For the Love of Foie Gras and Maple Syrup: An Afternoon With Martin Picard, Montreal's Most Daring Chef
My first attempt at meeting Martin Picard was not successful.
I was on the other end of a rejection email saying, in so many words, "It’s not you, it’s me.” But I refused to accept this clichéd breakup line as my fate. Picard is a legend, a culinary madman known for highlighting local ingredients, incorporating Quebecois history into his whimsical yet bold dish presentations, and most notably, things like duck in a can. And I, a woman of little stature (literally -- I'm 5'2"), was on a mission: to land an interview with Montreal’s Wild Chef.
For months, I had been anxiously awaiting the day of my reservation at Au Pied de Cochon’s renowned cabane à sucre, a 45-minute drive from the heart of Montreal. Seating for the entire season fills up within one night, but somehow, I managed a seat. I marked the April date on my calendar with a doodle of a tiny pig. I was impatient for this day to arrive.
It finally came, and I was well-prepared for the singular experience of a multi-course feast from the mind of the Wild Chef and the subsequent foie gras-induced stupor that notoriously comes with it. From the three-tier foie gras cake with maple butter, apricot jelly, and pistachio bavaroise to the most delicious sea snail, mushroom, and cheese chowder to the maple-sugar pie finale, I was stuffed and ready to be rolled out of the sugar shack when a very tall man walked by my table. His hair untamed, his aura intimidating, and his eyes laser-focused on everything in the kitchen, Martin Picard was merely feet away from me. After finding my courage via a swig of my maple-gin drink, I tiptoed towards him to ask: how about an interview?
I marked the date on my calendar with a doodle of a tiny pig.
"You want to write about me? Are you going to be writing about my shape?" said Picard, laughing. He’s not as intimidating as the reputation that precedes him might lead one to believe, it turns out.
It is a well-known fact that a meal at Au Pied de Cochon, the cabane à sucre or food truck, will be a calorie-laden adventure. With a menu packed with meat, foie gras, and fat-driven dishes, this PDC trifecta is where diets go to die. I had to know how foie gras had come to take over Picard's life and become an ingredient synonymous with PDC.
“It took close to three years to perfect, and there is something great about the slowness it took,” proudly stated the chef born in Repentigny, QC. "I learned how to cook foie gras at Marc Meneau’s -- a three-star Michelin chef -- where I was an apprentice. There were mountains of foie gras there. I was inspired by the abundance and the variety."
His love for foie gras as a young apprentice grew to an obsession when he became the kind of chef who dared to ask, "What happens when I stuff this into that?" Since a section of the cabane a sucre’s menu is dedicated entirely to foie gras, I had a sneaking suspicion that Martin secretly wanted to kill (or at least induce comas in) his patrons with endless amounts of fatty food.
“I want to be a good host and cover guests with love and food. If that ends up killing them, well… ” said chef Picard with a smirk.
Though foie gras is objectively one of his most-used ingredients, he wouldn’t call it his favorite. “Depends on my mood, but maple syrup is a regular favorite. I guess it also depends on the season,” he said. “One day, I would like to serve foie gras whole in a steamed bun -- Asian-style.”
Incorporating Asian ingredients and preparations into his menus is a direction the curious chef is beginning to explore in his own fashion. In 2006, chef Picard released his cookbook, Au Pied de Cochon: The Album, which included a recipe, accompanied by graphic photo, of squirrel sushi. Rumor has it that he first began to experiment in the kitchen with the furry creatures because they were destroying his cabane and he wanted to exact his revenge. The Wild Chef confessed he’d like to create another Asian-inspired preparation for squirrel, limited only by the supply chain.
"If it was legal, squirrel would definitely be on the menu."
"By law, you can only eat squirrels that have been trapped by a licensed trapper," says Picard. "Unfortunately, it is hard to cook, since it’s difficult to supply. If it was legal and easier to find a supplier, it would definitely be on the menu. I don’t have any other recipes at the moment for squirrel, but I would love to eat them in a dumpling with a peanut butter sauce,” mused Picard.
Though it's shocking that someone should dream of cooking up squirrel dumplings, let alone beaver stuffed with its own tail, garnished with its head, and cooked in pig’s blood and cream; or how about an entire stuffed pig's head that needs to be requested days before your reservation (he only makes two every day), chef Picard doesn't aim to be provocative. He just cooks whatever he’s curious to try. But he admits: “Believe it or not, I am not so warm to the idea of cooking horse.”
Before our afternoon came to an end, I had to know if he repaired his friendship with Anthony Bourdain after his appearance on No Reservations. Picard was supposed to make small versions of some of his menu items. Instead, he made one of everything on his fatty menu in their original, gluttonous size for Bourdain. It’s also been said that Picard’s exact words to his staff ahead of the appearance were "kill him." Within minutes, Bourdain was clearly feeling the foie sweats and knew the Quebecois chef had ordered a hit on his life and the murder weapon was food. I joked that a peace bond between the two after the attempted heavy-dish-and-alcohol murder would involve a mud wrestling match, and asked Picard if he would let his adversary win.
“Of course! His wife -- as adorable as she is -- is a jujitsu master and would destroy me,” laughed chef Picard. “I think I mostly pleased him rather than destroyed him that day. If I was in his 24-hour Layover -- I am sure he didn’t mind.”
So murder me with food. I welcome my death with open arms.
As I prepared to leave with my coveted doggie bags filled with maple syrup and foie gras, I had one last question: what does he plan on doing next? "I’m going to enjoy what I have," said Picard with a genuine smile.
He insisted his "culinary madman" persona is very different when he’s not in the kitchen. In fact, he’s just a normal guy who likes to explore food markets, speak to local farmers, and cook his family breakfast, no matter what time of day. "I love making a breakfast-style club sandwich with items from the family fridge. It's always different, but it always has a breakfast twist," said a gleaming Picard.
With my questions answered, I left happy and hoping there wouldn’t be any traffic on the way home -- I was coming up on my food coma. Picard’s prophecy of sedating with good food was being fulfilled. But it was nice to know the renowned culinary experimenter I finally got to meet is a genuine, nice guy. So murder me all you want with food, Monsieur Picard. I welcome my death with open arms.
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