Chef & Sommelier

The decision to go out for a meal at a gastronomic establishment is to be out of your comfort zone and ready for something different. Furthermore, there has got to be a dish whose execution most home chefs can’t achieve, for lack of equipment, time or know-how.

The kitchen crew has a wealth of knowledge about food and technique and thus can flex their creative muscle to showcase food in ways you’ve never seen or tasted. The same goes for wine, my knowledge of it is only as good as my ability to get the guests excited about some obscure grape or region.

What we, the kitchen crew and the front staff want to encourage is the pleasure of discovery. I have the honor of working alongside a group of talented individuals at Les 400 Coups. It’s a team I’ve known for five years now. This familiarity and kinship allows for a great amount of collaboration.

Jason Nelsons

Of course, key importance is the ringmaster: none other than our chef Jason Nelsons. Jason’s cooking is a reflection of his catch-all personality. Quebec terroir is his mantra and he’s influenced an entire group of young cooks in Montreal.

His cooking is distinguished by bold flavors that never disturb the harmony of the dish’s subtler elements. It’s also a war between the dainty and the will to be natural and crude, an attempt to tame the wild. I could be talking about wine. But great cooking is just that. To paraphrase Jason, it’s too easy to work with overly sweet, sour, bitter or salty elements, there has to be space where things meet and give way to others.

With such an audacious style, I can’t serve wines that will leave guests indifferent (I dread the word). I need to offer wines that will surprise as well, a red with a slight effervescence, a white wine with skin maceration or smelling of white beer.

We talk about food all the time.

As I was typing this, Jason presents me with a slow-roasted yellow tomato panna cotta. We talk about a crunchy contrast, maybe some dehydrated tomato crumble. He tells me: “I’m seeing green here, you know, like tarragon or thym.” Sous-chef Andrew Derosa joins the conversation. He sprinkles some toasted buckwheat and crunchy caramelized shallots on top of the panna cotta. It tastes great! Is it still a dessert, like we originally intended? Good luck on the pairing Jonathan…

The Process

We would like to think that this creative process, this synergy between chef and sommelier derives from us having known each other from other restaurants. Jason drinks my wines and is familiar with my tastes. He is keen on the Central European trip I’m on right now…

The time we spend talking about food and shooting ideas at one another leads to new dishes being on the menu in a matter of days.

Like this Saturn peach and smoked scallop salad… Every Thursday, a produce truck called Chef’s Secret will park next door and we hamper inside to look at the variety of crazy stuff inside. Jason takes a long look at some Ontario Saturn Peaches, a bag of Padron green chilis and some fresh Nori. We head back to the restaurant with our purchases.

“It came together in my head. The nori sautéed in butter, thin slivers of green padron peppers and some slices of Saturn peaches.” Where is he going to do with this? The combination is already off the wall: he talks about adding the smoked scallops. As we discuss the dish, I’m thinking: Orange wine. We pour a glass of La Castellada’s Ribolla Gialla. The slight bitter almond, peach blossom nose and freshness round out our mouths. We hit it: just like that. It isn’t always so easy, but the intuition that Jason uses in his cooking serves me with pairings too: we go by feel. Sometimes it clashes, sometimes it works wonders. But we have come to trust it. “Pour me a junior glass, I have to do some prep work downstairs”, Jason tells me. As I make to pour him a Pinot blanc from Germany, Jason grabs my arm: “no…the orange wine. I need to meditate on it.”

Taking chances

I owe it to you, the dinner guest who opted for the wine pairing with the tasting menu, to surprise you. If I serve a decanted orange wine with the bison steak or red wine with fish, it’s because I’ve researched it, tasted it, spoke with others, took in their points of view and believe in it.

Surprise is as only as good as the planning behind it.

The perfect meal, is near-perfect, perfection is a myth. The kitchen would light the decorative pine firs on fire when bringing out the scallop entrée and the smell of burning pine adds an element of theatrical to the serving of the dish. It’s part of the olfactory experience.  So out I come with the Magnums! The double format (1.5L) of wine is not only festive but beautiful the way a vinyl record is. The wine also appears to age better in this format. It’s a great attention-getter, as the guests suddenly stop their conversations and listen to me explain what’s inside the bottle. Magnums highlight the weekend, the fact of hitting the town and taking to enjoy the evening in the company of one’s friends for dinner.

So do we institutionalize the creative process? Insofar as it doesn’t stifle our creativity, I guess our ten minute pow-wows every day serve that very function.