Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack

31 Mar

Toronto got lucky this month–it’s nearly maple-syrup season, but Quebec Chef Martin Picard left behind his sap-engorged trees, his fattening pigs and his part-time kitchen in the woods to come launch his new book, Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack.

The massive tome features 100 recipes–from the two-ingredient one for hard maple candy to the five-pager for pig’s head and lobster–as well as a short story and artwork by Marc Seguin, some crazy photographs (think: bikinied pole dancer in lumberjack shirt keeping company with swines), and an in-depth academic chapter on maple syrup–with cartoon-bubble quips by Picard’s Uncle Marc to put the hard stuff into layman’s terms.

At Biff’s restaurant, just by St Lawrence Market, Picard meets with me to talk about father-son moose hunts, maple syrup baths and giving his favourite ladies in the restaurant business a night to remember.

Valerie Howes: What drew you to cooking the decadent, meaty fare you’re famous for?
Martin Picard: Nouvelle cuisine was big when I was starting out. It was very architectural. There was something interesting about that, but at the age of 30, I realised I didn’t really know how to cook. I wanted to try all the classic dishes—French, but also traditional ones from Quebec and North America. And I got mad pleasure out of cooking that way. When it was time to open my restaurant, I just thought: What would I want to eat?

VH: When you’re out at other restaurants, do you like eating the same kind of food you serve at Au Pied de Cochon?
MP: Yes! It’s funny, but I do. But I also like Asian food—especially Japanese—sometimes it’s good to eat lighter food.

VH: And at home?
MP: It’s a lot more balanced and varied: you need to get your fish and vegetables.

VH: Your new book is a collaborative effort, with everyone from your artist friend to your pastry chef to a guy with a PhD in maple sugar contributing. How did you get your team together?
MP: First of all, I asked my pastry chef, Gabrielle “Would you be into making a book?” She said “Yes, I’m in.” From there, we dove right in. [In French: we got into the bath]. That’s in part why there’s a photo of her in a bath of maple syrup in the book.

And my hostess at Au Pied de Cochon, Marie-Claude, had just finished a photography course, so she did all the photos. It’s always like that. I like working with people who’re close to the restaurant, even if they have little or no experience working on a book. You get flashes of brilliance that way, and it’s more creative.

VH: One of the wildest chapters in Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, “the Feathered and the Furry,” is all about cooking woodland animals. What are your earliest memories of hunting?
MP: I wanted to hunt when I was a kid, but my father didn’t want to.  I was 32 when I first went hunting. I bought my first gun when I was about 29, but I was so busy cooking that I didn’t have time to use it until I was 32. And since then there have been some years I’ve hardly been able to get out hunting. But the older I get, the more I set aside quality time for that.

VH: Ah, so your father doesn’t hunt?
MP: No. No, no, no, no, no!

VH: So what was appealing about it to you?
MP: It’s something indescribable. I love being in nature and I love animals. I love to watch them. And when I’m hunting, it’s a time when I can [deep breath] unwind. And if I’m to cook an animal, I feel the need to understand where it’s from and what it’s all about. I need to be comfortable killing it, gutting it and getting to know it. It’s in my nature, I guess.

[There’s a loud clatter near our table as a server drops some cutlery on the floor. Martin looks around, distracted, then back to me again, grinning.]

MP: It wasn’t me! [laughs raucously].

VH: How about your kids; do they like to hunt?
MP: Yes! Well, they don’t hunt, but they come with me… not so much my daughter, who’s 11, but maybe that will change. My son, who is 9—he’s been on a moose hunt and a goose hunt with me.

VH: How did he find it?
MP: He loved it. It’s bizarre, but it’s in his nature. But it’s also just about being with me. It’s a good age for him just to get some time alone with me. It’s special for him to be with his father and for me to be with my son. The rest of the time we’re with the whole family, and it’s always hectic.

VH: Several of the more elaborate recipes in your book involve wild animals, but isn’t it illegal to serve the animals you’ve hunted yourself in your sugar shack?
MP: Yes, it’s just for the book. We include the animals you’re likely to find around a sugar shack in the woods. And I thought it would be interesting to cook them with maple syrup, just to see what that would be like. But you can’t just go out and shoot beavers and squirrels. They have to be trapped—you have to know a trapper to get them.

VH: So what does a beaver taste like?
MP: That depends on what it eats… on what trees it eats. When it’s young, it has a good flavour, not quite as strong, but still a distinctive flavour. It’s a taste you love or hate. It’s not something that you can compare to any other meat really… well, perhaps hare. I like it in a stew.

VH: You dedicate a whole chapter in your sugar shack book to sandwiches. If you were to recommend just one, which would it be?
MP: The Vinily. It’s a sandwich with crepes, pork belly, cucumber garnish and goat cheese—foie gras too, if you like—then you pour on maple syrup. I invented it with my chef Emily and my sous-chef Vincent. And since we didn’t know what to call it, we took part of Vincent and part of Emily, and came up with Vinily.

VH: And which dessert?
MP: I like the Vacherin a lot. It’s easy to eat! [laughs]. It’s a cake with cream, meringue, ice cream and sorbet. It’s just… extraordinarily good.

VH: And a main dish?
MP: I love the Black Tide. It’s duck with squid, rice chips, hot sauce, beet puree, ramp puree, squid ink pasta and glazed black trumpets. It has a sweet side, a salty side, and just the right acidity—I like the balance in this dish. You know, you wouldn’t normally think about putting duck with squid, but they go so well together. As you’re having your first mouthful, you’re already looking forward to the second one.

VH: Have any of the weird combinations you’ve dreamed up ever turned out disastrously?
MP: We’ve not had any disasters, but it did take us 15 attempts to get our maple nougat right. Maple syrup is very different to work with from white sugar. It doesn’t have the same molecular structure, and we had trouble keeping the egg whites stiff and fluffy when we folded it in.

VH: Au PDC Sugar Shack makes reference to La Grande Bouffe, a movie famous for its pig-out scenes. Any other food films you love?
MP: The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and her Lover. It’s marvelous. And at the end they cook a human [laughs]. When they’re in the kitchen, the lighting is all yellow; when they go into the freezer, it’s blue; somewhere else, maybe the washroom, it’s all red. And all the skirts and clothes keep changing. It’s a beautiful film that I really, really, really love.

VH: Your new book has its share of provocative images. Can you tell us about “The Girls’ Supper” shoot?
MP: The girls in it are all in the restaurant business, women I adore: my sous-chef, two waitresses and the wine stewardess from Joe Beef. We asked them to meet at Au Pied de Cochon, then we took them to the sugar shack in a limo stocked with champagne for a surprise.

My friend Marc Seguin is one of the best-known painters in North America, and one day we were at his studio eating pizza slices. We didn’t have plates, so we ate on a little painting instead.

We got a big kick out of it, so we wanted to give the girls that same kind of experience, only on a $20,000 painting [laughter]. So that’s what we served their dinner on at the sugar shack that night. It was about breaking a taboo. We said: Why not? Let’s do it, it’s going to be extraordinary.

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For more of the extraordinary, the wild and the decadently delicious, check out Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack, by Martin Picard, now available in major bookstores and through online retailers. To get the recipe for Picard’s ridiculously tasty maple chocolate bars, click here.

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