Chef Irene Li
We recently spoke with Irene to find out more about the world of mobile foodservice and its differing processes from work-life in a brick-and-mortar restaurant kitchen.Read Bio
To Quebec, With Love: A Flavor Journey from London to the Maison
Coming from English fine dining and having worked under Jamie Oliver in the UK, what was your inspiration behind the more casual gastropub that is Maison Publique?
Actually, most of the experience that I had in England was in Italian cooking. Jamie’s training was in that field as well, so we had the opportunity to work with some amazing suppliers and go on some incredible sourcing trips to Italy.
Before moving to London, I was working at Zambri’s in Victoria, BC, an amazing Italian restaurant, where I really learned how to appreciate ingredients to their fullest. That being said, my time in the UK was ground-breaking experience-wise. London is such an incredible dining city, rich in culture and history.
I opened Maison Publique as the restaurant I would want to eat in, hoping others would too. I love the idea of eating at a bar, so I made that the focal point. It is in a residential area on the corner of two beautiful streets. In the summer, I plant gardens outside and make them look feral and bountiful. In the winter, the hockey game is on and cars are crawling along in the snow. I wanted to serve Canadian food with Canadian wine, making the restaurant simple and approachable.
How do your experiences and techniques from being overseas have an effect on your dish development?
Everywhere you work, you learn, discovering new techniques and ideas of how that particular chef interprets food. The most valuable experience that you can gain is through travel. It doesn’t need to be glamorous or eating in the best restaurants around the world, but more of a pastry and a coffee here, or a flatbread cooked over charcoal there. A few little snacks turn into many big ideas, seeing what is out there in the world culturally; it doesn’t even have to be food- related. Immersing yourself in a culture that is unfamiliar will help you grow as a chef. There are always peaks and valleys in travelling; this is part of the fun. At the end of the day though, you need to eat somewhere.
Have your methods in using spice and seasonings changed at all since settling into Montreal gastro-cuisine? Give us some examples.
After many years of travelling and looking at Canada from the outside, I realized that we are so blessed. Canada is so multicultural and vast that we are able to draw inspirations and flavors from everywhere in the world. Canada in comparison is a young country, but we have all of the tools to cook like older countries that are steeped in rich culinary heritage. We are regional, we have amazing wineries, and not to forget that we supply a huge amount of food products from our coasts and prairies that feed the world.
What are some of your favorite flavor pairings on your menu?
I am a bit of a one trick pony when it comes to flavor profiles. The fundamentals are obviously important; sweet, salty, bitter, etc. I am always adding chili to recipes, not to make it spicy, but to add a little “hey there.” I find this is a flavor that often gets overlooked and really brings a dish into balance. Anchovies too, I often don’t mention it because some people give it a sour milk face due to its reputation but if you want to properly season brassicas or allium, it makes a huge difference. You don’t even notice it but it also has that “hey there” quality of making things delicious. It is amazing with lamb and veal.
When we are discussing menus, it could be anything really. In the end, it needs to have a “Big Mac” quality. As bad as that is for you, it is a perfectly balanced piece of food. Sure, it is created by scientists, but the flavor profile makes you crave it. I want people to crave my food.
Maison Publique not only serves local craft beers but also concentrates on the use of local ingredients. How do the ever-changing seasons and weather conditions of Canada impact your menus?
I like to get all of my food from farming or fishing families that practice their craft through thoughtful stewardship. We are under snow here for 5 months of the year, so I want to work with farmers who cover winter vegetables, fishermen who can’t go out because of bad weather, and people who wake up and feed their animals. It’s very easy to pick up the phone and have everything you need. It’s another thing to have 40 plus suppliers at one time.
What’s one cooking technique, flavor creation or developed dish you miss using from your time in the UK?
Nothing really. I really enjoyed my time there and now I really enjoy my time here. If it had to be one thing, I came up with the Marmite oyster when I was back in Canada. I suppose that was a nod of sorts to the UK.
What can we expect to see making its way to the center-of-the-plate at Maison Publique this year?
We serve a lot of vegetables and in the peak of summer our menu is half vegetarian. I’m not one for following trends, they come and go. I like to see our menu develop in our style. You can open social media these days and basically come up with an entire restaurant concept in under 10 minutes, but will it be relevant in 6 months? At Maison Publique, we cook for our guests, they are the ones who fill the seats every night. Making them happy is my main goal. I love oysters, but I don't serve them here, I leave them to the oyster experts.