Fairmont Hosts a Farm-To-Table Gala in Quebec’s Charlevoix Region
On paper, the 2015 Gala des Grands Chefs is an impressive affair: Fifteen prominent chefs cook up a gastronomic weekend at a luxury hotel. Yet behind the foie gras pops, sunchoke mousse, and glittering gowns, the mood is more convivial dinner party than pompous soirée. This is thanks to the Gala’s locale, organizing chef, and core themes: Products, pleasure, and passion.
The Gala des Grands Chefs is hosted by the Fairmont Manoir Richelieu, an idyllic retreat in Quebec’s Charlevoix region. This verdant land along the St. Lawrence River, where the mountains meet the sea, is known as the Flavour Trail due to an abundance of culinary craftsman. These cheesemakers, farmers, bakers, and brewers are the ingredients, or more aptly, the terroir, that gives the Gala its special flavor.
One of Charlevoix’s most passionate proponents is also the creator of the Gala. Chef Patrick Turcot, the Manoir Richelieu’s ebullient chef, believes that you “respect the product by knowing its story.” He tours his staff along the Flavour Trail so they can intimately understand their ingredients. The Gala des Grands Chefs is a super-sized version of this, a chance for global chefs to cook farm-to-table on a grand scale. For Chef Turcot, cooking is rooted in relationships — those between artisans, chefs, and diners. Sharing means caring about where food comes from and coming together to enjoy it.
To ring in the gala’s 15-year anniversary, Chef Turcot doubled the number of participating chefs from seven to 15 this year. In addition to Fairmont notables, like Chef Louis Simard of Chateau Laurier, a mix of fresh faces (and tattooed arms) were added, including people like Montreal-based chef Danny Smiles and Félipé St. Laurent. The blend of experience and enthusiasm injected the 15-year old Gala with new energy.
Attendees to the gala enjoyed two food-filled days. On Friday night, an informal party showcased the participating food purveyors. Guests strolled between food stations, hobnobbing with local artisans who raised the pigs, milked the goats, or baked the bread that flavored each dish. From Laiterie Charlevoix, I learned how they emphasize quality over quantity, by saving a threatened breed of Quebec cow whose wonderfully rich milk was ignored by corporations due to its low output.
On Saturday afternoon, guests attended a culinary workshop. Twice the number of chefs meant the 2015 demo featured cooking twosomes. This allowed for witty banter between lessons, like jokes about the plans of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s new prime minister, to legalize weed as chef Éric Beaupré chopped herbs. Though the intent was to teach cooking skills, the atmosphere was more laidback than strict; volunteer helpers from the crowd were given glasses of wine as they assisted.
This informality was reinforced during Chef Turcot’s demo. He spoke of how, in the past, formal dining rooms hid cooking behind closed kitchen doors. Now, open kitchens are the heart of homes; they are the space around which friends and families gather to watch how meals are made. The Gala’s Friday dinner and Saturday demo gave attendees this intimate window into the world of cooking.
That night, guests donned their cocktail attire for the grand feast. Emceed by enigmatic sommelier Jessica Harnois, diners devoured a sumptuous 16-course meal in the festive ballroom. Before each plate was delivered by tuxedo-clad servers, the chefs introduced their dish. Chef Simard whipped up a lovely panna cotta from local cheesemaker Migneron, and chef Jean-Francois Bélair used duck from La Ferme Basque to make traditional Quebec créton (a rillettes-like dish.) The delicious climax of the Gala was a gourmet gastronomic tour of the Charlevoix.
At the end of the meal, Chef Turcot promised that 2016’s Sweet Sixteen gala would be even grander. The 2015 prices started at 650 CAD (466 USD) per person (double occupancy), which included two nights’ lodging, Friday’s meet-the-farmer cocktail party, Saturday’s culinary workshop with tastings, the gastronomic gala, and Sunday brunch. Note that while the Gala is a French event, many of the cosmopolitan chefs are bilingual and English translation is available throughout.
If you couldn’t make the November event, Manoir Richelieu offers an Epicurean F-scape during Charlevoix’s peak growing season, mid-May to mid-October. Starting at 494 CAD (354 USD), the package includes tours of local farms and a three-hour cooking lesson with a member of the hotel’s culinary team, along with two nights of lodging, breakfast, and four-course dinners.