Pt. 1: "Oh, Canada?"
fig. A: signs of an obsession: our personal collection
Those of you who’ve been reading “…an endless banquet” for some time will know that we started championing Philippe de Vienne’s line of épices de cru over a year ago now, not long after Philippe and his wife Ethné opened Olives & Épices in the new pavilion of the Jean-Talon Market. Those of you who’ve been in our kitchen know that we developed a full-blown épices de cru obsession soon after discovering their store.
Inspired by a series of conversations we’d had with De Vienne where he showed himself to be unbelievably generous with his vast knowledge on the topic of spices and the history of the spice trade we decided to conduct an interview with De Vienne to find out more about him, how he got involved in the spice trade, and how his philosophy towards the spice trade differs from that of his mainstream competitors. This interview took place late last year.
• How did you come to be a chef/traiteur by profession?
I was born into it. My mother was in the hotel business. She worked for a chain of hotels that stretched in those days from Montreal all the way to the Caribbean. They were large 500-600 room hotels, classic hotellerie.
This company had pretty high-end hotels. We were at several, and they all had their characters. I was very lucky to have lived in Boston at the time that I did because that’s where Lydia Shire* got started. She started in my parents’ hotel. So I was really exposed to fabulous stuff 30 years ago, the avant-garde of cuisine at the time. Shire wasn’t copying the Europeans but was working with local ingredients, developing a cuisine with its own character. So I was really raised on fabulous food as a child. That was the environment I grew up in and, like other family businesses, I learned without realizing I was learning. I was like Obélix [of Astérix et Obélix fame]—I just fell in the kettle when I was a kid.
• Did you go to cooking school?
No, I would say that’s why my approach to cuisine differs from that of others. I didn’t have a formal training.
• So how did you develop your passion for spices? Was it because of your time in the Caribbean?
My passion for spices came early. When I was a kid I loved curries, I loved flavor, I loved bold tastes. I would taste a dish and say, “What’s that flavor I’m appreciating right now?” I was attracted to things that were clear. It’s like a clearly written speech—you understand it, it’s not muddled. I like bold tastes, I like clear statements, I like emotions. And I always loved food that had those qualities. It wasn’t necessarily about spices. If something is sweet and sour, I like it to be sweet and sour. If it’s canard à l’orange it’s made with bitter oranges not concentrated orange juice. I always appreciated a balance of good flavors, and the love of spices is just a part of that. Good cooking is always about using good ingredients, and spices are just a part of that repertoire of quality ingredients that make for a good cook, either professional or at home.
Later, when I was in my twenties, I went to Mexico. I decided to stay, so I found myself a job in a kitchen in a hotel. Because of my background in the hotel business, I was hired as a cook and a week later I was named chef, and six months later I was the executive chef, and a year later I was the food & beverage manager of the whole hotel. And then Club Med asked me to oversee food & beverage management for a group of six hotels and finally I said, “Nah, I think I’ll go back to the stove.”
• What part of Mexico was that?
I was in the Yucatan, in a place called Cobá. In those days it was a small 50-60 room hotel situated in one of the biggest archaeological zones of all of Mexico. The closest phone at the time was in Cancún, all my staff was Mayan, and we were living in a Mayan village. I discovered real Mayan village cuisine and I traveled , and as I did I discovered that the Mexican cuisine we knew at that time elsewhere in North America was a pale imitation of the bold, wonderful flavors of the regional foods of the local people.
Going to a restaurant in Mexico is okay, but the best food is made by the signora on the corner who’s making her stuffed chilies or the Mayan lady who’s making her salbutes**. And when you go to people’s homes and you taste these dishes you say to yourself, “Wow! That’s where the flavor is.” Nice, bold, wonderful flavors that when I got back I realized I couldn’t reproduce. And that’s because the spices, even if you could get them, were so—I mean, “second rate” would be polite. Canada is known worldwide as a dumping ground for the worst spices.
