On the job two years, Fairmont Château Laurier executive chef Louis Simard turns once again to artisan, local, and simply prepared culinary fare — and not a Krispy Kreme in sight
DEC 14 14 – 12:20 PM — I’ve attended more than a few memorable culinary noshes during 16 years as a professional food writer, yet each Christmas I leave the annual soirée at the Fairmont Château Laurier even more impressed by what must surely rank as the best social, food and drink event of the Yuletide season — certainly among the top three or four food and drink occasions each year in the nation’s capital.
Hosted for the last 16 years by hotel general manager Claude Sauvé and his charming wife, Deborah, this year’s evening with more than 300 hotel clients, friends, well-wishers and socialites was as much a culinary commitment by Louis Simard, executive chef at the château now two years, to showcase local, artisan and crafted foodstuffs, in a celebration of simplicity. In short, an opportunity for friends to bask in the hospitality of one of the city’s most venerable and welcoming institutions in the buoyant spirit of the festive season.
It was my privilege this time to be accompanied by my son, Graeme, 20, home over the Christmas holidays from school in Seoul, South Korea, where he is enrolled in a Korean language course at the languages institute of Yonsei University. He arrived at 1 a.m. after a lengthy flight through Vancouver. Sadly, my dear Nancy was unable to attend as she found herself in court somewhere in the Eastern Townships on subpoena as an expert witness, a residual obligation arising from her pre-retirement career as a civilian forensic specialist at the RCMP in Ottawa. (Believe me, Nancy would rather enjoy the hospitality at the château than be a guest of the Crown in east Quebec, but I digress …)
For his part, Graeme assures me he is experiencing some of the finer flavours of Korean culinary culture, which, of course, is varied and, in my mind anyway, exciting. But under cross-examination I have discovered much of his caloric intake in Seoul comes from Krispy Kream, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Golden Arches and Burger King — big sigh — such being the dietary predilection of a freshman on a foreign adventure.
A native of Saint-Donat near Mont Tremblant, chef Simard, 36, is a 1998 graduate of the Québec Institute of Hospitality and Tourism, and a dedicated champion of artisan, often local ingredients that he prefers to showcase through simple, unfussed preparation. His point is basic: When you have wonderful products to work with it’s unkind to hide them with too much manipulation. He knows the provenance of everything he serves.
Like me, Simard believes that, say, lamb raised in Ontario and Quebec is more consistent and superior to imported product, and when it comes to processed meats he’d rather serve charcuterie made by local Seed to Sausage in Sharbot Lake north of Kingston, fine cheeses from Quebec and the Ottawa Valley, and exquisite in-house cured salmon. Even where fresh oysters aren’t exactly local, Simard is inclined to look to Prince Edward Island for the best.
“We started planning our Christmas event last August,” Simard says.
“Our guests are top clients and the who’s-who in Ottawa social circles — from politicians to corporate people — so the food has to be compelling, high-end with the best ingredients, yet it all has to be simple and easy to eat.
“So our theme this year is to present a rustic Christmas with honest, clean food and nothing you’d consider over-the-top,” Simard explains.
“Among the desserts tonight, we have a simple house-made marshmallow with the best you can have in two flavours — cinnamon, and honey and mint, flambéed with a torch à la minute,” he says. “And the Ontario rack of lamb with braised shank risotto and pan jus is a beautiful product — the lamb has great flavour but is not too gamey, with beautiful marbling. All our mushrooms are from Le Coprin in Farrelton, Que., which is another local product we love to showcase.
“We have two oysters, one from Summerside P.E.I. and the other Conway Pearl. I wanted oysters of good size but not too large for a standup reception. I find they’re clean and crisp. While the Summerside oysters have a cucumber-like flavour undertone, the Conway is more briny for contrast.”
“For our seafood extravaganza we have three house-cured salmon — one in a pastrimi style, another beet and vodka cured, and then gravlax,” Simard says. “And we’re searing scallops with foie gras butter where rich foie gras mousse with butter balances the luciousness of the shellfish.”
A celebration of flavours, bite after bite.