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Cooking Canadian

Where the River Narrows

Classic French & Nostalgic Québécois Recipes From St. Lawrence Restaurant

by (author) J.-.C. Poirier

with Joie Alvaro Kent

foreword by Derek Dammann

Random House Canada
Initial publish date
Nov 2022
Canadian, French, Individual Chefs & Restaurants
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Nov 2022
    List Price

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From the acclaimed and multi award-winning chef J-C Poirier of St. Lawrence restaurant comes a stunning, lyrical cookbook with over 125 recipes that celebrate the classic dishes of Québec and France.

WHERE THE RIVER NARROWS is a loving homage to Chef Jean-Christophe (J-C) Poirier’s home province, Québec—the phrase is a direct translation of the Algonquin word “kebec,” describing the area around Québec City where the St. Lawrence River is hemmed in by towering cliffs. Québec is where J-C’s love for the nostalgic beauty of French cooking began. In his debut cookbook, he shares recipes from both cultures, Québécois and French, and the intersections between them—whether from the menu of his Michelin-starred Vancouver restaurant, St. Lawrence, or his kitchen at home.

With over 125 beautifully photographed recipes, J-C provides a full look at French and Québécois cooking with classic dishes like Tourtière, Pot-au-Feu, Tarte au Sucre, and Tarte Tatin, along with bistro favourites like Steak with Peppercorn Cream Sauce and Chocolate Mousse that your friends and family are sure to love. For those who are devoted fans of St. Lawrence, where J-C showcases time-honoured traditions in a transportive dining experience, readers will find his signature dishes, like the famous Pâté en Croûte, Coquilles St-Jacques à la Parisienne, and Tarte au Citron Flambée au Pastis. Readers seeking reliable recipes for the basics and mother sauces of French cuisine can earmark the Chef ’s Essentials chapter as their go-to resource. And to finish it off, a Menus section with suggestions for pairing dishes, selecting wine, and other tips and tricks, will help you pull off the feast of your dreams. Interspersed throughout are essays where J-C shares the full breadth of his culinary experience, his life as a chef and restaurateur, and how he cooks for his family at the end of a long day. With his magnetic yet dry sense of humour, you’ll hear J-C’s voice as you recreate his most beloved dishes. Whether you’re an adventurous home cook or an armchair traveller, this enchanting book is just as much a pleasure to read as it is to cook from.

About the authors

J.-.C. Poirier's profile page

Joie Alvaro Kent's profile page

DEREK DAMMANN was born in Campbell River, B.C., the salmon capital of the world. After studying cooking in Nanaimo, chef Dammann worked in one of Canada’s great Italian restaurants, Zambri’s, in Victoria, before making his way to the UK to work with Jamie Oliver in developing the concept behind the restaurant 15, and later becoming the corporate chef of Sweet Candy, Jamie’s private production company. He came back to Canada and settled in Montreal where he opened DNA, one of the most exciting nose-to-tail dining establishments in North America. He partnered with Jamie Oliver again to open Maison Publique, a hugely popular and highly regarded gastro-pub.

CHRIS JOHNS is one of Canada’s most respected food writers. He spent his early years in the Northwest Territories before moving south and eventually finding his way to Toronto. He has written extensively for en Route, The Globe and Mail, Wallpaper, Toronto Life and various international publications. His work has been translated into three languages and has appeared in the Best Food Writing compilation.

Derek Dammann's profile page

Excerpt: Where the River Narrows: Classic French & Nostalgic Québécois Recipes From St. Lawrence Restaurant (by (author) J.-.C. Poirier; with Joie Alvaro Kent; foreword by Derek Dammann)

Excerpt from the Introduction

4:45 p.m. Pre-shift staff meeting’s in the bag, and everyone’s starting to gear up for doors opening in fifteen minutes. Holy shit, eighty-five covers on a Tuesday night. Even after twenty-five years in the industry, I still get butterflies before the first guests arrive. David cues up “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC on the sound system and cranks it super loud. For five minutes, every single team member goes a little apeshit, screaming “YEAH!” at the tops of their lungs—we’re all amped. Then, just as abruptly as it began, the music dies, and we all settle into that familiar groove. We’ve blown off some of the pre-game stress; it’s still there, but at least it’s a little more controlled and less chaotic now. Above all, though, we stay grounded because we have faith in our system at St. Lawrence, faith in each other, faith that everyone’s station is looking good, faith that we’re all serious enough to be ready. It’s the calm before the storm. Bon service, tout le monde. It’s go time.

