Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Omnivore 'r' us

dome fig. a:  welcome to the pleasuredome

It all looks so calm, so peaceful, so reassuring, but over the last few days there was a veritable hive of activity under the Société des arts technologiques' mysterious dome.

You'll remember that when we last interacted Omnivore was just on the verge of getting underway.  You'll also remember that while Omnivore's series of "maudits soupers" was intended to create a ripple effect of culinary collaboration and experimentation across the city of Montreal, the Société des arts technologiques, and its Foodlab in particular, was slated to be Omnivore Montreal's ground zero.

Three days of workshops took place there, a great deal of the prep work for both the workshops and the dinners was conducted there, and the Foodlab was the site of a closing night dinner, pairing the talents of Les Grès' Jérome Bigot and the Foodlab's Seth and Michelle, as well as an after-hours bash for all those who participated in putting together the Montreal leg of Omnivore's World Tour 2012.  That's a significant amount of hustle and bustle for a kitchen that features virtually no modern conveniences (convection oven? sous-vide machine? Pacojet?), uses home-use electric ranges exclusively (natural gas?), and consists of a staff of three.

It was quite a wild ride, but one that was by turns illuminating, sometimes even breathtaking, and frequently inspiring, and it succeeded in forging what will surely turn out to be important links between chefs and gastronomes in Montreal, Europe, and beyond, as well as exposing Montreal's food-obsessed to a new, more interactive kind of food festival, one that looks likely to be a recurring proposition.

There are certainly more extensive reports on Omnivore Montreal 2012 to be found elsewhere, but here are just a few personal impressions focused on Michelle's involvement with the festival:

On Sunday Michelle gave her workshop on the topic of memory, fantasy, strawberries, and the nature of dessert.

strawberries, pepper fig. b:  black pepper, strawberries

She created two strawberry desserts for the event, both of them "simple," both of them designed to end a meal on a suitably light and refreshing note.  The first was a sour cream panna cotta with candied celery, a mixed herb granité (parsley, mint, basil, verbena), and strawberries.

The second was her dreamy Bohemian Rhapsody, a dessert that she created when she was still at Laloux and that was featured in the Gazette's "Strawberry Smackdown" last summer, and whose conception I described in some detail in a post at around the same time.  In case you've forgotten, it went something like this:

If you haven't had the pleasure of hearing Michelle describe the dessert herself, it all started with stories her mother used to tell her about summertime in Czechoslovakia. It seems that instead of summer camp, Czech kids used to be carted off to these summer work camps where they'd spend a couple of weeks picking hops as part of the national beer-making effort. 

Summer work camps? Nationalized industries? Doesn't sound like a lot of fun, does it? Except that apparently it was.

The kids were out of the city and in the countryside, they were camping, and they were relatively unsupervised. There was music every night, there were songs and dancing, and there was no shortage of summer intrigue, and a fair bit of summer romance, too. There were also strawberries--lots and lots of wild strawberries--and flowers.

Michelle loved hearing these stories (she still does!), especially because her mother would get so animated when she told them (she still does!). They were/are clearly among her mother's fondest memories.

Anyway, earlier this year, before strawberry season even began, Michelle came up with the idea of creating a dessert that would capture elements of these remembrances of Czech summers past. There would definitely be hops, of course--the most floral she could find. There would also be strawberries and flowers--an homage to the wild strawberries and the wildflowers that grew alongside the hops in the Czech countryside. There would be malt--another nod to the art of making beer. And there would by rye--Michelle imagined rye crumbs mingling with the hops and the strawberries and the wildflowers after the Czech youngsters had had their lunches in the fields.
celery, hops fig. c:  celery, hops

This was exactly the story that Michelle described to the audience at her workshop, but she used it to talk about her creative process, and to reflect upon dessert's nature, on the dichotomy between desserts that are based in fantasy and those that are based in memory (whether personal or collective), and how on occasion desserts can find their inspiration in both.

