Passable Interview: The Feisty Chef

Renée Lavallée is, in her own words, “a chef, a mom and a crazy cheese lover”. Originally from Shawville, Quebec, Renée grew up in a gastronomically adventurous household. She has worked at Canoe, The Inn At Bay Fortune and more recently is the executive chef at Five Fishermen. She also writes a weekly column for the Arts & Life section of The Chronicle Herald. She even has her own website. But who is The Feisty Chef? Currently on maternity leave, Passable had the opportunity to sit down with her to talk for one of our Passable Interviews about her culinary upbringing, education and more.

What are your first memories about food?

My parents in the kitchen cookin’ up a storm; they were from the Julia Child era where they watched her show & tried to re-create. Memories of Crepes Suzette and chicken liver pate are still fresh in my mind. Also, they took us out every Friday night to try a new “cuisine”: Korean, Thai, Japanese, Turkish, etc….that was huge for me!

Did you think that was normal?

I did…I just assumed everyone else did the same thing.

Do you want your own kids to experience food in the same way?

I do and they already are! Zoe has been eating out with us since she was born & has eaten many interesting things! This past weekend in Ottawa, we took her to Murray Street KWC and she ordered the head cheese & ate it all and then some…I call her the “garborator”!

How has having kids changed the way you look or make food?

To a certain extent, but they eat what we do. I haven’t changed the way we eat and I expect them to eat what we eat. I’m not going to make 2 different meals and give her and Philippe “crap”. Zoe eats Japanese, Korean, Indian, Turkish, etc. and loves it! Once Philippe starts eating solid foods, I will do the same for him.

How did you get into cooking?

I used to cook at home a lot; I’d play “sick” and then spend the afternoon in the kitchen alone (my parents both worked from their home office…so they were never too far away) experimenting with the cookbooks my mom had. My first disaster is still talked about: pumpkin cookies (my siblings used them as throwing devices in the back yard they were so hard). I also was a short order cook during one summer- flippin’ burgers and deep-frying lots of things.

What was your first food job and what did you learn there?

It was at Pine Lodge in Bristol, Qc. Short order cook in the basement catering to old men and young kids. Pretty awesome in retrospect. But my 1st REAL job after returning from Italy& cooking school was Le Cafe Henry Burger in Hull: the swankiest place in the Ottawa/Hull region and I showed up everyday for 2 weeks asking the chef for a job…she finally got tired of dealing with me and hired me! I learned respect, something that is rare in a kitchen these days. I was so shit scared of my chef. I still remember being told about foie gras: “Renée, it is like a piece of butter; too hot a pan and it melts and you’re left with a pool of grease. Do that once and you’re fired!” I never did it once….

How did that make you think about food?

My love of food has always grown year by year; tasting and seeing new things and every place I have worked at has inspired me in different ways. Le Cafe Henry Burger made me appreciate French food and the delicate balance of flavours and textures; Les Fougères introduced me to the whole local and seasonal aspect along with kick ass big flavours. In Toronto, being at Biff`s, Pastis, Ellipsis, etc., all made me respect different foods, techniques.

How did you end up in Atlantic Canada?

I was working in the British Virgin Islands and was looking to come back to Canada. I heard that the Chef for the Inn At Bay Fortune in PEI was leaving and put forth my CV. A day later I got a call and by the next week I was on a plane back home. After my 1st season at the Inn, I met my husband. We dated through my 2nd season and then I made the decision to move to Halifax and pursue a career there. I worked for the Bertossi’s for almost 2 years before heading to the 5 Fish.

What was it like to move here? Did you miss any foodstuffs?

It was interesting. I found it quite small, but that was a good thing after the rat race of being in Toronto for 10 years. The mind set was completely different, more relaxed without a sense or urgency in the kitchens. The only big complaint was the lack of respect from many of the kitchen staff; they felt they were “owed” much more than they deserved. Having just completed cooking school, I would say 97% of them wanted to be on the hot line, sous-chef or even chef. The only foodstuffs I really missed were my cheeses & meats that I couldn’t find in Halifax, but then I discovered some that made up for it!

What kind of changes have you seen in Halifax (and Nova Scotia’s) food scene since you first came here?

There is more emphasis on cooking, the chefs and ingredients. I still feel that in some respects we are behind on a few things, but we are also ahead on a lot too! The good thing about Halifax is that it is a small city, with a limited number of restaurants and chefs, and we are all able to use the local farmers, fishermen, producers, etc. and forge relationships with them because there are so few of us…more personal. I’d still like to see some more women in the kitchen, but lucky to have allies like Bee-Choo Char and of course all my “boys”… Dennis, Craig and Paolo.

What would you like to see in Halifax?

I don’t know! That is a tough question…. maybe more emphasis on the little places that have unknown chefs that are doing great things than always focusing on the same people who are all doing the same thing.

What do you get excited about, food wise, in Halifax?

The little things…. a glass of wine from Obladee or some rockin’ oysters that mysteriously show up at my door from my buddy Nick Budreski.

How did your blog come about?

After having Zoe back in 2008,my husband, Doug, thought maybe it would be a good idea for me to do something so that I wouldn’t go nuts…then came Feisty Chef. I had never written before, and just wrote as I talked and it caught on. It’s all because of Doug.

Chefs and cooks talk to one another in a very specific way; they know what the technical terms are, they speak their own shorthand. So when you started writing for the layperson, the un-chef, did that make you change the way you see and describe food?

Nope. I am a simple person and though I may refer to “chits”, “covers” and other resto lingo, I had no trouble not using those terms…though, the odd “spag garlic” stills spills outta my mouth from time to time!

Do you have any projects coming soon that you’d like to talk about?

Hmm, well other than being a full time momma, writing my weekly column for the Chronicle Herald and doing events at Sugar Moon Farm or Grand Pré, I am still employed by The Five Fishermen. Who knows, I might move to Hollywood and become an actress!!!! ( Which is my secret dream…)

How did the name Feisty Chef come about?

The “feisty chef”…the name came about when trying to describe who I am, and the memory of an encounter with Liam Gallagher of Oasis where he said to me: “You are one feisty lil’ lady!”…hence, I am and so became the feisty chef! My cooking and my attitude are also “feisty”…it seems to be the only word that describes me – the five foot nothing, 105lbs lady with bigger balls than most people and not afraid to show them!

You can find more about Renée, as well as recipes by her, on her website.