I can’t say that cooking has always been my calling. When I was a kid, I spent most of my time playing team sports, but eating has always my true passion. I loved—and still love—the ritual of sitting at a table and having a hearty meal with family and friends. It was as if a deep understanding of the power of food ran through my veins from a very early age; I could see how it brings people together and gives everyone something to talk about.

We didn’t dine at restaurants very often while I was growing up in Saint-Jérôme, Québec. I discovered that part of my culinary journey much later. But we always had something good to eat on the table at home because my mother was incredibly creative with the budget. The food that came out of her kitchen was traditional, healthy, and seasonal. And, damn, could Mom ever throw a party. I remember so many epic dinners with Dad’s soccer friends—those nights were always off the hook. Six-year-old me would stare wide-eyed at the méchoui, the spit-roasted lamb stuffed with pounds of butter and spices (and I mean ridiculously huge amounts of butter). Everyone would fight for the mignonettes (testicles), but I’d grab a giant leg bone. It was huge for a little kid, kind of like something out of The Flintstones, and I’d sit in the corner chewing on that massive piece of lamb, loving every bite.

Spending time outdoors was a big part of my childhood, and foraging fiddleheads with my father was the adventure that I looked forward to the most. We’d come back home to sauté them simply in butter with chopped garlic; I’ll never forget how impressed I was to taste something so delicious that we’d just picked ourselves in the forest.

For most of his life, my paternal grandfather had a small cabane à sucre (sugar shack) in the woods, accessible only by foot or by Ski-Doo. With seven sisters and two brothers in my dad’s family, it was always a big deal when all his siblings and their families got together. Our annual sugar shack reunion was, by far, one of my favourite family gatherings. All my cousins and I would run from tree to tree, screaming at the top of our lungs when we were lucky enough to find maple sap in the buckets. And watching my grandfather reduce that liquid into amazing maple syrup was the most magical thing ever.

Admittedly, the teenage years were tough for me. I didn’t know a lot about myself, who I was or what I liked. For the most part, I was incredibly confused about what I should do with my life. But I did know one thing for sure: I could never be stuck in a job where I’d be chained to a desk. I needed to move, to always be active. My closest friends pushed me to take the one-year course in hôtellerie to become a cook. A bunch of my buddies and I were sharing a house together at the time, and I was always the one who’d meal plan, cook, and grill for us all. Who knows—maybe they were leveraging the prospect of better meals! Regardless, a career in cooking seemed like a natural fit for me, so I told myself, “Why not give it a shot?”

I spent a year training in classical French cooking techniques, and decided to take my first kitchen job at Les Remparts in Old Montréal. A true old-school French restaurant, its menu featured dishes like veal sweetbreads with grapes, venison with chestnuts and salsify, coq au vin, côte de veau with chanterelles and vin jaune, lobster ravioli with bisque, poached pears in Riesling, and mousse au chocolat with crème chantilly. I was immediately hooked.

The physical aspect of cooking is what really drew me in, and I saw the kitchen brigade as being very much like a sports team. I believe that good cooking, at least in a restaurant, demands being in good physical condition. The long hours, stress, and abuse your body endures on an everyday basis are huge factors, and a person has to deeply love cooking to dedicate themselves to it. Is it a good way to live? I don’t have the answer to that. But I can confess that I was all in from day one and became obsessed with food and this profession right away.

