I wrote this piece ages ago, but for whatever reason, never published it. After a recent visit with Anne, and Jonathan back in my life quite regularly (saving my ass many a Saturday recently at the restaurant), I figured it was time to post this ‘tribute’ to them before it was too dated. Here's to Anne and my little squirt Jo, two remarkable people who will be in my heart always..
My Mentor and My Apprentice
Two extraordinary people
As much as I yearned for one early on, I don’t feel like I ever really had a mentor in the true sense of the word. But I did cross paths with some terrific people, and I cherry picked, gleaning tidbits here and there. Starting with chefs I crossed as a waitress, to my school teachers, namely M.Oliver, and chefs and co-workers, I hung off their every word and studied them. Early on, I kept my mouth shut (most of the time), I listened and I observed. I also took charge and tried to figure things out on my own. I read a ton of books and cooked at home like crazy, constantly taking on new projects and recipes, teaching myself. I really think I learnt more this way than from any other source. Of course, there is no catalyst like the pressure of a hot, busy kitchen full of egos and deadlines; so on the job training undoubtedly counted most. I never made it to France as a cook, but along my modest journey, there were key people at every twist and turn that taught me something important, marking me: Gilles, Philip and Eve, Christophe, Steve, Clinton and Issa, Dominique, Luc and Maddelena, Benjamin, Phil, Manu, and Anne of course.
Anne Desjardins was the closest thing I had to a mentor in my cooking career. When I started at L’Eau, I was already somewhat of an experienced cook with a style of my own, and opinions of my own. I had already created menus and managed etc., but I was definitely rough around the edges, and still am for that matter. But through my experience with Anne and l’Eau, I really grew and matured. It was the result of having a great platform, freedom and trust, and someone to impress, not to mention a good team to feed off. Anne was someone who was accomplished, whom I admired and respected, who could stimulate me and also bring me back to planet earth with a simple look or comment. She had been going for 20 odd years, she was smart, had impeccable taste and we shared a common sense of what good food was. There was a connection; I found it easy to relate to her, to understand what she wanted, we liked many of the same things. I didn’t have to compromise my own ways to carry out her agenda; au contraire, she elevated me. I could finish her thoughts, and she mine; brainstorming with her was invigorating. It was challenging and satisfying, surely because she was generous enough to let me participate, to allow me to be her muse. I never forget how lucky I was to benefit from all her hard work, in working under her name, to have the resources she had gathered, to operate in a bountiful system of regional cuisine she helped develop.
Along with others like Normand Laprise and Daniel Vezina, she was one of the pioneers of Quebec fine cuisine as we know it. In that sense, she was a mentor to many a Quebec cook indirectly, not just me. The New York Times once coined her Quebec ’s Julia Child, she has been awarded the honour of the Order of Quebec for her contribution to Quebec culture. The abundance of quality local products we have access to now is a direct result of their efforts to forge direct relationships with farmers and encourage local artisans. They were also the first wave of home-grown chefs to cook in a creative, proud and modern way, breaking from the tradition of French chefs cooking French classics using imported ingredients. Initially autodidactic, she opened her country bistro with modest aspirations, but was quickly propelled into the world of haute cuisine with her talent and drive. She went on to add the adjoining hotel, travelled to Europe on stages off season, and the accolades and awards came streaming in. L’Eau à la Bouche became one of the first Relais et Chateaux in Canada , and has been a Quebec dining destination since.
Anne is the true model of a passionate chef, a hard worker and an original thinker. She is strong and level headed, generous and fair, and involved in the community. She is curious and courageous, whimsical and creative, but utterly down to earth, and a lover of nature. She has a fine palette, but appreciates the simplest of things. It is the quality of the product, an artisanal perfectly aged cheese, a fresh piece of fish or a perfectly ripe tomato that makes her tick.
It is this appreciation of the product in general, the reverence of quality and freshness, that was her main gift to me. It made me change focus, realizing that the actual cooking and our skills were secondary. Since then, I have tended towards less manipulation, or at least not manipulation for the sake of being fancy or technical. Her pride and devotion towards Quebec regional ingredients is another thing that marked me. Inspired by Alice Waters and co., I was drawn to L’Eau and Anne for that very reason. But once I was actually there, seeing where my food came from, dealing with the farmers, listening to their stories and tasting all this stuff, marvelling at the local harvest of baby vegetables and heirloom varieties, the wild greens and mushrooms, the revelation of it all swept me to a new place as a cook. It went beyond idealism, it slowly became my religion. At first, it was all about freshness - local meant fresh, a small production meant quality control. Soon after though, it came to make so much more sense to me on so many levels. For the sense of community and civic pride, for traceability, for the environment, for a smaller footprint; I was off on this vein in a sprint, it was the only way I wanted to cook ever again.
