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Quebec chef Anne Desjardins: 'Good food was cultural for me'

When you think of a mom-and-pop restaurant, you think of comfort food. The first thought is usually not a fine-dining, French-cuisine château, such as the hotel-spa-restaurant Chef Anne Desjardins built in the heart of the Laurentians. The self-taught 61-year-old chef opened l'Eau à la Bouche in the postcard-worthy village of Sainte-Adèle with her husband, Pierre Audette, in 1979. Over the years, Desjardins raised a family and a business and, like a true multitasking mom, she has integrated the two – her eldest son, Emmanuel, is now her sous-chef.

Did you have a favourite childhood meal growing up?

Yes, yes, oh yes. I did love when I'd go to my grandmother's place and she'd be cooking a big ham or a big roast beef or turkey. And we'd come in and it was the smell that I remember. That smell only comes from something that is cooking slowly or roasting in an oven. We [all of the grandchildren]would get crazy and say, "What are we having for lunch?" She would tease us and say, "What do you think that smell is?" And we'd be guessing "Oh, is it turkey? Or will it be roast beef?" If we got the right answer, she would reserve for us a little piece of the icing of the cake. My mother hated it when we got that icing, but for me, it was a real treat.

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When did you first think you might become a chef?

My family loved to eat good food, but I was not aware of the importance of choosing the right ingredient or good-quality food. Good food was cultural for me; everyone in my family had a strong sense of what tasted good.

I did not know in my teenage years that I would open a restaurant and become a chef because I was studying to become a geographer at the University of Quebec at Montreal.

So when did you start to cook?

My mother didn't like to cook. So when me and my sisters were teenagers, we began to cook the meals for our friends and family. I think we were good at it. So the first thing I did in cooking was not alone. It was with my family.

I really started to cook alone when I was 20 and had moved to the City of Quebec with my husband. I would pick up a recipe and say, "Ah, I'd like to try this," and since I was alone in my little kitchen, I tested them. I remember cooking scallops – I love shellfish – and I was not a chef at that time so I overcooked them. But I remembered and the next time I was cooking scallops I would say, "Ah" and would not overcook them.

Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to food?

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I love potatoes. I'm really a Nordic woman. I'm used to eating potatoes. I love mashed potatoes, baked potatoes. But I don't like fried potatoes. It was not something we cooked at home. I never understood why fried potatoes were such a treat for everybody since, for me, a treat was really good mashed potatoes. But I try not to eat it too often.

Do you have a favourite condiment that you always have in your fridge?

In my family, we were not condiment eaters. There was never mayonnaise or ketchup. The only thing we had was salt and pepper. I only use ketchup with my hamburger. But if I'm at home and I want to add something, it is Tabasco.

You've travelled to many places in the world, including Japan. What is your favourite city to eat?

Last year, I went to Malaysia and I was really happy to encounter the island of Penang, the city of George Town especially. The food there is "wow." It's real street food. It's little families with their little counters. They cook from scratch. It is fast food but not the way in North America that we see it. It's not coming from an industrial plant. The food was very simple and very good.

When I travel, I look for authenticity. I love places that use the food that is gathered from around there. It's the talent [of the local chefs] the place, the food in connection with the territory. And if you have the time to enjoy it and the right person with you, it's perfect.

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Speaking of foods native to a region, is there an ingredient that you find really represents Sainte-Adèle?

It's hard to say. There are many. In Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, a little village near Sainte-Adèle, there is an aquaculture for rainbow trout. The owner is a biologist who farms lettuce, but under the lettuce there is the trout. It's really amazing, his trout are so good. Usually when it's farmed trout, it's not so good, it has a muddy taste. But not his. He does it right.

On to the rapid fire round: Spicy or sweet foods?


Wine on its own: White or red?

Depends on the time of the day. Earlier, I prefer white, sometimes with bubbles, sometimes not. But it has to be refreshing. But if I'm very tired after a good cooking day and I just want to ease a bit, it will be red. But an easy red, like a Beaujolais or a pinot noir.

Do you prefer to eat at home with your family or go out to a restaurant?

Eat at home with my family.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author

Madeleine White is the Assistant National Editor for The Globe and Mail. She has been with the Globe since 2011 and previously worked in the Globe's Video and Features departments, covering topics ranging from fitness and health to real estate to indigenous education. More

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