Over the years, many chefs have thrilled me with their cooking but only a handful of them have consistently surprised me. Off the top of my head, the list would consist of Michael Stadtländer, Greg Couillard, Mitsuhiro Kaji and Marc Thuet. I have eaten Marc’s food dozens of times since I first tasted it in 1993, at Centro, where he had just taken over as Executive Chef after four years as Michael Bonacini’s sous. He stayed there until 2002 and I never knew what to expect. Some nights he’d come out and ask “Do you wanna play?” and then he would send out something miles away from the restaurant’s standard menu – a dish of pig’s trotter slow-braised almost to jelly and layered with persimmon, perhaps, or a little pastry filled with molten Münster cheese, or (so unexpectedly) sushi topped with foie gras and icewine jelly.
After that came two triumphant years at The Fifth (I voted it the best restaurant in Toronto during his stay, as I had done a couple of years earlier when Didier Leroy was chef), then a brief stay at Rosewater Supper Club (he was gone before I had a chance to taste his work there). And then he settled into the property on King Street West, next door to Susur Lee’s restaurants. There were still surprises. No one cooks game better than Marc Thuet and the properly aged and hung game he procured for off-menu dinners was the best ever tasted in Toronto – at least in the modern era. When he reinvented the place as a bistro he revived recipes learned from his grandmother in Alsace – awesome choucroute and cassoulet – dishes, he told me, that took days to prepare from scratch. But there were also dishes that astonished with their delicacy and discipline, almost a Japanese aesthetic, that reminded us that Thuet had started his career as an apprentice at The Dorchester hotel in London under the great Anton Mosimann.
The room’s last incarnation was as Conviction, with Thuet employing former convicts as kitchen and front-of-house staff, the whole socio-culinary experiment filmed as a reality television show. This time the big surprise was Thuet’s gift as a teacher. He didn’t look the part – big and burley as a biker, arms covered in tattoos, movie star shades worn on top of his dyed golden curls; and he didn’t sound the part – the basso profundo growl still showing a heavy Alsatian accent, effing and blinding with every other word. But two or three of the raw recruits managed to stay the course and one, I know, has since opened a bistro of his own.
TV tends to lead to a book deal in this shallow age, and here it is: Marc Thuet’s French Food My Way (Viking Canada, $39). Many of the favourite dishes from his restaurants are featured, and if the snippets of accompanying text don’t quite sound like Marc talking it’s only because his editors have weeded out the cuss words from a personal patois that normally puts Captain Haddock to shame.
It’s a thrill to find the recipes for dishes I’ve loved in his restaurants – quail consommé, choucroute, cassoulet, roasted pumpkin soup with poached bone marrow and white truffle (no one has ever accused Thuet of shying away from rich textures). The big question, of course, is how well do they translate to the page. Consider his take on tarte tatin (page 148). All the necessary information is there, and anyone who knew how to time a caramel sauce and pack the apple would have a pretty easy time doing it justice. But a cook who lacked experience or instinct? I’m not so sure.
The best thing about the book is the insight it gives into Thuet’s culinary mind. These are the things that make him tick, the ingredients that matter to him, the background techniques he learned in Alsace and London, the flavours he found in Canada. I’m not sure about the pictures – there are plenty of them, which is great, but they lie a tad flat on the paper. Nevertheless, I shall be putting this volume on the shelf reserved for books from which I intend to actually cook, some day, when there’s time.