Midway through service, and we’re all hustling. I’m on the pass slicing and plating pâté en croûte, then dressing an endive salad, then putting the finishing touches on a ballotine de canard so that it’s ready to send. A sprinkle of Maldon salt on one plate, a drizzle of olive oil on another. Damn, almost missed wiping off that little drop of sauce vin rouge. Landen’s busy plating on the other side of the pass, making sure that sauces are strained, clean, the right consistency, and properly seasoned. Jules is firing a pork chop for table 31, searing it in a cast-iron pan before resting it for at least ten minutes. Timing is everything. Margaux is next to me, prepping plates of bread and cretons for the new arrivals who just sat down while shes juggling bills coming in for dessert—tarte au citron for bar 10. The chits keep on coming, but we’re in it to win it. Every night.

I’ve got to tip my hat to Chef Normand Laprise. Learning how to survive the storm and understanding that a smooth sea never made a good sailor were two of my biggest lessons from the time I spent in his kitchen at Toqué!. Such immaculate organization and precision, and—oh my god!—the produce coming in was of a quality that I’d never seen before. It was a 180-degree shift from the classic French cuisine I’d been immersed in. It was refreshing and exciting, and the corresponding intensity, standards, expectations, and stress levels were also very high. I learned right away that I had to change my mindset, to never complain, and to start doing more than what was expected of me. No other restaurant or chef has had such a meaningful impact on my cooking philosophy and career.

After just shy of two years at Toqué!, an all-too-familiar feeling started to surface. I’d progressed on the line from garde-manger to meat station, to chef de partie entremetier, and to chef de partie saucier, but something was missing. Out of the blue, I decided to quit—I do things like this sometimes. Woke up and said to myself “I’m done,” with no real plans for what might come next. But I knew I wanted to get the hell out of Québec, out of my comfort zone, and so I moved out west.

Chef Rob Feenie’s newly opened restaurant Lumière is what drew me to Vancouver, British Columbia; lucky for me, the chef de cuisine was Québécois. That French connection was my in. I sold everything I owned, packed one bag and all my knives, and relocated across the country, leaving my family, friends, and girlfriend behind. At the time, I could barely speak English. My English vocabulary was literally no more than “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye.” Talk about being a fish out of water. And if I thought Toqué! was busy, Lumière launched the definition of “being in the weeds” straight into the stratosphere.

Lumière was different from Toqué!, smaller in size but with triple the workload and only half as many cooks in the kitchen. We had an à la carte menu, a tasting menu, a vegetarian tasting menu, and on top of that, a bar menu for what was essentially a second restaurant attached to Lumière’s dining room. Chef Feenie had won Iron Chef that year against Chef Morimoto; as a result, we were the hot spot in Vancouver, and we were slammed every night.

I spent six out of seven days each week at work, sixteen hours a day. Yet, despite that, I enjoyed my time at Lumière. So many great cooks came out of that kitchen—lots of us are now chefs and restaurateurs. Working shoulder to shoulder with people for long hours in a high-pressure environment is like going to war every night, knowing you need each other to win it. It forges a strong bond, and all the cooks I met at Lumière remain my close friends. But although we put out excellent food together and I learned a lot in Chef Feenie’s kitchen, my biggest takeaway from Lumière was what I learned about myself.

At some point in a cook’s career comes the dark time when you’re not sure if you want to keep pursuing this madness. You see everyone around you—except for your fellow cooks—working fewer hours and making way more money. And if your life partner doesn’t work in the industry, then you’ve got huge problems on your shoulders because they’ll never understand why you’re doing this to yourself. Being on the line at Lumière, I realized that no matter how difficult it was to play at a high level and how mentally hard it was to know that I’d be missing important moments in my family’s and friends’ lives, I was too invested in my career. There was no going back to something else. I loved working hard to reach a goal and the incredible sense of accomplishment I felt upon reaching it. Oddly enough, I loved the pressure too. After Lumière, I wanted to be a chef more than anything.

