Marc Lepine is an award-winning Canadian chef, owner of Atelier restaurant in Ottawa, and with this 2018 publication, a cookbook author. He’s also, as anyone who has experienced his cuisine can attest, a chef with a singular interest in doing food differently. His style has been dubbed ‘Modernist,’ ‘Contemporary Canadian,’ ‘Innovative,’ ‘Molecular,’ but none of these captures fully the artistry and playfulness he brings to plates. His dishes are bold, combinations of ingredients are thoughtful and often unexpected, and the knock-your-socks-off factor in plating is ever-present. But it’s the obvious fascination with the ‘fun’ element that keeps the experience of an Atelier 12-course dinner rolling merrily along.
In my former role as restaurant critic for the Ottawa Citizen, I’ve written about the experience of Atelier’s 12-course tasting menu many times over the restaurant’s ten years of life. As a judge at both the 2012 and 2016 Canadian Culinary Championships where Marc Lepine secured top honours (the first time in the history of the competition that a chef won twice), I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing his cuisine reach and wow a wider audience.
Two years ago, as Atelier was approaching its tenth anniversary, Marc Lepine asked if I would help him write a cookbook. He felt the time was right to answer some of the many “So how the hell did you do that?” questions he’s been asked over the years. And besides, he told me, it would be fun. He would take care of the recipes. Would I help him tell the story of Atelier?
Clearly, if you were to ask me for an Atelier book review, I’d bring an obvious bias. (It’s fabulous, by the way: instructive, gorgeous, amusing, inspiring. You’ll love it.) But setting aside the subjective, I think it would be more productive to share what I — a food writer, decent home cook, and long-time student of restaurants — learned during the months worked on this project. So, here are eight things Marc Lepine said to me that will forever stick in my mind (and might also stick with you).
- KISS (keep it simple, stupid):
“Keep it simple. What does that even mean? It’s a thing you hear all the time in cooking and it’s never made sense to me. Why would I ever want to keep it simple?”
- Taking the stage at Grant Achatz’ Alinea restaurant in Chicago:
“It was life changing. In a matter of days, the clear direction for my cooking was locked in. I was in the presence of genius, and I learned a ton in a short time.”
- Where the creative process starts:
“For me, the plate is always in my head. Other chefs are driven more by ingredients or technique, but I see the dish — its colours and shapes, the flow of it, how the eater might interact with it and react to it — before I see what’s in it.”
- Getting things wrong isn’t so bad:
“We’ve failed so often we’re good at it. (Duck fat ice cream comes to mind…) Failures prompt us to seek different approaches, and they help expand our knowledge base as we seek solutions. When we fail, we just go back to the drawing board… Edible maracas are the latest challenge.”
- Kitchen toys:
Atelier’s kitchen has been called an anti-kitchen: it has no grills, no fryers, no heat lamps, no exhaust system — every tool in it can be tucked away in cupboards or taken on the road.
“A machine in any kitchen must serve the purpose of improving the food: making it more delicious, extracting a purer flavour, or adding enchantment to an ordinary ingredient. Otherwise, it’s just a gimmick.”
- Top toy:
“A dehydrator is my favourite piece of kitchen equipment: I can use it to manipulate shapes of ingredients, intensify flavour, and, most importantly, bring many of my ideas to life. The most dramatic dishes… wouldn’t exist without it. When chefs call me up for advice on dehydrators, I can keep them on the phone for hours.”
- A funny thing about eating:
“I believe a high-end dining experience can be thoughtful without being self-important. It sounds like a paradox, but at Atelier we take whimsy seriously. It’s not unusual to hear laughter around a dinner table. But to laugh at the food itself is, admittedly, odd. And things that are odd interest me.”
- Ottawa? How come?
“Ottawa is a terrific city, and I wouldn’t want to be a chef anywhere else. We’re comfortable here as a restaurant. The dining public is well educated and incredibly supportive of chefs, and particularly of a new restaurant and fresh ideas in food.”
It was Lepine’s goal in creating this book to introduce the approach, specialty equipment, and techniques used in many of the recipes on his tasting menus, and then to share those dishes through images and meticulous instructions. There’s no doubt, this book is aimed at confident, competent cooks looking to up their game, and play around with new tools (and maybe invest in a dehydrator). Many will make each recipe to completion and draw inspiration from their assemblies. For others, the techniques will be too much, and the equipment required not on hand. The good news is that every recipe in this book has sub-recipes that are easily mastered and may well become treasured in their own right.
And then there will be those who simply gawk at the stunning photographs by Christian Lalonde, keep the book central on the coffee table, and then reserve a table at Canada’s most innovative restaurant. That works too.