As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada's Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province, embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Nancy Hinton who champions the possibilities and pragmatism of wild food at Les Jardins Sauvages in Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan, Quebec.
Nancy Hinton knows the way to social change is through one’s stomach.
The chef at Les Jardins Sauvages finds it even more effective when those bellies are filled with the likes of wild ginger, sea parsley and cattails.
Hinton has made it her raison d’être to rein in wild ingredients at the culinary destination she’s built with partner François Brouillard in Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, Quebec, and turn them into something sublime. Her creations remind us that eating local isn’t all that’s important. Eating sustainably is as much a consideration when we sit down to dinner, too.
“Food is a good tool for social change,” Hinton said. “We eat three times a day. It brings people together but it worries me how people are so concerned about cheap food. Everyone is so conditioned by industrial food that [people think] a chicken should cost $8.”
There was time, though, when Hinton was a cog in the machine she has been effectively railing against for the past 17 years.
Hinton was en route to becoming a biochemist when a job waiting tables in university in Montreal caused her to rethink things. She found herself asking questions of the chef, who taught her mother sauces. She also spent her tips on restaurant dinners and food magazines to feed a part of her soul that life in the lab couldn’t sate.
“I was a little disillusioned in university,” she recalled. “I had good grades. I was in chemical engineering, then biochemistry with a major in biotechnology. My philosophy was that if I worked hard, things would fall into place but I never really found my passion. I couldn’t picture myself doing that, being in a lab working on a small piece of the puzzle.”
Food, she realized, was much bigger picture. People could relate to it — to each other over a meal. The chance to connect and make a difference was palpable with every bite offered.
“That’s the thing about cooking. You can share it with people in your life but in biochemistry, you’re isolated in a little bubble and it doesn’t mesh with real life whereas cooking is so much a part of our day-to-day.”
So Hinton traded her lab coat for chef’s whites two months before finishing her biochemistry degree. She enrolled in culinary school where she discovered cooking food and her previous life weren’t all that different when her instructor gave Hinton her first cookbook: Harold McGee’s science-heavy tome On Food and Cooking.
She got lost in its pages, in using all her senses in the kitchen, and especially in the creative freedom cooking offered.
“I felt I was using all of myself,” she remembered. “It was so incredible.”
It was also scary. Hinton was an academic, after all, and she wasn’t as confident she would be able to hack it at trade school. Everything about being in the kitchen required her to be in the moment and handle the high pressure that came with life behind the burner. Still, she found it all so seductive, so she pushed through her fears.
She worked two full-time jobs after she graduated, clocking hours seven days a week with steadfast determination to quickly scale what she said was a steep learning curve.
“It was exhausting. I just wanted to be good at it, to gain confidence, to learn, ” Hinton said. “I never looked back.”
She did, however, have to phone in orders of ingredients, like those factory-farmed chickens, to big suppliers in the early days of her career. It was common at the time, despite how progressive the kitchens were in which she developed her chops. Then in 2000 she found herself in the kitchen of Chef Anne Desjardins at the iconic L’Eau à la Bouche. Desjardins has been likened to the Alice Waters of Quebec for her commitment to using local and sustainable ingredients.
“It was all the best for everything. We had one guy for the cream. She grew her own garden with flowers and herbs, which is common now but was novel at the time. She knew so many little farmers and cultivated relationships with them,” Hinton said.
Brouillard, the descendant of coureurs des bois and a fourth generation forager from Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, was among Desjardins’ most trusted suppliers.
For much of his career, Brouillard struggled to convince local chefs they need not order exotic ingredients from abroad. There was plenty on offer in their own backyard, and he could source it for them.
In Brouillard and Desjardins, Hinton found teachers eager to expose her to the possibilities and pragmatism of wild foods. Hinton’s first lesson came in the form of Brouillard’s foraged greens with their robust flavours, then his wild mushrooms, which were commonly sourced from Europe.
Soon Hinton was tasked with handling all of the orders from Brouillard, who also supplied other Montreal dining landmarks. There was never a shortage of muses when he delivered the goods.
“As a chef, you just want the best products. It’s common sense. It seems in the food industry we’ve lost track of what makes sense. There’s a disconnect with nature. This local, seasonal quality, knowing where our food comes from, should just be … normal,” Hinton said.
