St. Lawrence | Cooking from the heart

St. Lawrence is currently the Restaurant of the Year by Vancouver Magazine and ranked #20 in Canada’s 100 Best Restaurant list. Needless to say it currently one of the hottest restaurants in town.

St. Lawrence | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook

Head Chef J.C. Poirier is from Quebec and grew up mostly around Montreal. At from a very young age J.C. loved to eat and through this passion he learnt to cook for himself. One of his favourite dishes to cook up was escargot with garlic butter. This may sound fancy to most of us, imagining a teenage boy cooking one of the signature plates of French fine dining. It was however his economic conditions at that time were what led J.C. in this direction.

“We did not have a lot money back then, so my mom would use a lot of canned products, mussels, escargot, chicken liver. Things that would last longer and can feed a family. “

The idea of becoming a chef, really took hold when J.C. got his own place. He was always preparing meals for himself and his friends. He loved cooking because it felt natural to him.

“I cannot be sitting in front of the computer all day, it’s not me. What I like about cooking is its physical aspects and intensity. It sums me up.”

He put himself through Riverside Park Culinary School during the day by working the graveyard shift at the Montreal Casino. It was a brutal year, but the money was good and the focus was always to end up working at a restaurant within a year.

J.C. Poirier | St. Lawrence | TookTook
J.C. Poirier | St. Lawrence | TookTook

“I wanted to work with very traditional French cuisine. I believe if you do not master your base, there is no way to create and be successful at cooking.”

This is exactly how J.C. started and quickly found his way to Toque in Montreal, which was considered to be the best restaurant in Canada at that time. It was an incredible experience, to learn from renowned chef Normand Laprise. He was able to strengthen his culinary skills and  work in a fast paced environment, which always required perfection. At some point the learning curve started to plateau and he felt it was time to move on.

J.C. Poirier | St. Lawrence | TookTook
J.C. Poirier | St. Lawrence | TookTook

It was hard for J.C. to find something else in Montreal, to match the level of Toque, so he decided to travel. His English was non-existent in those days, so it also became an opportunity to learn a new language.

He made his way to Vancouver in 2004 to work at Lumière, under renowned chef, Rob Feenie. It was meant to be only for one year, but almost 15 years later J.C. is still in the Pacific Northwest.

“The weather was a major factor. I remember sitting out on a balcony in a t-shirt on Christmas Eve, which is something that would never happen back home. It was going to be very hard to move back after that!”

The first restaurant where J.C. became a partner was Chow, a seasonal fine dining concept. He was 27 years old, hungry and wanted to take on the challenge. The restaurant barely lasted two years, due to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

St. Lawrence | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook

“In many ways it was a blessing. It just was not me. It takes time for a chef to know themselves and what you want to do. To be a great chef is to make sure what you put on the plate, represents a little bit of yourself. Chow was not that for me.”

It was, however, an invaluable experience because J.C. now had first hand experience on the business side, which would pave the path to where he is today. It was also a time of self-reflection: after working non-stop for a number of years, he decided to take a break and travel around South America for a year.

“Life had become like a checklist. What do you do? Are you married? Do you have a home? No one really asks if you are happy?”

His travels made J.C. realise it’s not about having things that should drive you, but rather the love of doing what you want to do. Cooking was his passion, but it had to be on his own terms if he was to move forward.

St. Lawrence is now his 5th restaurant, is under his group Kitchen Table Restaurants, which includes Pour House, Pizzeria Farina and last but not least, Ask for Luigi.

St. Lawrence | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook

Ask for Luigi has been incredible success since opening 6 years ago and was a game changer for J.C. in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

“I have seen people line up for ramen or even pizza, but to line up for up to 2 hours at a trattoria to eat fresh pasta, I have never seen it before!”

As much as he loves Italian cuisine, he never had a real opportunity to create a space that was truly his. The success J.C. has now affords him a platform to cook the food that represents his identity.

“I wanted to be myself, what would represent my career and me. I am from Quebec. I am French Canadian. This is the type of cooking I need to do. This will be my legacy!”

Everything is French, from the menu, wine list, the music and my staff. They even do all the service in French. The idea is to transport the guests and give them the feeling that they are not in Vancouver anymore, but somewhere in Quebec or even Paris.