mm in the dome fig. c:  Michelle 360º

She also decided that additional visuals were in order, so we drew up a leaflet to provide audience members with some important primary texts.  The four texts in question looked like this:
 strawberry picking! fig. 1:  strawberry picking in Czechoslovakia
It was late in the evening when Philip arrived at Ferne. It was Mrs. Athelny’s native village, and she had been accustomed from her childhood to pick in the hopfield to which with her husband and her children she still went every year. Like many Kentish folk her family had gone out regularly, glad to earn a little money, but especially regarding the annual outing, looked forward to for months, as the best of holidays. The work was not hard, it was done in common, in the open air, and for the children it was a long, delightful picnic; here the young men met the maidens; in the long evenings when work was over they wandered about the lanes, making love; and the hopping season was generally followed by weddings.  --Of Human Bondage, CXVIII (pg. 543), W. Somerset Maugham
fig. 2:  a fortuitous quote
Michelle's journal  fig. 3:  a page from Michelle's journal
Michelle & co. fig. 4:  Michelle & co.
I was hardly the most objective of observers, but her presentation--her reminiscences and commentary, her demo, her leaflet--appeared to have really struck a chord with the audience, and the fact that she served individual portions of her Bohemian Rhapsody to each and every attendee didn't hurt either.  In fact, it helped to create a mob scene after her talk.

mm in the dome2 fig. e:  after the demo

Later that night, on our way to a "maudit souper" at Sardine, we had a chance run-in with a long-lost friend who was visiting from Toronto.  We did the standard 5-minute check-up, catching up on the highlights of the last few years, including Michelle's move to the Foodlab, and, completely unprompted, our long-lost friend brought up our post about the Bohemian Rhapsody and how its tale of childhood romance in the hop fields of Communist Czechoslovakia had nearly brought him to tears (!).  "Wow, funny you should mention that," I said, "because Michelle just finished giving a public talk on just that very topic."  Afterwards, I made a joke that I'd only had to pay him $50 for him to stage this unexpected encounter, but, really, his timing was impeccable, and Michelle marched onwards towards Sardine with a new spring in her step.

A day later, Ève Dumas singled out Michelle's talk as one of the highlights of the festival in the pages of La Presse (!!).  Commenting on the strength of the Montreal contingent's demos over the weekend, Dumas wrote:
La palme revient à Mme Marek, qui a donné un sens nouveau a l'expression galvaudée qu'est "cuisine d'émotion."  "Un travail sur la mémoire et le fantasme, avec des fraises," était la description que las chef du Foodlab avait faite de sa présentation la semaine dernière.  Et hier, c'était exactement ça.
Partant d'un souvenir d'enfance sublimé, Michelle Marek a préparé en direct un dessert aux fraises, avec granité de houblon, crème fouettée et crumble de pain de seigle qui évoquait l'enfance de sa mère en Tchéchoslovaquie communiste.  À la fin de la démonstration, une cinquantaine de spectateurs émus voulaient connaître le goût des fantasmes de Michelle Marek qui, par chance, avait prévu une petite portion pour tout le monde.
Michelle had even more spring in her step after she discovered that write-up.  It gave her the boost she needed to face up to a huge day.

And, finally, last night, Omnivore Montreal 2012 came to its inevitable conclusion with two more seriously hot tickets:  les Frères Folmer of Couvert Couvert (Heverlee, BE) with Marc-André Jetté and Patrice Demers at Les 400 Coups and Bigot/Gabrielse/Marek (organ, drums, guitars) + Oenopole's Theo Diamantis (wines and vocals) at the Foodlab.  Unfortunately, we missed out on the festivities on rue Notre-Dame, for obvious reasons, but the collaboration between Team Les Grès, Team Foodlab, and Team Oenopole resulted in a lovely menu with real moments of magic, the highlight of which was probably the main course:  a marinated and grilled pork échine with onions served four ways (scallion purée, charred scallion oil, grilled scallions, and an onion cream) and a pork jus.

pork plates fig. f:  pork plates

It was as striking as it was tasty, and it was one of those dishes that you wanted to just keep reappearing each time you cleaned your plate.  I could have easily had one for dessert, too.

pork plate fig. g:  pork & onions

All things must come to an end, though, right?*

A few hours later, the guests had departed, the chefs had returned, and there was nothing left to do but drink, dance, play ping pong, and reminisce about the weekend.


* with the exception of AEB.

No comments: