Chef Marc Lepine, 38, of Ottawa's Atelier restaurant, is well known for taking risks with food. His 12-course tasting menu is always changing. But most recently his creativity paid off by helping him win the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championship. Head judge James Chatto said of the langoustines (tiny lobsters) with avocado for the first dish, crisp yet chewy goose with blue cheese mayo for the second dish, and Quadra Island scallops with pickled chanterelle mushrooms and dehydrated flecks of fennel for the final meal: "None of us was surprised to see that Marc Lepine was the clear champion."
Despite his sophisticated food experiments, Mr. Lepine still appreciates the simpler things in life, such as a bag of barbecue potato chips.
Did you have a favourite meal growing up in Kincardine, Ont.?
Yeah, something called pouding chômeur. It's a French dessert that's almost like a bread pudding. I don't know exactly what's in it, but my mom used to make it 'cause I loved it so much. You can definitely taste the brown sugar and maple syrup that has been baked into it.
I had it again at a restaurant in Gatineau maybe two or three years ago. It was an emotional moment since I hadn't had it in 15 years.
When did you start to cook for yourself?
I started cooking at home, very simple things my mom would show me as a teenager, like grilled cheese sandwiches.
I remember being really proud of myself at my first restaurant job in a hotel in Kincardine. I was dishwashing, but I slowly started learning stuff that I thought was pretty fancy, like chicken cordon bleu. The kitchen staff there taught me how to make it because I wanted to go home and make dinner for my parents. I overcooked the heck out of everything, but I remember that being one of the moments where I thought, "I just made that. That's cool."
Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
Potato chips. I tend to bounce around from BBQ to regular flavour to Doritos to jalapeno. Chips are my late-night, get-home-from-work snack: a big bag of chips – not those individual portioned ones – and a glass of wine.
Are you experimenting with any new ingredients these days?
For the past year or two, I've really been enjoying tonka beans. The smell of tonka beans really jumps off the plate. It's got a really interesting almondy – vanilla and almond together almost – scent. We've used it in both sweet and savoury applications. For example, we've put it in a dessert along with passion fruit, chocolate and banana. It was whipped into a meringue, based off a white caramel syrup that we mixed with the tonka beans.
Is there a food you don't like?
There is not much that I don't like. One of the only things I can think of is cold tomato juice drunk on its own. But I love tomatoes.
Who is your biggest critic?
More than me, I'd say it's everyone else who works in the kitchen. Like my sous-chef and the rest of the team. I don't create all of the dishes on the menu. Since Atelier opened, I always split that task up with everyone in the kitchen. So we sort of come up with dishes on our own and then present them to the rest of the staff for feedback.
What ingredient or food best summed up Ottawa for you?
You mean beyond beaver tails? [Laughs.]Truthfully it's hard to pick just one. There are a lot of great meat farms around Ottawa, like elk and bison. But duck definitely stands out since it's hard to find a menu in the city that doesn't have duck on it.
If you could request any meal as your last dish, what would it be?
I'd probably have a nice slice of pumpkin pie or a red grapefruit. Something simple like that. For the grapefruit, it's the aroma and it's got a flavour like nothing else. It has everything in it: It's acidic, it's bitter, it's sweet and juicy. For the pumpkin pie, again the aromas and the spice. And the texture, I love the creaminess. You know, people who like pumpkin pie really like pumpkin pie.
On to the rapid-fire round: Spicy or sweet?
Sparkling or still water?
If you're out on the street, do you buy a hot dog or a burrito?
Greasy spoon or Zagat-rated restaurant?
Zagat-rated. I'm not a fan of the greasy spoon.
This interview has been condensed and edited.