The Big Friendly Giant
We were miles away from his culinary hearth, his gargantuan Pied de Cochon, but Martin Picard and his insatiable generosity, excessiveness, and overflowing gourmandise was definitely present in the Chinese restaurant in Montreal where we decided to meet.
After looking over the menu, he ordered about a dozen plates. The jelly fish? Yes! The pork belly? Of course. The offals? Obviously. The fish soup saturated with Szechuan peppers? Absolutely.
A sea of multicolored plates flooded the table. There were a lot of them. Too many. Picard was happy, and loudly announced: ” Wow, I have to send my gang here!”
A sappy cuisine
The Quebecois chef isn’t a specialist in Chinese cuisine. But the abundance, the generosity, the unabashed burst of flavors…that he knows only too well.
Some say that this chef from Montreal, known for reinventing local dishes and rethinking them with always a little extra – extra foie gras, extra butter, extra attention, love and flavor – looks a bit like an ogre, so colossal is he. Others compare him to a bear, but not the one that claws at you but rather the teddy bear, like the one in children’s fairy tales who only wants what’s best for you.
Martin Picard resembles another sort of Quebecois stereotype: the lumberjack. A man who works the land, allergic to pretense, blunt. He does in fact wear the typical black and red-checkered shirt associated with these workers. And like all those legendary Canadian woodsmen who hunt, fish and work hard chopping wood in 30 degrees below zero weather, he eats heartily to warm his soul.
But instead of cutting down maple trees, Picard cooks with their sap. And when he goes off to catch salmon or hunt moose or Virginian deer, it’s because he likes to cook his prey.
So what’s on his restaurant’s menu? Pork feet ragout, tourtières (a meat pie), a massively baroque choucroute…
He builds his repertoire by making traditional French-Canadian dishes, not as they have always been made, but as they should be made, according to him.
“This man is crazy, but I love him”, exclaimed the great Italian chef Massimo Bottura when he ate at the Cabane du Pied de Cochon in 2012. Picard’s second restaurant is located about forty kilometers outside of Montreal in a traditional sugar shack, the place where maple syrup is prepared from sap in the spring and where you can taste it served about a million different ways with all sorts of rustic dishes, which the chef, of course, transforms.
The usual omelet, not very elegant but hearty and sweet that is usually served during this annual feast becomes more refined with smoked mackerel. The yellow pea soup welcomes pieces of foie gras. Maple syrup is used to glaze duck. The cuisine is rich, and the quantities always monstrous. But the flavors are comforting and profoundly delightful. Bottura, who became obsessed with the fresh maple syrup candy served on the snow that Picard served him two years ago, has since created a dish in honor of the Cabane du Pied, which includes foie gras, brioche and of course maple syrup.
An instinctive cuisine
Born in November 1966 in the suburbs of Montreal, Martin Picard didn’t grow up in a family of food-lovers, and much less of cooks. But when he was only three years old, his father the math teacher decided to take the family, Martin and his twin brother and sister, to Morocco. They spent four years there, enough time for the boy to develop his first zones of culinary comfort amidst the olive trees, lemon trees and North-African spices, and return to Quebec having already travelled well off the beaten path.
At the age of 17, though he was convinced that he wanted to go to university to study business, his instinct told him that that wasn’t the path for him. So instead he abruptly changed course and applied to the Tourism and Hospitality Institute of Quebec (ITHQ), the great culinary school in Montreal. From there, he went off to France for a summer to do an internship at the Radio de Chamalières hotel in Auvergne, where he first worked as a waiter before spending some time in the kitchen. And that is where he fell in love with this creative culinary environment, “much more creative than anything I had ever known, which opened up a whole new world of possibilities. That’s when I understood that I could make something of myself in this new world of cooking.”
Soon after he graduated from ITHQ, he set off to cook for a young but already well-renowned and very modern chef at the time, Normand Laprise, who had just opened Citrus. This experience did not last long, but long enough for Picard to develop a deep and lasting friendship with Laprise, who today is still one of his best friends and mentors. Laprise is a bit like the Alice Waters of Quebec. The first chef to have been adamant about only serving local ingredients, respecting the ingredient with simple recipes, and doing so with great professionalism. Even though their culinary styles are very different today, Picard has always said that Laprise was one of his greatest influences, as well as Elena Faita, the mother of an ex-girlfriend and a self-taught Italian cooking teacher, who he considers to be the apostle of local cuisine, simple but never bland.
After Citrus, Picard worked here and there before returning to Laprise’ kitchen when he opened his second restaurant Toqué !, which is still known as one of the best restaurants in Montreal. Later, he went to work for Globe, a very trendy restaurant in the 90’s, and was then hired to run the Maison des Pins’ kitchen, where he prepared a delicate cuisine inspired by the south of France, respecting the owner’s wishes.
A 180° turn
And then that restaurant closed. And Picard did a 180° turn. Out with the complex and almost chiseled dishes. In November 2011, he opened his first restaurant, Pied de Cochon, without tablecloths or toques, with an open kitchen and tattooed cooks; the complete opposite of what is needed to earn a Michelin star. Without realizing it, he adopted the same spirit that Yves Camdeborde, the chef at the forefront of bistronomie, was launching in France at the same time.
In Montreal, the Pied de Cochon severed all ties with everything else that was being done at the time.
“I wanted to serve food that I liked, high-quality dishes made with high-quality ingredients, but in an environment in which everyone, really everyone, felt comfortable.”
At the Pied de Cochon, they began serving Quebecois dishes that are traditionally so heavy that the locals are almost ashamed of them: poutine, pork feet ragout, poor man’s pudding…But everything was given the Picard twist. Cream was added where there never was any. The poutine sauce – a chicken demi-glace – was emulsified with foie gras and the dish was served with seared liver on top of the traditional fresh cheese. A dish for truckers and hangovers thus found itself in the big league. Lobsters, which are too often served boiled in modest restaurants, there were stuffed with fern shoots and dipped in hollandaise instead of simply melted butter.
“I didn’t know where this would take me, but I wanted to rediscover the joys of cooking. There are too many rules in haute cuisine.”
An anchored cuisine
Rapidly, his customers jumped on board. The restaurant filled up. And then, in 2004, he received the ultimate recognition: chef and American television star Anthony Bourdain came by Duluth street and fell in love with the excessive side of his cuisine, which was the total opposite of the guiding philosophy, or in other words the anti-fat and anti-salt obsession, that was controlling New York kitchens at the time.
Because at the Pied, as people call it, fat is everywhere. Pounds of butter are melted one after another in the pans, bone marrow is smothered with mounds of caviar, sauces are worshipped, and cheese is everywhere.
Not only did Bourdain love it, but he wrote about it. Quickly, the Pied became a cult phenomenon amongst a new generation of American chefs, who still use it as inspiration today to open restaurants like Animal in Los Angeles and even the Breslin in New York. The trend now even has a name: “dirty cuisine”.
But as the trend grows, explodes and slows down, the Pied remains the same.
“For a restaurant, “aging well” isn’t about following the trends. Today, my restaurant is still full, notes Picard. I must have been right about something, somewhere along the line.”