More than friends, they are brothers. Chefs Daniel Vézina and Normand Laprise are brothers in fine dining, brothers in kitchen crafts, and brothers in arms in the battle to promote healthy eating that’s both local and environmentally responsible.
They met in the 1980s in a bus heading for Québec City. They would take it all the time, ready for a night on the town, then one night they both wound up in the same bar. Normand bought Daniel a glass of champagne and a friendship was born, just like that. Thirty years later, they have left an impressive trail behind them—and the two of them get on like a house on fire. A conversation over a few glasses of wine touches on friends, restaurants, Montréal, and, naturally, cooking.
The first time Normand Laprise and Daniel Vézina worked together, it was at the Saint-Honoré restaurant (then owned by Christiane and Jean-Yves Germain) on Québec City’s Grande Allée. The experience was short-lived and… inconclusive. “We were both young and neither of us had the experience to run a kitchen. Let’s just say it didn’t last long,” they chuckle. But Daniel and Normand decided to work together again, this time at L’Échaudé, a French bistro on Rue Sault-au-Matelot in Québec City’s Old Port. It would be for the last time. “We were both very headstrong,” recalls Daniel with a smile. “Normand was dreaming of leaving Québec City behind and told me the town wasn’t big enough for both of us.” So one left for Montréal, while the other stayed in Québec City. Toqué! and Laurie Raphaël, their respective restaurants, have since become institutions that are known far and wide. But is Montréal too small for both chefs? It certainly doesn’t look that way: the second Laurie Raphaël restaurant, in Hôtel Le Germain Montréal, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, and Daniel Vézina and Normand Laprise are firmer friends than ever. Laprise goes as far as saying that his friend has turned Montréal’s hotel restaurant scene on its head. “Before Laurie Raphaël, it was virtually impossible to find a hotel in Montréal where you could eat really well.”
So what’s it like running a hotel restaurant? “Suzanne [Gagnon, his better half and business partner] and I are really happy with how our relationship with Groupe Germain has developed. We share the same business values, the same family values. We’re also delighted, after five years, to be so well-positioned on the fine-dining scene in Montréal—plus I get to see Normand much more often!”
THE RESTAURANT SCENE IN MONTRÉAL
The two chefs agree: Montréal restaurants are overflowing with talent, but they have too many young chefs in too much of a hurry. (Too?) many of these go-getters want to have their own restaurants and run their own kitchens too soon, they say. “You need to take the time to do the things that take time to do,” says Laprise, with his usual wise words. “These youngsters are full of ambition,” Vézina chips in, “and sometimes do things a little too quickly, without understanding all the hard work that goes into running a restaurant. Knowing how to cook isn’t everything: you also need to surround yourself with a team that will take care of all the things you can do less well, like marketing and communications.” It just goes to show that fame and fortune have brought no rose-tinted glasses for two of Montréal’s favourite chefs, both of whom are sad to say they don’t have more time to spend in the city’s restaurants.
Whether on TV, in the kitchen, or in one of their cookbooks, Daniel Vézina and Normand Laprise are two of the most strident defenders of the local food movement and the small producers they have been encouraging for decades… without haggling over prices. “For us, it’s vital that the best producers survive and have enough orders,” explains Vézina. “That’s why I never try to get better prices. Quality comes with a price and we should respect that.” Laprise and Vézina’s position on local agriculture is clear: Québec’s cup is running over with excellent products. “The more we promote them, the more demand there will be, and the more small farmers will be able to produce quality products for all.” It’s a safe bet that if anyone were choosing two people to get consumers to wake up to the impact quality produce can have from farm to fork, then Vézina and Laprise would be the first names on the list. Two top chefs, two gentlemen, two friends for life.
BACK TO BASICS
In his latest cookbook, Mes classiques préférés, Daniel Vézina continues to prove that cooking at home couldn’t be easier… as long as you know what you’re doing! Step by step instructions, photos, and expert tips reveal the secrets behind classics like tartares and bolognese sauce.
Mes classiques préférés Daniel Vézina Éditions La Presse, 39,95 $
TEAMWORK IN THE KITCHEN
Toqué! Creators of a New Quebec Gastronomy is so much more than a cookbook—it’s first and foremost a portrait of Normand Laprise, his team, and the producers that have made his restaurant a destination in itself. The book recently scooped a James Beard Foundation Award.
Toqué! Creators of a New Quebec Gastronomy Normand Laprise Les éditions du passage, 69,95 $