Front of house is in full gear now. Our manager Julie’s polishing plates because we’re running out. Happens all the time because we’re a little restaurant and don’t have that much tableware. Sarah’s killing it behind the bar, making a French 75 and pouring glasses of Sancerre. Booze sales are gonna be good tonight. Robert Charlebois is next up on the playlist— “J’t’aime comme un fou” from what I can hear over the guests’ conversations, Christophe’s favourite. David’s running empty plates to the dishpit. Christophe’s running desserts for table 37. Next turn’s about to get seated—kitchen’s gonna get hit again soon. Every night feels like a Saturday night these days; I’ve gotta shut up and remember that this is a good problem to have. “Dig deep, everyone,” I say to the crew. “It’s almost over. We’re gonna get it done.”

Over the next ten years, I tried to figure out what my career was going to look like; that process involved a lot of wandering and soul searching. I checked out of Vancouver for a while, taking a step back to spend about fourteen months travelling through South America. It was a search for perspective, not only on my work but on my life. I started in Chile, went up to Peru, up again to Ecuador, back down to Bolivia, into Argentina, and completed the loop by ending up in the south of Chile before making my way back home. Everything I owned was in my backpack. No keys, no attachments whatsoever, no responsibilities, except making sure I had something to eat every day. Travelling through these countries, having pared back my life in such an extreme way made me appreciate the value of living simply. With that clarity, I was ready to come back and attack the next few years with a more complete sense of purpose.

There were lots of stops and starts, lots of forks in the road. Along the way, I opened some award-winning restaurants and grew up as a businessperson; those heights of success were tempered by a ton of sacrifices, as well as some pretty significant failures and kicks in the teeth. I chalk it up to impatience. Young cooks— myself included—always want to be good at their craft right away. They’ve got something to prove, whether it’s to the outside world, to their fellow chefs, or to themselves. When they walk into a restaurant as a finished product, see the kitchen running so smoothly and see the dishes coming out, they think to themselves, “Hell yeah, I want this.” So they apply for a job, join the team, and become part of the process—and then quit after realizing how damn hard it is. In my experience, true success doesn’t come overnight. Back then, I didn’t understand that it takes twenty to twenty-five years in the industry before you can really put your finger on your true direction.

A life-changing meal that my now-wife, Dara, and I had at L’Ami Jean in Paris crystallized my approach to owning a restaurant. It took everything I thought I knew about being a chef and turned it on its head. Knowing I’d be going full tilt after opening St. Lawrence, I took the opportunity to grab some much-needed downtime in 2016 and stole away with Dara for my very first trip to France—at last. I immediately felt like I was home, and the entire trip was like a dream. On our second day in Paris, I proposed to the woman of my life in front of Basilique du Sacré-Coeur—seriously, the best day ever. We strolled through the city without a care in the world, hopping from restaurant to restaurant, but there was one spot I knew I had to hit: L’Ami Jean, a tiny bistro in the seventh arrondissement with a crazy chef who made phenomenal food. Everything I’d heard about it was true, and our dinner was better than I could have imagined.

What impressed me most was the electric presence of chef/owner Stéphane Jégo. He was in the kitchen with his team: cooking, plating, expediting, and yelling at everyone in a good way, with passion. Chef Jégo was possessed by the passion of a chef with high expectations who wants things done his way, the right way. I was spellbound and I couldn’t stop watching him work. These days, you don’t often see chefs on the line anymore; for that matter, you don’t even see them in their restaurants very often. It’s all about media and appearances, with so-called glamour becoming more important than everyday cooking tasks.

I loved L’Ami Jean so much that I cancelled my reservation at Le Chateaubriand two weeks later and went back for a second meal. Chef Jégo was on the line once again, working his ass off and yelling, “Allez, allez! Service! Plus vite! On y va! ” Dining at L’Ami Jean was so inspiring that I wanted to follow in Chef Jégo’s footsteps. I wanted to be a chef who led by example and actions, who was in the kitchen every day with his crew, on the front line so all the customers could see and feel the passion, dedication, care, and sacrifice. That day, I decided to attack St. Lawrence just like that and be the Stéphane Jégo of Vancouver. I was me again, with all my dreams, my beliefs, and my energy. I had a plan with a clear vision.

Other titles by Derek Dammann