Nose and tales: Martin Picard

I was talking to friends the other day about the texture of a cow’s tongue. Naturally, it made me think of my trip to Au Pied de Cochon, so I thought I’d post this from the archives.

It originally ran in the Post November 7, 2008.

By Brad Frenette
National Post
November 7, 2008

The cab driver – with his grand enthusiasm and hyperbolic gestures – could be describing a folk legend, some great hero of Québécois lore. Instead, the man easily navigating the narrow corridors of downtown Montreal is talking about a chef: Martin Picard, the owner of Au Pied de Cochon and co-host of the new Food Network show, The Wild Chef.

The word on Canada’s champion of nose-to-tail eating has spread. The man Anthony Bourdain lists as his favourite chef and compares to the bawdy Renaissance humanist Rabelais has become a folk hero of sorts. His show, which is now running on the Food Network in English Canada, has already had its run in Quebec. And over the course of a few hours on a sunny late-summer’s day in Montreal, the mention of his show gets people talking: Taxi drivers, coffee shop owners and a man serving sandwiches at a high-end downtown bistro all tout his restaurant and his return to a cuisine that spares no part of the animal. Almost unanimously, each of them suggests ordering the restaurant’s famed foie gras poutine.

“Imagine, poutine” says the excited taxi driver. He nods, then gives a long shake of the head, and a whistle that sounds of pride.

Au Pied de Cochon is a quaint spot on a quaint street. Rustic, in a way, and removed from the pretense one would imagine accompanies a restaurant of the critical acclaim and popularity it enjoys. Picard sits at a table in the back, hulking over a pad of paper. Divorced from the chef’s traditional uniform and toque – he doesn’t believe in the formality of it, he says – he has the look of a lumberjack or a hunter. A fur trapper, even. He is meeting with his employees to plan out the night, a Wednesday. The staff includes Hugue Dufour, Picard’s sous chef and partner in the restaurant and TV series. Call him the co-host, both onscreen and off.

The Wild Chef shows the two scouring the wilderness in a pickup truck (outfitted with an oven on its bed) for unique culinary delights. In one episode, they team up with some trappers and hunt muskrat, which they then cook and eat. The show was shot in seven different locations across Quebec and the Maritimes.

“What show?” Picard asks.

For a minute, he plays it straight, and one might think that the casual dismissal is genuine. Then he cracks a smile, and orders a round of beer. His arrives with the glass three-quarters full of ice.

Filming in English, says Picard, “was a good challenge.” Hugue jokes about doing the third take in Spanish, so they can sell the show anywhere in the Western world.

Another challenge, Picard says, lifting his beer, was filming under the influence. As with weight, the camera seems to add 10 beers.

“For us, it was like a vacation. We learned there are things you can do, and things you can’t do, in front of the TV. After that, we decided we’d never drink when we do the TV.”

Beer talk leads to bear talk, as in the delicacies of eating one. Getting serious, Picard warns that one must be careful in consuming black bear, it’s meat must be prepared properly in order to avoid worms.

“The meat we hunt, we cannot serve it,” Picard laments. “We never have wild meat. It’s too complicated. For each animal, we have a person who grows them. For the chicken, for the deer. When it’s not good, you know, we kill the farmer and we eat him. And we change the supplier. It works.”

For a moment, there is quiet. When Picard’s face curls upwards, the statement, which seemed like it could have gone either way, reveals itself as farce, and Dufour laughs loudly in agreement.

Quickly, the talk turns to vegetarianism. It seems odd that any vegetarian would darken the door of Au Pied – kind of like an environmentalist at a truck rally – but Picard insists that it happens.

“We have a lot of people who are vegetarians who come here. We buy $8,000 per month of vegetables. We respect and they respect.”

But these diners might not be so keen to know that, by their chef’s estimatation, his restaurant is the largest importer of foie gras in the world – he brings in 70 kilograms of the stuff a week from Quebec producers. He growls at the thought of protestors coming to try to shut him down, or having to take foie gras off his very foie gras-heavy menu.

“You have to be careful with that. [The protestors] are very smart, very intelligent with their media relations. When you see them in their blogs – yeah? Blogs? You will see that the same three people will be there. The other people just don’t care. They think they are right, they know the truth and they impose their truth on the population. I find that a little

undemocratic.”

Soon, the restaurant fills. Given that this is a Wednesday night, it seems incredibly busy, but this is a standard mid-week crowd. Picard has moved to the kitchen.

Then la bouffe arrives. Courses come flooding out of the open kitchen, each proving the opulence the restaurant is known for: buckwheat pancakes topped with maple syrup-infused foie gras, tripe salad, foie gras poutine. Finally, a cow’s tongue, lying on a bed of greens. Hugue Dufour smiles from the kitchen, and raises a glass.

Each course is unique, albeit, some more than others. Each dish is well presented, never splashy or overgarnished. Like its creator, it doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t.

“We’ve done everything because we believe in it and we’ve done nothing to provoke,” Picard says. Then his eyes turn a bit glassy. “We believe a lot in tradition. At the beginning of the ’80s, everything was easy to get and now [people] don’t know where meat comes from. A lot of old guys have thanked us because now the young people are asking questions and we believe in that. It was something we had in mind and it worked. Nothing is more important than tradition.”

From the crowd huddled at the front of the restaurant, waiting to be seated, a young Québécois saddles up to his seat at the long table that overlooks Picard’s open kitchen. His name is Jean-Martin, an organic vegetable farmer from a rural area about an hour outside the city. His wife, he says, is a vegetarian, so he waited for her to fall asleep before he made his covert mission to Picard’s restaurant to sate his carnivorous cravings. He calls himself an “emancipated vegetarian.” As Picard and his staff work in front of him, the farmer picks up an Italian tomato from a crate in front of the table.

“Picard chooses only local meats from local farmers, which is very important to me,” he says.

From the kitchen, a massive plate of ribs emerges, which the server sets down in front of Jean-Martin. Jean-Martin puts down the tomato. Emancipated, he tucks into his feast.

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