The best dish I’ve had this fall was the mousse de foies de volailles at the smart, new Montreal restaurant Labo Culinaire. Served in refined egg-shaped portions, it tasted silky, regal, utterly timeless. Co-chefs Michelle Marek and Seth Gabrielse are among the city’s brightest talents. There’s nothing cutting-edge about that mousse, however.
One single thread connects it to the Loire Valley in France, where it was a signature at Charles Barrier’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant, and back to the country roads of Morvan, in the Côté D’Or, whence it emerged a century ago, a decadently creamy triumph of rustic cookery. The thread is James MacGuire, Montreal’s walking Larousse Gastronomique, genius baker and grand transmitter of classic French cuisine.
Young chefs such as Marek and Gabrielse are part of a movement that’s returning to the classics and – with MacGuire as a mentor – doing them properly. MacGuire, a specialist in forgotten French techniques, is the Montreal food firmament’s secret weapon. He’s an éminence grise who helped this city define its culinary culture – and is also helping it return to basics.
With the food world moving away from the excesses of molecular gastronomy and the cartoonishness of cronut burgers, the past that MacGuire is so intimately versed in is becoming a way forward. “The newest stuff now is the oldest stuff,” explains Marek. “Quenelles, coulibiac, consommé – young people are so excited to try that stuff. They think it’s new because they’ve never heard of it before.”
“This mousse is 100-per-cent James,” Gabrielse adds. “What I learned from him is the base techniques you need in order to build upon them. He does things old-school proper style.”
In professional circles, MacGuire is considered a standard-bearer of everything from sourdough to savarins. “What I do is just like being a jazz guy who remembers a tune from the 1930s that nobody’s heard for a million years,” MacGuire suggests. “Inventiveness and juxtaposition of flavours is still the big thing these days, but it’s nothing compared to the technique we saw in the old days.”
It’s hard to get traditional French food right. As simple as it may appear, it can be excruciating to prepare. Most of us don’t realize what goes into making something like homard Clarence, but those who do are effusive in their admiration for MacGuire’s methods. Master baker Jeffrey Hamelman, director of the King Arthur Bakery in Vermont and author of the baking bible Bread, refers to MacGuire as “il miglior fabbro” – the greater craftsman. Patrice Demers, long considered the finest pastry chef in Quebec, says that MacGuire makes the best croissants he’s ever tried.
Demers is enlisting MacGuire’s savoir faire as he opens a patisserie on Rue Notre-Dame in St. Henri. “James helps us master the basics,” explains Demers. “He understands the reasons why things do and do not work. He has the tour de main, and knows the right way to do it. He has techniques you see less and less of. Just to watch him work – to see someone execute things with perfection – is incredible.”
The key to ancient recipes is formal technique (think straining veal consommé using egg whites), a body of expertise MacGuire acquired alongside some of France’s greatest chefs. In the 1970s, he travelled to the source and got his start doing everything from peeling crayfish and making pralinée à l’ancienne in Lyon to being a saucier and butcher in Alsace. He studied under the legendary baker Raymond Calvel and learned to make mousse de foies as an apprentice to Charles Barrier.
Returning to Montreal, MacGuire tweaked the dish slightly, and started serving it at his tiny fine-dining spot Le Passe-Partout, which from 1991 until 2004 was the top restaurant and bakery in Montreal. His kitchen specialized in textbook versions of French classics, such as pommes soufflé, venison in grand veneur sauce, coq au vin, and estouffade of lamb. The New York Times’s R.W. Apple deemed MacGuire’s cooking to be “perfect.” GQ’s food critic Alan Richman, given $2,000 to splurge on the meal of his dreams anywhere in the world, went to Le Passe-Partout.
Despite the acclaim, the restaurant struggled, largely because of MacGuire’s perfectionism, the cost of his ingredients and his refusal to turn tables. “We did everything wrong for the most honourable of reasons,” he explains.
Le Passe-Partout went bankrupt, but MacGuire has continued working behind the scenes, leading workshops, helping bakeries perfect dough formulas and consulting. “James has marked us all,” observes restaurateur Claude Beausoleil, who ran fine-dining spots, such as Les Chevres and Le Citrus (which he opened with a young chef, Normand Laprise, now of Toqué). “James was avant-gardiste, a precursor. How many restaurants has he influenced? How many chefs has he taught? How many bakers has he guided?”
At 62, MacGuire won’t be running a professional kitchen again, but he’s still diffusing his wisdom. “Food is a wonderful business,” he says, “and teaching people has always been at the heart of it for me.” Instead of working the line, he nurtures his passions, investigating the history, sociology and arcana of French food ways and publishing his discoveries in the American food journal The Art of Eating. Some of his current obsessions include rye bread, butter from Charentes and obscure cuts of steak.
MacGuire compares working on a dish to practising a song. “Jazz musicians have always taken existing pieces by the great composers and made the songs their own through interpretation. I don’t have a creative bone in my body, but I do have the patience to try and stay with things until they’re just right.” An essential component of technique, he explains, is fastidiousness. “Some cooks throw things together, but it’s better to be exact. Chefs should be weighing things.”
The proper way can be transformative. The first time Labo Culinaire’s Gabrielse tried MacGuire’s cervelas de Lyon (a fermented sausage that attains self-actualization when baked within a loaf of brioche), his life changed. Gabrielse was 19 then, in 1998, and he’d travelled to Montreal from Toronto to meet the great chef. A plate of cervelas was served. Upon tasting it, Gabrielse immediately decided to relocate and do an apprenticeship under the man he now refers to as a second father, his “go-to master.”
Making cervelas de Lyon from scratch requires a virtuosic command of French cooking, bread and pastry – a triangulation that forms the base of MacGuire’s hierarchy of needs. Montrealers had a chance to taste the dish again recently, when he catered a book launch for his close friend, Montreal jazz legend Vic Vogel, in a ritzy room at Place des Arts.
On the day of the event, MacGuire tsk-tsked as he looked over the filets of salmon he’d asked Vogel to smoke. “Someone added pepper,” he sighed. “I would never do that.” He suffers from something he calls “the Goldilocks complex.” “It can’t be too much of something, or too little. It has to be just right.”
Vogel tossed his hand at him. “Sure, he’s a bitch. It’s cause he’s a baker. And he’s one hell of a baker. James is the sort of guy who measures his salt out based on the salmon’s weight. I just strew it on there – pif.”
The spread at the book launch was magnificent: all the different loaves of bread MacGuire had baked, more mousse de foies, the Vogel-salted (and peppered) salmon, and the life-changing cervelas ensconsed in pillowy brioche. I’ve seen some wondrous performances in Place des Arts: Nureyev dancing; Joao Gilberto playing solo guitar; David Chapelle doing stand-up. MacGuire’s versions of the standards he loves were at the same level.