That business relationship with Brouillard eventually extended beyond the kitchen of L’Eau à la Bouche. Chef and forager began collaborating on an annual wild mushroom festival that has become “a crazy monster” and remains the most popular dining event at Jardins Sauvages today.
That morphed into talk of using Brouillard’s grandmother’s chalet where he learned to forage as a boy as a restaurant that would open on weekends only in Saint-Roch-de-l'Achigan.
Hinton would cook there as a visiting chef, and make preserves with Brouillard’s finds. The goal was to show other Quebecois chefs and diners what could be done with Brouillard’s harvests because many had no idea.
Eventually they became partners in business and life, and Hinton resigned at L’Eau where she had found a mentor unlike any other in Desjardins. The two served as foils to each other, she remembered.
“I really understood what she wanted and what she liked,” Hinton said. "I remember being like ‘Whoa!’ I’d been so used to working around male egos, even though I had important mentors when I was developing as a chef. I spent years trying to prove myself, and be one of the guys. With Anne it was a relief to not have that. Female chefs have egos, too, but Anne was a reasonable person, truly.
"The biggest gift she gave me was a reverence for quality from artisans, and local and seasonal, which became my new normal. And to have the platform of a top restaurant with a wine program and network of suppliers she had built. Just to work there was a privilege... We worked as muses together and fed off each other.”
But Hinton’s next adventure called. Brouillard would forage and on weekends she would cook multi-course meals that beckoned bons vivants and the curious from the city, the U.S., even France.
Duck broth with wild mushrooms, rabbit ravioli, leeks and sea parsley; organic turkey crusted with cattail flour; and milk cake with maple, pawpaw sorbet and sweet grass are just some of what Hinton cooks up.The current menu features 30 kinds of wild mushrooms.
She draws incredible inspiration from sturdy wild greens — “You can taste the vitality” — and the varied flavours and aromas of wild mushrooms.
“I’m just such a nose person. I spend my days saying ‘Ah!’ I appreciate smells so much,” Hinton said.
Each course at Sauvages, set 45 minutes outside of Montreal, is served with separate plates of the wild ingredients for people to see, touch and smell, and learn about from Brouillard.
The couple also sell Hinton’s ready-made foods, preserves and spice mixes featuring wild ingredients year-round at Montreal’s Jean-Talon market.
Business has boomed largely because Hinton and Brouillard are an A-Team. But they also made a go of it just as wild foods became trendy, and fair-weather foragers began harvesting ramps, fiddleheads and sea asparagus with wild abandon.
That uptick in DIY wildcrafting worries Hinton. Sure, people are eating more wild foods, and interest in what she and Brouillard do is great. But those armchair foragers, and chefs who just want a fancy ingredient on their menus, are as disconnected from nature as those wanting an $8 chicken, she explained.
“I think it’s great people are interested in wild foods but a lot are doing it wrong,” Hinton said. “There’s just so much poor information out there. You’ve got to know when to pick and how, and the cycle of the plant. Right now, everyone wants juniper to make gin. I don’t know how many people call and say ‘I want 50 kilos.’ Whoa, do you know what that entails for the resources and labour?”
That exploitation of wild foods is why Hinton can’t put wild leeks known as ramps on the menu. As the gateway wild food for many newbie foragers, they’re now illegal in Quebec to sell commercially or put on a plate in a restaurant because they’ve been so over-harvested.
Hinton said she and Brouillard don’t mind a law in place protecting plant species. But those rules do affect their business. That’s why Brouillard is working with government to create regulations or a harvest permit system, and tackle the wild food black market. Progress has been frustratingly slow, however.
In the meantime, he directs chefs’ and customers’ attention to ingredients that haven’t been exploited, such as lamb's quarters or wild mustard, to give those that have, like sea asparagus, the chance to regenerate.
In addition to giving gourmands an edible lesson, Hinton contributes by teaching others how to cook wild foods in a two-year Human Resources Development Canada employment training course dedicated to “developing the forest beyond lumber.”
Hinton hopes her lessons about wild food are as impactful for them as Brouillard’s and Desjardins’ have been for her during her career.
“Something I’ve come to realize over the years is it’s really changed me, especially the connection with nature. It’s taught me to stop and smell the flowers and finally engage and appreciate everything,” Hinton said. “I find (being a chef) is the best job in the world — not the easiest but the best.”
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Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at Grub by Eating Niagara. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.