Take heart, all parents of children who would rather play with their food than eat vegetables. Marc Lepine, the owner of Atelier restaurant and author of its eponymous cookbook, didn’t eat many vegetables – or even like cheese – until he was about 21. Plating a caprese salad in Toronto, Lepine suddenly felt the urge to taste the items he was being paid to handle, and from that point on, his palate and curiosity have continued to expand. Lepine, who opened Atelier in 2008, attracted a passionate crowd to the launch of his first cookbook at Library and Archives Canada last Saturday. The book is intended as much as a source of inspiration and a documentation of Lepine’s career as it is a realistic guide to home cooking.
The first half of the launch was dedicated to conversation about Lepine’s training, work experience and goals. Lepine chatted comfortably with Jessie Duffy, (formerly of Wilf + Ada’s, now with Edible Ottawa), then took questions from the audience. The most compelling part of their discussion involved Lepine’s explanation of why he so often chooses to cook with liquid nitrogen rather than, for example, methane, propane or wood flame. Lepine is fascinated by the theatre of preparing and presenting food: if he can alter a texture, change a temperature or coax a new combination of flavours from familiar ingredients, he will do it. He spoke rapturously of the process of turning hot custard into ice cream in half a minute, as well as using science to make fine powders from oily nuts and olives. Lepine’s enthusiasm debunked any stereotypes of the prize-winning chef as a genius of molecular gastronomy. In fact, he dislikes the term, embraces teamwork, and welcomes others to post copies of his techniques on Instagram. The behind-the-scenes collaborative process, as well as the specialized kitchen instruments at Atelier are clearly a large part of the restaurant’s success. When a spectacularly bright blob of sauce or powder makes it onto a plate at Atelier, it is because it contributes something meaningful about culinary aesthetics, and because it tastes good. Lepine rebutted Duffy’s assertion that the embrace of hi-tech gadgets implied a disregard for seasonality. He works with the same local ingredients as other chefs, he reminded her; it is simply his process which makes them look and taste different on the plate. The point of eating in a restaurant like Atelier is to enjoy a special occasion designed and produced by creative specialists. “We strive,” he told his audience, “to make food you would never make at home.”
After gamely addressing questions from his fans, Lepine stepped over to an adjacent demonstration table and began making frozen “noodles” of passion fruit sauce. This section of the event was both fascinating and easy to follow. Leaning over a steaming tank of liquid nitrogen, Lepine explained that the boiling vapor is easier to handle than hot oil. Like a magician at a party, he showed off the wild and varied forms he could pull from his unconventional cooktop. Lepine’s energy and enthusiasm belied any stereotype about the so-called molecular gastronomy movement as tired or pedantic. Grabbing prefilled balloons full nitrogen gas and fruit juice, Lepine demonstrated how he makes the hollowed-out frozen juice spheres which structure some of his creations. It was reassuring to see that while practice certainly helps in the kitchen, it doesn’t make perfect. Lepine shrugged off the failures as he kept up a lively talk with his audience. (In the restaurant, Lepine told us, he sometimes injects smoke into the frozen sphere, which further compounds the surprise element of the dish). After successfully producing three elegant spheres of frozen cherry juice, Lepine invited volunteers to take part in the production process. It was wonderful to watch Lepine teach a teenager who stepped up to the stage, and to sample the products of the brief demonstration. After the presentation, audience members were all offered small versions of the “carrot hoop” appetizers served at Atelier. The Friends of the Ottawa Public Library ran a small wine bar as a complement to the food.
Set in the lovely Pellan Room on the second floor of Library and Archives Canada, this free public event was co-sponsored by three organizations: LAC, the Ottawa Public Library and the Ottawa International Writers Festival. Looking up at Alfred Pellan’s two murals (The Alphabets and Knowledge, both 1968) while nibbling Lepine’s food, browsing books and chatting with other festival-goers, this reviewer couldn’t help but wish for more events which satisfied so many senses at once.