As you can see, I highly admire and respect Anne for who she is, for what she has done, and am grateful for my time with her at l’Eau. Anne has become even more than a mentor to me, I consider her a friend, a sister and a cohort. I am quite sure that she will hate all this tribute-like saccharine discourse, but what the hell, I wanted you to know. I hope you liked meeting Anne if you don’t already know her, and I raise my glass to her.
You can see Anne on her weekly Tv clip on Par dessus le Marché on TVA, also this summer on Pour le Plaisir on Radio Canada TV, or visit the restaurant hotel spa, her legacy which she now shares with her son Manu who leads the brigade at the stoves.. http://www.leaualabouche.com/
My apprentice, Jonathan Pelletier, is another story. He wasn’t necessarily looking for a mentor when we met, but he got one. I call him Little Squirt or P’tit cul, well because he is both. He is a 22 year old with blue hair. He was 17 when he started at l’Eau, a punk fresh out of school from small town Québec. He had never tasted anything exotic, no fresh herbs besides parsley, no spice or wild mushrooms or foie gras, nor most fish and seafood, not even pork tenderloin (and his father was a pig farmer). I had a true virgin here. Judging from his textbook knowledge, I don’t think he attended too many of his classes either. Obviously though, his teacher had seen something in him to have sent him to l’Eau.
He was indeed very bright and quick, and despite his lack of experience, he impressed me from the get go. Six months in, he had already moved to hot. But by then, he was already getting comfortable, and starting to get cocky. From that moment on, it was a bittersweet struggle.
He was sharp, talented and could do just about anything, but you had to give him the occasional kick in the butt. I constantly gave him a hard time, as well pats on the back and pep talks. I would tell him to push himself to be the best he could for himself, not for the guys, not for money, not for me. I wanted him to go home to read books and cook some more. I could only imagine what kind of a career he could have starting at such a tender age.
I continued to invest loads of energy into whipping him into shape. He continued to please and surprise me, but also to infuriate me because I never felt like he was realizing his full potential. Instead of going home to read Escoffier, he was smoking joints and sliding down ski hills in the dark on real estate signs with other 20 year olds. He was young, I would tell myself. Eventually, I had to let go somewhat. As long as he didn’t smoke too much weed, and came in on his game, I accepted that I should let him be a kid. I still nagged him and explained things to him in great length both in and out of the kitchen, I totally mothered him. He went on to work all the stations, he got his red seal, and he did mature somewhat, I am very proud of him. But I doubt he will go on to be a ground-breaking chef.. Although he does love it and is great at it, he doesn’t have that consuming inner drive and passion for cooking that is required; in fact, he has since taken up graphic design. Sigh. (His company Epynord - they do websites and design for restaurants, is now booming.. http://www.epynord.com).
Nevertheless, he is a great cook who needs his fix on the line, and the best assistant a girl could have. He helps me once and while today, and it’s the best. He gets so much done, and executes so nicely. If I want a perfect brunoise or a clear consommé, better him than me. We don’t have to say much during service, everything goes smoothly, and I feel like I’m on vacation. I can trust him with just about anything, because I’ve drilled my ways into him, so that he does everything just how I like it. He even tastes like I do. He knows whether I will want a touch of salt or acid or spice. He spots anything that doesn’t make sense, a missing garnish, or something that is superfluous. But on the other hand, you can count on him to call me on anything if I haven’t practiced what I’ve preached, like not deglazing or straining, or if I don’t chop the chives finely enough. The brat. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve created a nit-picky monster. That’s Ok, it is good to be kept on your toes. I believe in reason and dialogue, fairness and coherence. Nothing is black and white, and so I still spend my time explaining the grey to him.
Nowadays, I don’t like my chives chopped too fine, I’m no longer in a Relais et Chateaux, and I find that mincing them denatures them. So there kiddo, I tell him, you don’t know it all yet, and neither do I. Although there are some basic truths and the primary principles are primordial, the rest is fluid, and context can change everything. It’s good to be precise, and have reference points, but you have to stay open minded, while being critical. This is the kind of thing I always tried to instil in him while teaching him how to cook a lobster or finish a sauce. I can’t help but think I sounded like my philosophy teacher in college, in whose class everyone snoozed away but me. However, I do like to think some of it was soaked up through osmosis.
Another bonus about my little squirt is that he fixes things (very handy), and he cracks me up. He is francophone and not fluent in English. However, be it from the Simpsons, the odd commercial or from being around fellow anglo cooks over the years, he has picked up all kinds of hilarious expressions, and he knows just when to use them. Although he can’t carry on a proper conversation in English, he has the perfect line, joke or jingle for every situation, and has impeccable timing, for better or for worse. He could even get me giggling when I was fuming at a critical moment during service at l’Eau. Trust me, not many people can unwind a wound-up soupnancy. Did I mention that he also gives a good massage?
All in all, he’s a fine cook, and a good kid. Like a mother who must accept that her straight A son wants to join the circus instead of going to med school, I have to let him do his thing and hope he’ll be happy. As long as he can come and chop my chives every now and again.