The gastronomes of Quebec
Gérard Delage can see the universe in a slice of foie gras
In France, the home of gastronomy, good eating is more than an art: it’s a national obsession. The great statesman Talleyrand considered a gifted chef to be the trump card in diplomatic negotiations. Auguste Renoir was attracted to his wife because she smelled of fresh bread. And gastronomic clubs — gatherings of like people who dine at a wide variety of restaurants for the sake of the food rather than the company — are as popular throughout all of France as curling clubs are west of Sudbury.
East of Sudbury, though, in the French culture of Quebec to be exact, the gastronomic tradition flourishes: 33 clubs officially registered with the Quebec Hotel and Restaurant Council, more than 1,000 dedicated, fee-paying gourmets, and countless private dining or wine-tasting clubs. Blood will tell. Montreal and Quebec City have more gastronomic clubs than New York, Chicago and San Francisco together; and many of these clubs are offshoots of mother clubs back in France.
Over all this tradition presides the Prince of Canadian Gourmets, Gérard Delage. Officially elected by his peers in 1973 at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, Delage acts as the force majeur, the fountainhead of the 33 official clubs. A slim, pink-cheeked man of about 60, he is also legal adviser and chief administrator of the Quebec Hotel Association. His manner, a combination of old-fashioned simplicity and ceremony, has its roots in the French Second Empire. And as he sits in his office on Montreal’s Stanley Street, many decades from Napoleon III and Boulevard Haussmann, he contemplates the social value in good eating.
“How much better the world would be,” he muses, “if young people took to gastronomy instead of dope.”
The gastronomic clubs rely on Delage for his fin bee, his impeccable taste. The clubs range from the oldest, most prestigious and most costly, the all-male Prosper Montagné (in 1972 they flew in fresh truffles from France just to live up to their motto, “an excellent meal is never too expensive”) to an allfemale revenge group, Les Néophytes du Nectar et l’Ambroisie, consisting of wives and professional women who were fed up with being left out of male bonding activities.
I saw Delage for the first time on television, sinking his teeth into a truffle during a Prosper Montagné dinner which was filmed by the National Film Board and shown on the CBC. His expression of ecstacy, eyelids closed like a bodhisattva experiencing nirvana, created a mystic force strong enough to propel me out of my Ottawa armchair, spotty with beer, and into the dining chairs of Montreal’s gastronomic clubs, stained with champagne. Over a number of weeks, I dined with four different groups, Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, Les Chaînes des Rôtisseurs, Les Amitiés Gastronomiques Internationales and Les Amis d’Escojfier.
Unfortunately, some do not want to admit women, and the one I most wanted to attend, Prosper Montagné, is irredeemably misogynist. Delage, who opened the doors of the other clubs for me, explained that sudi a no-female policy existed mostly due to the price of the meals, from $50 to $100
per plate. If a man had to bring his wife as well, he might not himself be able to afford to belong, said Delage, and there was also the problem that the club would become too large. Anything over 50 is a banquet, not a gastronomic dinner. When I asked about female colleagues who could pay their own way, Delage, a connoisseur of human nature as well as of food, looked bland. “I don’t think the wives would be too pleased,” he said.
Some wives and professional women see their position not far removed from the veiled Muslim woman who walks three respectful paces behind her man. In retaliation, and born from the dubious principle that it is possible to be separate but equal, there are now five registered gastronomic clubs in Quebec that are exclusively female, but who meet more sporadically and less expensively than the men.
All clubs must abide by a code that is traditional to gastronomic societies in France and North America. No tap water, for example, mineral water only, and that served with the salad since, it is argued, the vinegar affects the taste of wine. No salt. No pepper. (It’s the chefs business to season the food.) No flowers — presumably because they might carry a perfume alien to the wine. Above all, no smoking until coffee is served. At a recent dinner given by Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, this last rule of etiquette caused a near scandal. The gastronomic gathering, a group of young lawyers and broadcasters who admit women as guests but not members, had extended an invitation to Lise Payette, a television star with Radio-Canada and fervent women’s liberationist. From the first course through dessert, and despite the glaring absence of ashtrays, she kept reaching for her cigarettes, threatening to light up. The man next to her, male chauvinism rising in his gorge, spat it right out. “Go ahead and smoke,” he told her, “After all, you are only a woman.” Whereupon Ms. Payette dared him to repeat himself. When he did, she picked up a glass of mineral water and threw it at his face, missing as he ducked and drenching the man on his other side. (“Women are still a savage race,” the member who told me the story commented.)
Certain subjects of conversation, it is felt, detract from the enjoyment of food, so religion, business and politics are all forbidden. Two of the banned topics are successfully ignored. I never heard a breath of Dow Jones. And although one of the regulars of Les Amis d’Escojfier was a parish priest, he maintained his incognito with a wild checkered suit and a fund of nuancé stories that were more than remote from any religious context. When I doubted his profession, he ran to my side of the table and demanded a kiss.
