Richard Bastien is a Québécois culinary lion who helms three successful restaurants. His first, Le Mitoyen, in Sainte-Dorothée, Laval, is on the verge of four decades in business and is one of a handful of CAA-AAA Four Diamond Award winners in the province. His Café des beaux-arts sates hungry Montreal Museum of Fine Arts patrons.
Bastien is most familiar, however, for Leméac, the lively and elegant bistro that has become an indelible fixture on Outremont's tony Laurier strip. It is also the bistro where son Jérémie works the line.
Jérémie Bastien first made a name for himself not in Montreal (where he did work at Ian Perreault's Area) but in Vancouver, at the likes of Boneta and Lumière. But the Institut de tourisme et d'hôtellerie du Québec grad's most formative experiences, thusfar, have come from travel stints in California, Asia and Australia.
Bastien père et fils recently sat down to discuss the restaurant business, what makes Leméac run, food trends, bloggers and, most notably, a new restaurant project set for 2015.
Richard, how do you divide your time between your restaurants?
Richard Bastien: We have more than 25 cooks at Leméac, so we have a big brigade. Every Wednesday I meet with the two chefs de cuisines to go over any menu changes, any new products, any problems with the team, et cetera. But I am never on the line at Leméac. I spend a few nights at Le Mitoyen every week, where I'm involved with menu conception and creating prototypes of dishes.
Jérémie Bastien: I'm on the line at Leméac four or five nights a week.
Cooks have told me that the mood in Leméac's kitchen is very business-like and relatively quiet. How do you manage that with such a busy restaurant?
JB: It has a lot to do with respect for the employees. There's been an evolution in how restaurant kitchens are managed. Classic French kitchens were notorious for being almost militaristic and semi-abusive. I don't think that produces very good results. Cooks are generally more productive when they're personally fulfilled, trusted with responsibility and respected.
RB: But it was like that from the moment we opened [Leméac] years ago [in 2001]. We knew we'd have a lot of volume - we do on average 500 covers a day - and it's a type of cuisine that's somewhat elaborate, with many iterative steps. Everything is done here from scratch - stocks, butchery, portioning of fish - so we knew that we had to standardise to a certain extent, in order to ensure a methodical consistency. Most of our kitchen personnel work four day weeks. If someone pulls a double shift it's an exception. But in general the majority of the staff is paid for a 40 hour week, spread out over four days. This gives people three days off and ample time to recuperate. Nobody's doing 60 hour weeks here.
That must eliminate some of the inherent stresses of the job.
RB: Well, yes, and it is a stressful métier. [Leméac] is a high-volume restaurant and there's a lot of precision involved in the plates. Once you've done four days of ten hour shifts, we consider that a full week of work. There are a lot of restaurants in Montreal where cooks are pulling double shifts. They drink on the line or they drink outside of the restaurant and they have no social life. It's not sane. People have children, they have families, they have girlfriends, boyfriends - it's important for us that they have a manageable schedule. It's hard to inculcate because the norm at so many restaurants is a 50 or even 60 hour work week. But this is a métier that demands total commitment. You have to give it your heart, your soul and your balls. Your head's always on the chopping block. And it's a profession that requires constant co-operation and focus. But there's a limit. We can't exaggerate. And I think more than ten hours a day is too much.
Montreal's restaurant scene, and the overall food scene, has undergone considerable change over the last decade. The likes of Normand Laprise, Martin Picard, Dave McMillan and Fred Morin have become vital ambassadors for the city. Where do the Bastiens fit in? Is there a sense, perhaps, despite Leméac's consistency, of being under the radar?
RB: Well these are chefs who I respect immensely and who do very good work. But someone like Martin Picard, for example, obviously has a different approach [from Leméac] at Au Pied de Cochon. I think that philosophy of cuisine - a bit more macho, a lot of meat, big plates - is not necessarily exclusive to Quebec. I sort of see this as a deliberate effort to distinguish ourselves in North America from the overwrought refinement of Europe and Asia - but particularly Europe. I think in Quebec there was often a false admiration of the French culinary style - big brigades, the elegance, the sophistication - and, in reaction to this, some people questioned whether this reflected who we were. Francophone, yes, but with roots in North America. A certain rustic tradition as well, big plates, meat, and so on. So some of what we see now is in that vein. And this is all perfectly correct. It's undeniable. But I do think it's exaggerated sometimes. Some restaurants have opened in Montreal over the last decade that have wonderful energy in the room but that lack precision. But that goes with the style I suppose. They're not necessarily obligated to be super precise. You add a bit of this, add a bit of that, cooks drink on the line even. I've seen that a lot actually, cooks drinking on the line, which is something that is completely unacceptable here. It's impossible, impossible, at Leméac. I see this all as a correction, of sorts. A shift in the balance of what's going on in restaurant culture. Maybe it will swing back the other way. But, again, I have to add that I have tremendous respect for many of the chefs who have come of age over the last decade. A lot of them own and run their restaurants - like at Joe Beef - and they're true artisans. People like Dave [McMillan], Fred and his wife [Allison Cunningham], the people behind Le Club Chasse et Pêche and Le Filet, Martin Picard, they all manage their own restaurants with passion - I have a lot of respect for people like that.
