A Minimalist Approach to Quebec’s Hearty Cuisine
We spoke to one of the chefs bringing small plates back to decadent Montreal.
Montreal is not exactly known for delicate food.
Frontiersmen like Martin Picard, Fred Morin, and Dave McMillan have made Montreal a global destination for decadents seeking food that evokes romantic images of fur trappers eating whole hogs and foie gras and washing it all down with biodynamic wines from France.
As seductive as this sounds, it's not entirely accurate either. Out of this sea of meats has emerged a more minimalist and delicate approach to Quebec's hearty ingredients, one being championed by chefs like Marc-Alexandre Mercier at Hotel Herman in Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood.
"I'm like a Mini-Wheat, I have a meat side and a vegetable side," Mercier says. "I love working with vegetables, but I really don't want us to be a vegetarian spot either, it's not my thing. I like vegetables as much as I like meat."
"Slowly people are changing their attitude toward vegetables, like at Vin Papillon," he adds, giving props to the Joe Beef crew for having anticipated the renewed interest in vegetables left in their wake. "They knew it, they saw it coming. It's the same vibe as Joe Beef but they switched the vegetables for main and used meat as a garnish. I really really like Marco's food there."
But Mercier's food goes way beyond any meat-vegetable dichotomy and his menu is an ode to doing more with less. It's a reflex he says he picked up in part from cooking seasonal food on Canada's West Coast, but also from working in Montreal's more heavy-handed restaurants.
"When we opened we just wanted to serve small plates. Restaurants in Montreal are known for really copious portions. I've worked in a restaurant like that before and I kind of got tired of throwing food away. There is definitely an ecological approach to my food because I like to use as much as I can from one product, often in the same plate."
A perfect example of Mercier's ethos is a "duck four ways" dish is comprised of duck breast, duck leg, and boudin blanc sausage made with leftover trimmings, all sitting atop rye that is cooked in duck stock. "There's like absolutely no waste on that duck," Mercier proudly proclaims.
He applies the very same approach to elevate the humble parsnip, "We do a parsnip and sweetbread dish where we use a rotator to make like a parsnip spaghetti. With the trimmings of that we create a purée and a bouillon to cook the noodles in. Then we add raw parsnip and with the skin we make little chips, so there's like four components from the same ingredient."
And while the food at Hotel Herman is decidedly modern and ingredient-centered, Mercier doesn't get hung up on trends either. "We've done some 'ghetto foraging' maybe one time. It makes you look cool to be able to say, 'I foraged this in a back alley!' But I don't really have time for that. Sometimes I'll steal some capucine flower leaves from people's flower pots, but you don't want to do that too often either."
Those detecting a Nordic influence on Mercier's food wouldn't be mistaken, though it only represents about three months out of 15 years in the kitchen. "I did a stage at noma. I was supposed to do three months there but I left after six weeks. It wasn't for me. I was in my own state of mind, I guess. All the guys there have a work ethic that is so square and everything is so perfect. But I wasn't really feeling it; I don't regret doing it, but I also don't regret leaving."
And while it may not be immediately apparent in the presentation of his food, Mercier definitely embraces his old-school influences as well. "I like doing stuff like boudin blanc, and blood sausage, and mornay sauces and hollandaise—all those old sauces. Learning those French classics and techniques definitely had a big influence on me."
In the four years since Mercier opened Hotel Herman with co-owners Dominic Goyet and Ariane Lacombe, it has steadily become a destination for restaurant workers on their day off; a sort of weekly version of Chef's Night Out.
"Mondays are good nights here," he says. "We definitely get a few people from restaurants because a lot of places are closed on Monday. At the beginning [cooking for other chefs] was really stressful, but after a while, when you see those faces coming back, you realize that you're doing a decent enough job. Most of them aren't really critical and I realized that they are mostly here to have a good time."