The New Radicals is a five-part series on innovators in arts and culture.
In a low-ceilinged Paris basement, armed only with an induction burner, oven and sizzling cast-iron plancha, 29-year-old Haan Palcu-Chang is trying to rewrite the culinary rulebook in one of the world's most competitive food scenes.
After a series of jobs and stages – in Canada, New Zealand and Copenhagen – the Toronto-born Palcu-Chang opened the restaurant at Le Mary Celeste, a buzzy cocktail bar in the 3rd arrondissement, in February, 2013. Nine months later, with hundreds of small plates flying out of the kitchen and a lineup out the door almost every evening, the influential Le Fooding Guide proclaimed it the city's best "bar à délices."
"I was told that I'm the worst cook ever," says a laughing Palcu-Chang, who was working at a well-known, high-end "bistronomic" French restaurant at the time.
"That was literally two months before I got this job, and then we win best bar restaurant in Paris, along with all these accolades. Two months before I started I was the worst cook in Paris, a 'dog.'"
On the heels of this common (yet upsetting) kitchen experience, Palcu-Chang, a graduate of Vancouver's Northwest Culinary Academy, resolved to recast how a chef and his team would interact.
With a bold sense of flavour, texture and irreverence – to the outrage of some diners, he still refuses to serve bread on the table – Palcu-Chang is part of a vanguard of young, international and thoroughly modern cooks blazing a quiet but transformative culinary trail.
The food at Le Mary Celeste is predictable only in its unpredictability, as, for example, veal breast in coconut milk appears alongside steamed oysters with chili, black vinegar and crispy shallots. "His food is quite boyish. A lot of Parisian food, even by men, tends to be more feminine," says Canadian food writer and television host Laura Calder, who specializes in French cuisine. "But Haan knows people have appetites."
This appetite is expressed in expertly seasoned, sparkling plates of food designed to make diners order another cocktail.
A perfect example is the "deviled eggs," tamari-marinated eggs filled with blended yolks and sesame mayo, topped with fresh ginger, popped wild rice and green onions. It's creamy yet crunchy, rich yet acidic, simultaneously tasting of a home-cooked meal and something from another planet. Parisian diners, accustomed to frequently changing seasonal menus, would nonetheless "riot" if they were taken off the menu, says Palcu-Chang.
Another eclectic and perfectly balanced plate is his foie gras tostada. Birthed in necessity – the kitchen once had too many leftover handmade tacos and a batch of gamy chicken livers – the dish is a conflagration of fatty foie and sharp blue cheese, balanced with crunchy Italian radicchio, seasonal pickled plums and dots of tart jelled liquid, pink and crystalline.
The menu reflects his internationalism (Palcu-Chang's mother was born in Romania, his father in Taiwan) and, as with so many other many young, ambitious Canadian cooks currently fanning across the world, is also a reflection of this new globalism. "It is a clichéd story, but I was raised in a family obsessed with food, on my Chinese side as well as my Romanian side," he says.
Recently back from a tour of Europe, where he cooked pop-up dinners in Copenhagen and Stockholm, Palcu-Chang was also invited by Bacardi to present at the Bar Convent Berlin, one of the world's largest bar festivals, on pairing food with cocktails. In Copenhagen, Palcu-Chang's twist on his mother's vegetarian nut loaf, a good example of his comfort-food fusion, was a hit. Essentially a terrine of roasted nuts, cheese, eggs, herbs and brown rice, slices are glazed with salty-sweet hoisin and served on a bright, zesty dollop of chimichurri.
"Everything needs to have a proper balance. There always has to be a sweet, salty or sour, spicy or fatty component, then a light component, crunchy and soft," he says. "When you see on the menu something you think might be generic, it ends up being something different, simply because I season my Western-style dishes as an Asian person would."
Beyond Palcu-Chang's compelling cuisine, says Calder, is a chef personality that is becoming disappointingly rare: a mellow, nice guy who is simultaneously serious about his food. "There are a bunch of guys his age in Paris and they're arrogant as hell," she says. "Haan is the opposite."
Quiet, organized cooks who make delicious food while still treating staff and customers respectfully? Those are the ones we need more of, says Calder. "I hope he comes back to Canada eventually," she adds. "But not yet."
"It's not like being nice is a radical concept," Palcu-Chang says, reasoning that changing entrenched kitchen culture needs to be more nuanced. "Instead, it's about really, really thinking and self-analyzing and really, I don't want to sound too cheesy, but thinking about what does it mean to be good to your staff."
Part of that mindset comes, he says, from having diverse experiences outside of the kitchen. Before cooking, Palcu-Chang went to university at Queen's, where he focused on gender history, travelled, taught English, and spent six years in competitive jiu jitsu, which he still tries to practise once a week.
"Like anything, any industry, any form of creative expression benefits from new blood, new ideas, new ways of thinking. I wasn't one of those people who started cooking when I was 14 and worked my way up," he says.
"I got into this because I love cooking. The moment you lose sight of that is the moment everything goes pear-shaped."