In downtown Montreal, it's a fantastic new restaurant, in the cuisine and hospitality hotspots of France, it's the symbolic cap that confirms a chef's skill and accomplishment and in rural Quebec, it's an expression for being stubborn or focused directly on what you want to achieve.
In every case, all apply to Normand Laprise. He is the driving force behind one of Montreal's newest and hottest kitchens, he is a French trained chef that has earned his Toqué! for his skill and learning and most important, he is a man that has toqué. Normand's vision of what his restaurant should be, is a direct result of the amount of focus and the drive for perfection that motivates him to achieve exactly what he set out to do. Normand will not accept second best when it comes to his restaurant and his dream.
While this latest version of Toque! is recently opened in their new location at place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, gastronomiques will remember the original Toque! that was located on Rue St.-Denis. This was a highly successful restaurant that had a ten-year run to raves from patrons and the reviewing writers. In the new restaurant, co-owners Christine Lamarche and Normand Laprise have once again partnered to bring Montreal its hottest new property. The new Toque! was designed from the ground up by the two partners to give them a restaurant that was exactly to their specifications.
When it came to creating the new Toqué!, Normand assured us that he was only interested in doing his latest restaurant his way. “I've been offered lots of projects over the past couple of years. Toqué! is a huge project, but this is where I am now, I work 15 hours a day and Christine, my partner and I have a tremendous amount of money invested in this restaurant. I want to concentrate all my time to make it perfect. One more month and I will have it perfect and then I can concentrate on my true love, the food, the cooking and working with my brigade.”
This love of the food, the cooking and interacting with his brigade really sculpted the new Toqué! into what it is today. The design for Toqué! is all Normand and it is an expression of his values and philosophy that has created this unique restaurant. Contrary to most restaurants, the kitchen was designed first in this project and the balance of the restaurant was fitted around it. This restaurant is a testimony to the cooking, the food and delivering a memorable experience for the guests based on the finest foods, not the latest in “front of the house” designs. Normand describes it; “The key to my design is that in the kitchen I can see everyone and everywhere. I like to see everybody and they can see me. A kitchen can be cold, it's all stainless steel but the human contact is the warmth that you build in. I didn't build the kitchen for me; I built it for the brigade. But at the same time, the Brigade is me.”
Central to this design is Normand's custom island suite by Garland. Normand confirmed the nature of the strategic partnership that resulted in the design and construction of the anchor for his kitchen. “I was very comfortable with Garland because they have great quality, a long tradition of building excellent products. They showed me that they would make what I wanted and work with me to get the dream to be just the way I wanted it for my kitchen and my food.” An integral part of the design process was a visit by Normand to the Custom Island Suite department at the Garland factory in Mississauga. Normand was appreciative of the effort; “They sat with me, listened to me, showed me what they had
done in the past and then talked about how to make my island suite. They didn't once say that I couldn't have something, they worked with me to accommodate my every wish.” The blend of equipment that was incorporated into the island suite footprint has all the necessary cooking power, refrigerated storage and preparation area to handle the thirty-two cooks that can be working in this massive kitchen at one time. Every form of cooking, roasting, grilling, frying and finishing was built into the suite, so that the entire kitchen operation flows effortlessly around the suite, resulting in a calm but orderly chaos when they are in the height of the high demand period.
The overall kitchen design has been created to give members of the Team the space to create and deliver their part of the guest experience. The cooks, bakers, prep crews and waiters all share the same space and develop an ingrained respect for what each other does and how they contribute to the overall Toqué! experience. Normand is very clear about his kitchen harmony, “I want everyone around me, I want to share the experience. You don't necessarily have to talk you just have to share the experience. This teamwork helps everyone appreciate what everyone else has to do.” The kitchen designs were blended into a working plan that suited everyone by Bernard & Associes; consultants and designer de services alimentaires.
The Normand Laprise philosophy centers on three critical factors, freshness, respect and teamwork. He is emphatic when he says that the hardest thing that he has to do today is manage the human capital in his kitchen and ensure that there is a harmony that is conducive to presenting a warm experience for the guests. Toqué! is currently serving 100 guests per evening, with a minimum of 7 courses per guest, so there are between 700 – 1000 plates per evening to prepare and present. “My restaurant is designed to make the customers relaxed and peaceful. The same thing applies to the staff; they have to have space of their own to work. They need structure and organization to work with, when they have that, you can ask for more and make the experience even better.” To accomplish this, the kitchen has to flow, people have to work together and respect each other towards one goal, creating and serving the food that makes Normand's restaurant a gastronomic destination. The interior of the restaurant was coordinated with décor designer Jean-Pierre Viau of Montreal.
When you consider the food of Normand Laprise, you are immediately struck by the relentless drive to get the freshest products available. They come into the restaurant in their natural state and are transformed in his kitchen, nothing comes prepackaged. Meats are butchered, fish are filleted and produce has to be fresh and grownto Normand's exacting standards. Normand describes it as; “My first focus is to find the best product. People who work with me have to understand my food. My food is complex but sometimes, it's very simple.” The key to the food after freshness, is consistency. Normand has a trusted group of suppliers that provide the products that he wants to the standard that he wants and he works from there. Meats and fowl are aged and butchered by his cooks as part of the quality and learning process. He believes that when you butcher a piece of meat, you learn about grain and texture and how this is going to reflect in the cooking of the product and the final dish. Starting his brigade at the beginning with improved knowledge and experience is the key to his food success and their development.
An intense focus on details, teaching, mentoring and respect amongst all the members of the team are critical to the success of Toqué!. A key part of the central piece of this success story is the Garland custom island suite created exclusively for Normand Laprise, one of the most demanding chefs in the industry. It is the centerpiece of his “office” and he wants all his guests to know that they are welcome to see him in his office and experience the teamwork, harmony and fantastic food of Toqué!.