The rule against politics, however, was never kept. Between bites of watercress salad with the good people of Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, I learned that the only party not riddled with corruption was the Parti Québécois. Two weeks later, while crunching fresh hazelnut ice cream with Les Chaînes des Rôtisseurs, serious questions were raised as to the funding of the same parti Québécois. / continued on page 51
GASTRONOMY from page 39 While I ate oysters with Les Amis d’Escoffier, a gentleman handing me a glass of Niersteiner said that when René Lévesque leaves, the same Parti Québécois will divide in three and disintegrate. And over coffee with Les Amitiés Gastronomiques Internationales, I learned that the biggest disaster in Quebec’s history was the Liberal landslide in the October provincial election.
My first dinner was with Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Thirty young men, lawyers and broadcasters, paid $25 each for a five-course meal plus salad, complemented with a choice of five Swiss wines. The president is Yves Delage, who shares his father’s passion for gastronomy but not his measured manner of assessing each dish. This became apparent when they disagreed over the chefs invention, a piece of veal wrapped around a large shrimp. Delage père thought it poor principle to marry meat and fish, whereas Yves contended that anything goes in cooking as long as someone likes the dish, as he himself did. Yves was espousing the I-don’tknow-much-about-art-but-I-knowwhat-I-like philosophy and he accused his father of being hidebound. Gérard Delage felt the meat and fish failed to harmonize, but it was obvious he felt discretion to be as necessary in gastronomy as in other aspects of life and art.
“I ate chicken with shrimp at Taillevent in Paris and disliked the combination then,” Gérard said. “And I don’t like veal and shrimp in Montreal now.”
That seemed to settle it. Arguments in gastronomic groups are seldom heated, and the participants are continually conscious of their tact. This discreet diplomacy is carried over to the traditional post-dinner appearance of the chef, when an appointed diner analyzes the meal and then questions and comments from the floor are welcomed. Gérard Delage did the honors this time, and he spoke most delicately, passing ever so lightly over his obvious distaste for the medallion of veal that had graced the shrimp. The chef — a Swiss, explaining the preponderance of Swiss wine at the meal — was a large, bulky man, looking tired and ill at ease. The only defense he offered for the controversial dish was originality. When some of the younger men who had sided with the elder Delage kept hammering away at the fish-meat combination, Gérard Delage, the gourmet prince, turned away, embarrassed. He does not like public attacks.
Perhaps Delage sympathizes with the restaurants for the simple reason that they seldom break even on a gastronomic club meal. Gérard Delage told me that an official club pays only half what a private party would be charged.
Restaurants that bother with the clubs do so only for the sake of publicity and for the morale of their staff (though it’s doubtful the chef of the William Tell restaurant got any lift from the condemnation of his “original”). For $25 I had just experienced hors d'oeuvres, cheese tarts, dried Swiss mountain beef, the shrimp that wore the veal in a wine and cream sauce, a delicious watercress salad flavored with tarragon, a filet of beef with chanterelles (wild mushrooms), ice cream, torte and coffee. There were the five Swiss wines, and a plum eau-de-vie served as a mid-meal
refresher. The chef and his staff obviously loved to cook for people who care about what they eat; they can always make their livings from the steak and potato barbarians. (Chez Pierre, a popular Montreal restaurant, told me they lost $300 on their last gastronomic club meal, and André Bardet of Chez Bardet, Montreal’s top restaurant, has said he won’t cook for groups of more than 25 members — most clubs having more than this number.)
My second dinner was with Les Chaînes des Rôtisseurs, a group that incontinued on page 52
GASTRONOMY continued eludes many people actually engaged in the restaurant and food business. We gathered at Montreal’s Grand Motor Inn, a prime example of what makes this city one of North America’s best for dining out, rivaled only by New York, perhaps, and San Francisco. The event was more a social gathering of like people than a moment of truth for Chef Franz Tarranowski’s gourmet abilities. His oyster au gratin, filet de sole cardinale and especially his hazelnut soufflé glacé were far superior to normal banquet fare, but criticism and analysis of the different dishes were sadly lacking. It could have been because many of the diners were themselves chefs and, like doctors, close ranks in the presence of an outsider. They were, however, deadly anti-separatist, the election having just taken place. Many of the people at this dinner were of an older generation, a generation used to a kind of mild sexual banter that is typical of turn-of-the-century Parisian farces. I heard that half a meal was only as good as a single breast and that young wine is like a pretty girl of six — full of promise but truly enjoyable in 10 years.