JB: I think it's important to find your own identity as a chef. For me, I know Dave and Fred well, I was with them at Globe on Saint-Laurent back in the day. Over the last decade I also left Montreal to work in Vancouver. I spent considerable time in Asia and Australia. All to find my proper voice as a cook and to refine my style, my approach. The way I see it, I want to serve food that reflects who I am, not that serves any particular movement. I think there are a lot of young cooks today who are in love with the idea of being a chef but not necessarily with what it takes to succeed in the profession itself. There are more and more cooking shows, chefs are considered celebrities, but very little of it reflects the daily realities of being a professional cook. So I think it's important to do it with passion and for the right reasons.
RB: This current movement is very masculine, very macho, very rough and tough. It flies in the face of an older, more feminine, more balanced style of fine-dining. We take a beer, we pile the food on the plate, the portions are generous, often served family-style. A lot of that is very interesting, certainly the conviviality of it. Because the opposite side of that can be very pretentious and snobby. But casualness has its plusses and minuses. I personally feel like some of the people that have been given a measure of celebrity in Montreal - people that have opened restaurants in the last few years - are technically very imprecise. Sometimes their food is excellent but overall it lacks consistency. It's a cuisine crying out for more rigour, more organisation. I think some of the newer establishments will have a hard time in the long run. These are not institutions. They're part of a movement. Find a locale, open a boîte, staff it and off to the races. But they don't realise how taxing it is over the long haul. I'm not here to condemn them - I've had good meals at some of these restaurants - but they can be more diligent. I feel like a lot of these cooks operate on feeling and just go with their gut. What customers want is often secondary - it's about what I want to cook, like it or lump it. But who am I to criticise? I just have my opinions. We'll see over time what happens.
It's your professional observation.
RB: Right. And Montreal is a city with a lot of restaurants, a lot of "foodies" and with well-informed customers, on the whole. But a restaurant is an expensive operation. A lot of these young chefs want to work with the best ingredients but budget constraints force them to make concessions in other areas - tables, chairs, lighting, whatever. And budget constraints affect what customers want to spend on a plate of premium pork, for example. Sometimes economics influences the creative process and the profitability of what may well be an excellent restaurant. I think of chefs in this city like Ian Perrault and Stelio Perombelon - maybe in another era, in New York, in SoHo maybe, things would have turned out differently for them. People would have gladly paid $38 for a beautiful plate of vegetables. Here in Montreal, not so much. Not if you're on a quiet block in Outremont. It's hard. People open up restaurants almost spontaneously, there's not a lot of support from banks and you're forced to take on investors. In many cases chefs are taking on four, five, six investors and it's very difficult. Who's in charge? Who ultimately decides on the direction of the restaurant? Is someone taking bottles of wine home at the end of the night?
Will one of the partners panic the moment the business falters?
RB: Exactly. Will I pull my money out? Take some food or wine home, buy chairs for the restaurant and put them in my den? There are a lot of establishments that go under because of stuff like this. All it takes is one dishonest partner to weaken the entire operation.
You mentioned the word "foodie" before. What do you make of this relatively new term and the culture that surrounds it?
JB: I think it's a positive development when more and more people are interested in food and in cooking. It's good for our profession and for restaurants in general. At the same time, a lot of so-called bloggers fancy themselves critics and write things about restaurants and cooks - good or bad - that don't necessarily deserve praise or criticism. They're very biased. And they sometimes have impressionable audiences that make decisions based on what they write. That's when it becomes unfortunate. But if more people are interested in cooking, that's a good thing.
RB: I don't tweet, I'm not on social media. I know it exists. But this era of instantaneous communication can unfairly destroy reputations. Sometimes it goes too far. It pleases me that more and more people are informed about cuisine and products. But the hair-trigger nature of social media can be dangerous. We built Leméac to last and have worked very hard for years. But someone can come in one night, dislike their meal and instantly write about it and reach a lot of people. This has happened to us by the way. You have to let that go and not get caught up in the narrow social media world. Your vision has to be much bigger than that. You can't panic. I ate at Grammercy Tavern in New York years ago and adored it. It was one of my favourite restaurants back in the day. And then I ate at Eleven Madison Park. The food was not as good - it was acidic and less mindful. I got into a conversation with the concierge at my hotel and he mentioned that Eleven Madison Park had been open only a few years, while Grammercy Tavern had been in business much longer. The point is that it takes time to develop your rhythm. But not every restaurant or chef has that luxury. There are so many variables that come into play in determining what makes a restaurant successful. But time is essential. You have to focus on the moment and the long-term at the same time.
Do you have plans to open any new restaurants in the future?
JB: Yes, that's one of the reasons for my return to Montreal. We signed for a space on Notre-Dame and McGill, in the Penny Lane development by Projet Europa. The restaurant will have 4,000 square feet, with 2,500 square feet in the basement - similar to Leméac but without a terrasse. The cuisine will be bistro-like but without some of the old classics.
RB: Cuisine du chef, cuisine du saison.
JB: Right. A cuisine that reflects my experiences and travels in B.C., California, Asia and Australia as well. A little Japanese in spirit, in terms of ingredients and techniques. It won't be Asian food in the strictest sense but some of that influence will be there.
Do you have a date?
JB: Spring 2015. There's still a lot of work. The entire building is being re-done.
RB: We bought the space though. Jérémie did his kitchen plans and an architect is on the job. We have a name too.
Can you share it?
JB: Of course. It's Monarque. Like the butterfly. The Monarch butterfly migrates and returns home, sort of like my culinary journey. I think it's an appropriate metaphor. And I used to chase butterflies sometimes on trips with [my dad] when I was kid.