We discovered this ten years ago. We went to the SIAL [Salon International de l'Alimentation] in Paris and we told ourselves, once and for all, we’re going to solve our spice problem because we never get good spices in Canada. So we went to the SIAL looking to see if there was anyone who had all of the world’s best spices, the top quality. If so, we’d order from them. So we went and anytime someone learned we were from Canada they’d say, “Oh, Canada? We’ve got really good prices for you!” Whether they were from Sri Lanka or Mexico, the first thing that always came up was price. And Canada was instantly associated with that $1.19 bag of ground spices that’s mixed with flour, rice, salt, citric acid—not to mention the illegal things that might be in there. I would say Canada generally gets the worst spices.
• But why is that? Does Canada have a reputation for having a bland palate? (Haven’t they heard about official multiculturalism?)
Part of it is that our ethos towards food has changed. Now some of us don’t mind spending $100 on a bottle of vinegar or $30 on a good bottle of olive oil. But traditionally we did mind spending that kind of money for food in general and especially ingredients. But spices haven’t caught up with that. Getting back to the SIAL, though, we realized that nobody was doing this. You could get the best of this spice from this dealer and the best of that spice from that dealer, but nobody had the mandate to gather all the world’s best spices and sell them. So we decided to do it.
• And when you say nobody, do you mean within Canada or North America, or are you talking worldwide?
Worldwide. Certainly nobody at the SIAL was doing it, and that’s the biggest wholesale food show in the world, so if there was somebody, without question they’d show up to SIAL. There are a few people now who do it, but ten years ago there was nobody. Now there’s a French company that does pretty good work, an American company that does pretty good work, but there’s still no one who seeks out the Château Margaux of peppers or the Grand Cuvée of vanillas. That’s the difference when you have a chef looking for his own spices.
So, for instance, on a trip to Oaxaca [early on] we came across an amazing batch of peppers*** and we found out which village they’d come from so we went and bought the whole crop. We bought 50-60 pounds of these peppers and had them shipped back to Montreal, but we also established a contact with these people and we retained this contact with these people. So they’re very often small farmers or a lady with a stall in a market or a local person who deals in spices—these are the people we deal with, this is where we’re getting a lot of our spices.
* The award-winning Massachusetts-born chef famed for her string of Boston restaurants and, most recently, her stint at the venerable Locke-Ober, an establishment that had previously been famous for its 97-year-old policy of forbidding entrance to women (!).
** A Yucatecan dish similar to sopes.
*** In all likelihood a batch of Pasilla de Oaxaca, perhaps De Vienne's favorite chili.
Pt. 2: terroir, travel, networking à la De Vienne, and “the roof of the store”
fig. B: little shop of wonders: behind the scenes at Olive et Épices
• So my next two questions follow up on this material: what exactly does the designation épices de cru mean? And just how different is your approach to the spice trade than that of most in the field?
Well, épices de cru is inspired by the wine trade. A lot of the language that’s used when it to comes to spices comes from the wine business. There are three main factors which determine the quality of spices. There’s the soil and the climate, the terroir. There’s the issue of varieties. When it comes to vanilla, there are many varieties of vanilla, and some are better than others. There are many varieties of peppers, there are many varieties of chilies, and you can have one kind of chipotle and another type of chipotle and they can be very different. It’s like apples. Or grapes. Grapes are grapes, but then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon and then there’s Merlot. Or there’s Cabernet Franc and then there’s Malbec. There are varieties of spices that produce great volume but have no flavor, and there are other varieties that produce less but have a greater fragrance. So there are the varieties, there’s the climate and the soil, and then there are the people who grow the spices. There’s something to be said for people who grow apples or grapes and who learned it from their grandfather who learned it from his grandfather who learned it from his grandfather. These people, the knowledge is inborn, they don’t even realize how much they know. So those are the same main factors, and it’s very similar to wine. You know, you go to Burgundy and you see here’s the Chambertin [vineyard] and here’s the Gevrey-Chambertin [vineyard]. And there’s literally a border and they’re ten feet apart. And it’s not the same wine. Because if you look at the soil closely, or if you see how the wind comes during winter from that nook at the top of the hill, you can see that that cold wind will come down that gully, and you know that therefore this wine will suffer from the cold a little bit more than the one that’s produced with the grapes from 50 feet away.
