Last Monday I tuned in to CBC Radio’s Montreal afternoon show, Homerun, and caught the last part of a segment with Lesley Chesterman, the renowned local food critic. They were talking about the Montreal High Lights Festival, an odd (and oddly named) winter festival that highlights, among other things, food.
When the segment was over, the host proposed a little contest; call or email in a few words about what inspires your cooking. The winner (chosen how, we’re not sure) would get a free lunch at Restaurant Europea, and would get to hang out in the kitchen for a while.
Hey, sounds like fun. So I banged out the following paragraph (which took less time than going for a smoke break, in case anyone from my place of work is reading) and sent it in:
What inspired my culinary adventures was the empty seat across the table every night. I’ve always had an interest in cooking, but had no training and was not particularly good at it. When I found myself single and the author of a fairly well read blog back in 2002, I decided to make my culinary self enrichment a public experiment by writing about it. Now, some seven years later, I think I’m a much better cook, with a better understanding of where the food on my plate comes from, the history behind it, and the skills involved in creating it. I don’t pretend to be a gourmet, and I reject the term “foodie.” I’m just a guy who’s improved his cooking and has shared the adventure so that other people can improve theirs too. And I’m happy to report that the seat across the table is no longer empty.
Ah, people love a story with a happy ending. They read my story over the air a couple of times over the next few days and finally called me up to say I’d won the prize.
I was in need of a day off anyway, so I took a hard-earned “personal day” and showed up at Europea at 10:45 this morning. There, I met with CBC reporter Ann Lang, and we were led to the kitchen where we were introduced to Jérôme Ferrer, Europea’s executive chef, and Joël Veyssière, chef de cuisine at Le Pied de Cochon in Paris. Chef Veyssière is in town for the High Lights Festival, and is guest chef at Europea for a series of Paris Bistro themed lunches.
Great start! The kitchen was busy with activity as half a dozen sous chefs scurried around prepping this and that. I saw enormous cauldrons of things boiling on the stove tops, several trays of split beef marrow bones waiting their turn in the oven (tip: 375°F convection for 20 minutes), and various other pots of this and that.
Trying not to be in the way, I walked around the kitchen, sniffing things and taking photos, occasionally asking questions, while Ann interviewed our hosts.
Finally, after service was well under way, someone showed us to a table just off the kitchen, where we finally got to sample some of the goods. In the hour or so I’d spent observing, I saw them prepare roasted beef marrow bones, soupe a l’oignon gratinée, a tarte au boudin noir with onion confit and roasted apples, an odd fritter-like thing they called “Cromesqui de Pied de Porc“, roasted fish on risotto, and boneless jarret de porc with choucroute.
It all looked gorgeous. There were two small problems; first, I’m not that big on classic bistro fare (boudin noir, organ meats, pig’s feet, etc.). The other problem: Anne is a vegetarian.
But, as they say, “when in Rome…” Although the idea of boudin noir has always been slightly repulsive to me, it looked gorgeous on the plate, so I decided to give it a shot. Good choice! While I still wouldn’t fancy a big hunk of boudin noir on its own, presented as it was on a flaky pastry with confit of onions and roasted apples, it was a pleasure in the mouth and in all other dimensions. For Ann, they constructed a salad and arranged it in a cylinder composed of some kind of pastry.
For my main course I went with the Cromesqui de Pied de Porc. What an odd dish. Basically, they took the meat (and other gelatinous bits) out of a boiled pig’s foot, mixed it with some seasonings and pistachios, rolled it in panko, and deep fried it. This was presented on a small mound of very smooth puréed potatoes that had been infused with smoked garlic. Then it was drizzled with a fond and a squirt of basil oil.
Ann went for the fish, which was listed as “Cabillaud” and interpreted as “cod.” Hmmm. I’ll have to look into that. It was seared on the skin and then probably roasted. It was served on a risotto done in a rich and creamy sauce and a swirl of basil oil. It would normally come with a piece of Morteau sausage, but this was the vegetarian (who eats fish) version.
It was an excellent meal, made even sweeter by the lack of a bill at the end.
For more photos, check out this Flickr set.
If you want to hear the CBC report, here’s an MP3 of it (6:58, 3.6MB). (Note: in the report, I say that the tarte au boudin noir had choucroute on it. In fact, it was confit d’oignon. Yes, I can tell the difference. Maybe it was a Freudian slip, like when you go to say one thing but you say your mother.)