St. Lawrence | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook

The dishes are ones you would find in old cookbooks or what chefs learn in culinary school. It is one of the primarily reasons St. Lawrence has captured the imagination of critics, chefs and foodies alike. The varieties of dishes you find here are rarely seen together. It is as if J.C. has restored old artefacts to their shining glory, and everyone wants a taste of what was lost for a very long time.

“With cooking you need skills, a good palate and discipline but for me it is very emotional. Cooking is not recipe, but rather the cook is the recipe. The time, the love you put in, makes the difference. The customer may not know what the dish is, but if they feel there is something special that is the key difference between a good chef and great chef!”

The current trends in the Pacific Northwest primarily point towards farm to table and Asian influences. The approach that St. Lawrence follows is completely contrarian to this.

“I am not a huge fans of trends, where is the creativity in that? I want to cook what I love, and if love is your focus you will be able to create a masterpiece”

I do have to admit this is type of food is very foreign to me. I am however always open to trying new things, especially when it comes from a place of love.

“Pâté en croute” | House-made terrine of the day baked in Pastry

St. Lawrence | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook
Pâté en croute | St. Lawrence | TookTook

This dish represents was wonderful mix of flavors and textures. It is the mix of pork, foie gras, hazelnut, pastry and gelée. This was wonderfully balanced with Dijon mustard and the crust of the pastry.

‘Paris-Brest à la mousse de foie gras’ | Duck liver and foie gras mousse with choux pastry

St. Lawrence | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook
Paris-Brest à la mousse de foie gras | St. Lawrence | TookTook

This is J.C.’s take on a old French classic. It is traditionally a sweet dish, but he has decided to go for a savory version by going with the decadent foie gras mousse. The saltiness of baked chicken skins perfectly balances the richness of the foie gras, with the sweet wine reduction and figs.It’s an addictive dish you’ll want to hoard all to yourself, but it is definitely meant for sharing.

‘Tourtière de ville au cerf’ | Venison traditional meat pie

Venison traditional meat pie | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook
Tourtière de ville au cerf | St. Lawrence | TookTook
Venison traditional meat pie | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook
Venison traditional meat pie | St. Lawrence | TookTook

The Montréal Canadiens flag is first thing you notice. It is J.C.’s way of making a highly technical dish playful. The pastry shell is cooked perfectly, which makes a mouthwatering crispy sound, when you cut into it. The minced Venison is cooked with potatoes, mushrooms and garlic, spiced with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. This is comfort food at its best and it is not hard to see why it is a favorite among the regulars.

Tarte au sucre | Sugar pie and Vanilla cream

Tarte au sucre | Downtown Eastside, Vancouver | TookTook
Tarte au sucre | St. Lawrence | TookTook

This is a dessert you would find in most homes in Quebec. Every family has their own recipe, which has been passed on through generations. The version that J.C. shares is from his Grandmother, and the combination of the sugar and vanilla cream, makes this the perfect way to end a meal.

“The menu is fairly consistent because for me it is about memories. I want my guests to come back for the dishes they love. I want to go straight for their heart.”

You feel the authenticity in these words, while you eat. The menu flows effortlessly. It is a triumph in old school cooking, which we thought was well behind the rear view mirror.  

“For the first time in my career, I finally know where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to do.”

 

Sachin Obaid

Chief Eating Officer, Mumbai

Food has always been a huge part of my childhood growing up. Every meal at home was a family meal in Saudi Arabia. The summer vacations I would spend at my Grandparents home in India was a lesson in eating seasonal, long before it has become in vogue.

It was not until I really started to travel, I was able to connect my affinity for food with searching for authentic local experiences. So, after a stint of working finance in New York and London and dabbling with various startup ventures, I have decided to follow my passion for food and travel to start TookTook in Berlin.
Oliver Moertl

Photographer, Berlin

As long as it's not spicy hot, I'll eat it! I love to experiment eating food from Michelin-stared restaurants to the mom-and-pop diner in a small town. But eating for pleasure is not the only reason why I consider myself a foodie. For 2 years now I have photographed chefs preparing, cooking and serving food across Europe. The images I take, help to tell their personal stories, to better explain why they cook the way they do.

Through these experiences, I’ve noticed one main thing, food brings people and cultures together, in a way very few things can. My hope is to share with you my images from the restaurants we cover and to share my personal experiences, so hopefully you could have the same experiences for your next meal!

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