• It’s all about microclimates.
That’s right. And it’s true for spices too. You go to places like Grenada and you find that the best nutmeg grows in a central valley that is shielded and receives the most favorable breezes, so that the soil is nourished in a way that produces the very best nutmeg. The nutmeg that grows on the other side of the mountain is still excellent, but is not quite as good as the nutmeg that grows above 400 meters in that one valley.
• Coffee would be another example of a food that is subject to similar kinds of factors and discussed in a similar way. Or tea, or chocolate.
That’s where the épices de cru idea came from. All those factors are implied by that French phrase. And there’s no equivalent in English. The closest phrase in English is “first growth,” which begins to describe things but without fully getting it, so that’s why we chose stuck with the French phrase.
• So just how grim is the realm of mainstream spices? How long has that turmeric been kicking around before it shows up in a 99¢ sachet at your supermarket?
It all depends. Sometimes you can find good product even in the supermarkets. And in the little ethnic markets sometimes you can find fabulous spices, maybe even first growth spices, but the next week the next batch might be atrocious. You’ll find amazing cardamom one week, and then the next week when he runs out of cardamom he’ll just pick up the phone and say, “Send me cardamom!” So what we did with our label is that we made it a guarantee of what we think is the best. And our approach is not that of a typical spice trade person, it’s that of a chef, someone who takes great pleasure in cooking and in actually using these spices, someone who’s interested in going out and actually choosing our spices. It’s all about me and my wife and my kids and we travel and we sniff and we’re inspired and we say, “Oh, yeah, this is really an amazing lot.” And so we’ll buy it and then we’ll try and stay in contact with those people over the years. That’s our approach to spices.
• How far have you traveled in search of spices and how complex are your networks for getting the best spices?
Well, we travel wherever we feel like traveling. We love to travel. Sometimes you go someplace hoping to find a particular spice and you find something else instead. The furthest we’ve been so far is Sulawesi. Which is essentially as far as you can get from here. It’s basically between Borneo and New Guinea. It’s definitely off the beaten track. So we go wherever, but there are still a lot of places we haven’t been yet. But over the years you build up networks, and, of course, the word gets around, so people send you samples. So, for instance, there’s an island in the West Indies, and we developed a contact there after my sister-in-law talked to her hairdresser, and the hairdresser said, “Oh, well, my cousin grows spices on this island.” So we phoned and the next thing you know this cousin had become a regular supplier for us. And she lives in a little village someplace and she goes to the market, and when she sees something nice she’ll buy it for us and she’ll just send it. And we’ve never met this person before. The network that’s developed over the last 15 years is one that involves true people.
• So it’s safe to say that many of these contacts were made informally. Which must be the preferred way of handling this kind of business.
Yeah, I mean, our main contact in Indonesia was our taxi driver the first time we went. We started talking with him about spices and what we were looking for and it turned out he knew people. So went to all these places with him, he knows where they are, and now he goes and buys our stuff for us. It’s not a formal network.
• How much time do you set aside for traveling so that you can maintain and further develop these networks?
As much as I can. In practice it’s not as much as we’d like, but we try. We usually go away for six weeks every year, a few weeks at a time. We mix business with pleasure, so out of those six weeks maybe three weeks are devoted to working.
• I have to say, it sounds like an ideal mandate for travel. Plus, it sounds like you’re going to some of the most beautiful, most exotic places on the face of the earth.
Well… Let me put it this way. You know, you’re not going to the most touristy places. So a class 2 or 3 business hotel in some of these out of the way places is not exactly an exciting place to be. [laughs] It’s somewhere between going to Cancún and Indiana Jones. It’s sort of half way in between.
• But then I’m sure there’s that sense of adventure that a lot of others don’t find anymore when they travel.