When I chose not to eat the toast that supported the sweetbreads, Gérard Delage, in true boulevardier tradition, remarked: “Some ladies like cushions, some don’t.” He clicked my glass of Heidsieck ’66 champagne, and Mme Claire Kirkland-Casgrain, the former Quebec cabinet minister, giggled and winked. Just for a moment, in the Grand Motor Inn, directly across from Golf World and beside the Perfection Rug Company, I was La Belle Otero, courtesan extraordinaire, living on borrowed time at Maxim’s.
But it was a spell cast only to be shattered by outrage. Around a monstrous piece of Boeuf Wellington were spread defrosted — or, God forbid, perhaps
canned — vegetables. “Trop copieux, trop copieux,” commented an unhappy Gérard Delage, as he jabbed helplessly at the heavy crust around the Wellington and tasted a branch of broccoli, thankfully fresh. The gloom vanished only when he spooned up the iced hazelnut soufflé, made with real ground hazelnuts. “I love dessert,” he said beaming.
“How do you manage to keep yourself so fit and trim?” I asked him, noticing how he attacked the soufflé.
“Simple,” he answered. “My dining room is on the main floor, my library on the top floor and my wine, of course, is in the cellar. I’m always running up and down stairs.”
For my third meal I took the train from Ottawa to Montreal, watching small boys spread mustard and ketchup on their CNR hot dogs, glistening red with dye and small as ring fingers. In the evening I joined with Les Amitiés Gastronomiques Internationales at an 18th-century house, L'Amphitryon, which is owned by chef-restaurateur Charles Tonneau, a sad-eyed Belgian who pours champagne as if he had discovered a timeless well of Laurent-Perrier and Moet & Chandon in his basement. The group was made up mostly of sophisticated young couples like Monsieur and Mme Pierre St. Aubin (he’s club president and in the insurance business) who have traveled widely in France and aspire to a similar standard of cuisine in Montreal. All the people here kept their gastronomic antennae quivering. One man even graded each item on the menu from Ato CT, filing the marks away for future reference. And when the young chef (who looked around 18) took a digestif with us, Mme St. Aubin leaned over and whispered gently in his ear, “I do think
the tournedos were a little overcooked.” For $24 each, M. Tonneau offered seven courses, endive soup, lobster in a Belgian-style cream sauce (Waterzooi), quail stuffed with juniper berries, tournedos, salad, cheese, iced soufflé with mandarine liqueurs and four other respectable French liqueurs. It was at this dinner that I met vinophiles such as Claude Lanthier, a handsome young engineer who has 3,000 bottles in his cellar. His treasure includes several bottles of Château Haut-Brion 1926, ’34 and ’47 (an Haut-Brion ’62 costs $64.60 at the Ontario liquor store; the earlier vintages are not available), 15 bottles of Château d’Yquem ’59 (Ontario price for a ’67 — $54.90), cognac dating back to 1863, a certain quantity of RomanéeConti ’65, ’66 and ’69, and his showpiece, one bottle of Château Lafite 1858, pre-Rothschild, pre-phylloxera, which set him back $1,200. He says he saves money by collecting wine because he never buys or drinks hard liquor. “Stop buying Scotch or gin,” he says, “and you too can afford a wine cellar.”
An enjoyable meal, like the others. Yet, if I had to choose a meal I enjoyed the most from a strictly culinary point of view (and this is difficult, as some cost $25, some $50) I’d put my back to the wall and point my finger toward Chef Pierre Demers, who cooked the dinner for 45 members of Les Amis d'Escoffier and myself at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Chef Demers is Canadianborn (an extreme rarity in the cooking world) and raised near Oka, Quebec. For 37 years he has been the pride of the Ritz-Carlton. Little wonder. Each member and guest paid $50 for hot and cold hors d’oeuvres, including oysters and smoked salmon, petite marmite soup (clear, and topped with hot toast spread with marrow), filet of perch in wine sauce, sweetbreads in Noilly Prat (soft and unresistant), filet of beef (seared on the outside, rare and jus-ridden in the middle), vegetables fresh to the last artichoke bottom, salad, cheese, apple charlotte and five French wines and liqueurs. Every morsel cooked to order. This was a gastronomic dinner, not reheated banquet fare.
I had also enjoyed the people, the dedicated gastronomes of Quebec who sincerely believe that good cooking, like good painting, needs a talented person for its execution and knowledgeable critics for its appreciation. People like Gérard and Yves Delage, M. and Mme St. Aubin and Charles Tonneau believe civilized living is not possible without gastronomy. I won’t forget them. Nor will I forget Claude Lanthier (he of the $1,200 bottle of Château Lafite) who paid the ultimate compliment to the chef at the Ritz-Carlton by sneaking out with a doggy bag of petit fours and a spun-sugar cookie tray for his wife.