Krissy.
A guy in a lobster shirt who served…..pork tortillas.
A woman who, after realizing the wait was going to be a lot longer than she expected, left only to return 10 minutes later with a fully loaded hot dog from a cart outside the hotel which she proceeded to eat in street meat fashion in front of a hundred, cranky and hungry onlookers.
When your group is finally called you enter what feels likes a steam room and set up your station. By luck of the draw, I was front and centre in row 1. Forty-seven other contestants set up in the same way. The rules were simple. Once the clock started, you had three minutes to plate. So, I mixed the slaw, threw down the shells…two minutes… filled them , topped with shrimp and…..one minute remaining began the final garnish. Before I knew it, the familiar shout of “hands up” filled the room and I was unable to top my tacos with chopped cilantro. Regardless, I was pleased with the dish and got prepared for the judges. After judging we were allowed to snap pictures although all I had was my low resolution blackberry camera.
The aforementioned blue sheet had my number on one side and the scoring system on the other. Essentially, contestants are judged on taste, appearance, creativity, food knowledge and quality of ingredients. In addition, there was room for judges to add comments about personal stories and aspirations of each of the contestants. The main food judges were the executive producers of Masterchef USA. Other judges included a number involved in the Canadian production. Since I was at the first table, the judges got to me soon. She confirmed my use of homemade tortillas, cut my shrimp to check if it was cooked and asked me if I used three different sauces. I boasted yes, yes and yes. The second judge asked me about the shrimp and I told her about my corn pop coating. She said it sounded that something David Chang would do. That comment alone was like scoring a birdie during a shitty round of golf…anything else didn’t matter.
So, after an extensive judging period in which not a single judge tasted anything I made, deliberations began. It was like waiting for a court decision. My row speculated that the longer it took, the more likely we were to go through. In the meantime, we wandered around the room and admired each other’s dishes. There was chocolate ravioli, ceviches, tartares, a whole pork roast with three sauces, gluten free cupcakes, ribs and all sorts of other things. After about 30 minutes, they returned and instructed us to either return to the holding room for further interviews if we made it or take the walk of shame out the front door and back to the mundane life of cooking without fanfare and pressure if we didn’t.
In the end, I was dismissed. I think the most frustrating part was not having any idea why. Was it my boring story about cooking in a way that will appeal to my kids? Was it the fact I opted for street food as opposed to something more refined? Whatever it was, it wasn’t the taste because..well….they didn’t taste it.
I’m looking forward to the show which should air in January, hoping I recognize a few of the finalists. Although I won’t be one of them, I can tell those around me that I would have made it if my hair was blue , if they actually tasted my food or if I made something more refined (as they smile at you while thinking in their heads.. “You must have been really bad because I can’t believe that schmuck went further than you did). In the end, it was a fun experience and I can honesty say there are no sour grapes, although I may use them should I choose to try out next year. Roasted venison with a sour grape reduction on a bed of quinoa and woodland mushrooms…I like the sound of that.