Sure, but some of those adventures, you’re happy when they’re over. [laughs] There’s some where you say, “Okay, I won’t be doing that again because that was thoroughly unpleasant, exhausting, and physically dangerous.” Or you go somewhere and you’re completely disappointed. The information you had was just wrong, or you never connected with the right people because of the language barriers between you and them, so you’ve got to work with interpreter upon interpreter, and then things get a little hairy. But it’s all part of the experience, and it’s worthwhile when we bring wonderful things back. And especially when you come back and find that people are in tune with what you’re offering to them. We were shocked at the response we’ve had since we opened our store.
• Yeah, the response seems like it’s been overwhelmingly positive.
Our problem is supply, it’s not selling the things we have. We’re in the position of having to worry about running out before our next shipment comes in.
• A few months ago, we stopped by Olives et Épices and we got you started on the topic of Ras el Hanout and it was clear that you were warming up to a favorite topic and that you were proud of the Ras el Hanout blend that you’ve put together for the store. What is it about Ras el Hanout that’s so special to you?
Well, there’s a couple of things. The name itself means “the roof of the store,” and that’s an expression for your sign, for your signature as a spice store. It’s the signature mixture of any good spice merchant and it indicates how good your spices in general are. So you go to a spice merchant and if he’s got a good Ras el Hanout, well, that’s the benchmark by which he’s judged. And then the blends vary from about 8 or 9 ingredients in a simple blend, to about 30 ingredients for a complex one. And we’ve done our research. I’ve had Moroccan cooks work with me, and we’ve had Moroccan friends who’ve gone to Morocco to do some research for us. And eventually we wound up with seven different Ras el Hanout blends that were brought back for us from all over Morocco, from different spice traders. And with everything I learned, I created my own Ras el Hanout, which was truly and deeply inspired by the tradition, but to which I’d given my own personal twist like any good spice merchant back in Morocco. We are quite proud, and especially because we have Moroccan clients who come in and buy it on a regular basis. And they’ll go as far as to say, “It’s as good as the one I get back in my hometown in Morocco,” which is a great compliment. It is really the “roof of the house,” “the roof” of our house. We follow that tradition of there being one blend that shines above the others. The way we work is that if we get a small batch of one spice or another that is particularly special, I’ll reserve it for our top blends. So our best cubebs [cubeb peppers] will always go into our blends. This is very different from the way most spice blends today are created, where usually only the dregs get thrown in. They’re not cheap, but we feel that we’re giving people the very best that we have to offer in our blends.
Our latest blend is our 8-pepper blend, which was created because everyone kept asking us for a 4-pepper blend. You know, white, black, green, and red. Our clerks kept telling us we need a pepper blend because they were turning down at least 3 or 4 people per day. So I put my mind to it, and it took me 6 months to come up with a blend I was happy with. And it all paid off because it took off immediately. People have become almost addicted to it, and there are some that come for more of the 8-pepper blend every month or every six weeks. So this approach—doing what I think is right—is what has really made a difference. It’s not about taking the easy route, it’s about going about things the right way.
My final question had to do with what kind of influence De Vienne thinks that he and his family had had on the culinary culture of Montreal. Understandably, De Vienne was a little embarrassed by the question, reticent to assess “the De Vienne effect” himself. As he put it, “I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself very seriously.” However, it’s safe to say that the De Viennes have left a rather significant imprint on the food culture of Montreal over the last few years through their catering company, through De Vienne’s regular appearances on local television and radio, and through the excellent cooking classes they offer, but especially because of their groundbreaking approach to spice importation. Their retail spice shop, Olives et Épices, has been a massive success and has forever changed the way many home cooks here in Montreal approach and use spices (including ourselves), but the other thing to keep in mind here is that De Vienne has been making his spices and spice blends available to the city’s chefs for a number of years now and many of the best kitchens now depend on them. If Montreal’s food culture at present is worthy of note, if something extraordinary actually is happening here at the moment, as Gourmet and others have been reporting lately, Philippe De Vienne and the incomparable quality and variety of his épices de cru are a good part of the reason why.
You can find Philippe de Vienne's entire line of épices de cru at Olives et Épices (7070 Henri-Julien, (514) 271-0001, Jean-Talon Market)
And you can reach Ethné and Philippe de Vienne at:
5235 rue de la Savane