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Montreal chef Normand Laprise stresses importance of collaboration, mentoring

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TORONTO - Normand Laprise is a celebrated chef, TV personality and cookbook author, yet the Montreal restaurant owner is never too busy to take time out for mentoring — and the younger, the better.

Teaching people about food, whether they're apprentice chefs or children, is just his philosophy, yet it's become a component of his business too, says the co-owner of Toque! and Brasserie T!

Laprise, who's been a judge since 2011 on the TV series "Les Chefs!" on Radio-Canada, the French network of the CBC, and was also a guest judge in 2013 on "Top Chef Canada" on Food Network Canada, said he's amazed at the growing interest among youngsters in eating at Toque!, which he established with associate Christine Lamarche in 1993. They opened Brasserie T! in 2010.

"Six years old, seven, eight, nine, 10, every age, the kids come. They like to eat, not to eat chicken. (They) try everything with a tasting menu, come in the kitchen, talking, so excited to be there," said Laprise, who has been a longtime champion of Quebec's culinary identity.

"I'm so surprised. I never see that in my restaurant before."

He decided to experiment with a special during the school break in March, traditionally a slow time. Laprise offered youngsters 18 and under accompanied by a parent a chance to experience gourmet dining at "junior prices" — $20 for lunch and $40 for dinner. The children could choose a meal of three courses from anything on the menu, whether it was lobster, foie gras or venison, and visit the kitchen.

"Wow, I say, that's nice because we don't see that 20 years ago. Now the kids like to be interested in a new way and feed themselves better and understand the food and this is our next customer for later," he said, adding that these consumers of tomorrow will shop at markets and dine at other restaurants. Stimulating their palates and interest is a win-win situation for all concerned, the chef said in an interview during this spring's Terroir Symposium for members of the hospitality industry in Toronto.

Laprise also likes to mentor participants on "Les Chefs." There's a process of elimination, but rather than condescension, he tries to educate through techniques and tips. "We don't try to destroy the people; we try to build them up."

In 2012, Laprise published "Toque! Creators of a New Quebec Gastronomy" (Les Editions du Passage) in French and English. The hefty 460-page book with its 190 recipes and beautiful photos has won accolades, including a prestigious James Beard Foundation award in 2013, and this year it won a Gourmand World Cookbook Award for best Canadian cookbook for its French and English versions and was a finalist in the worldwide category.

He has no plans to write another cookbook — "maybe in 30 years," he said with a laugh — though he hinted he might be interested in a project for kids and teens.

"Now I'm so surprised about young kids right now are so good and curious to cook in their house, not necessarily to be a chef one day but to cook for themselves and to eat better." Acquiring skills as youngsters means they can prepare meals when they leave home instead of relying on take-out. "I think it's more interesting for youths to cook all together, one to do the dessert, the other to do the salad, just to eat better, to be healthier."

Laprise, who was born in 1961 in Kamouraska, Que., grew up on a farm where he developed his taste for fresh products and his understanding of the relationship between chef and producer. Early on, he began pushing to produce a "local" cuisine instead of duplicating a French or Latin one as had been the case among chefs in the province up until Expo67.

Though he acknowledges acclaimed chefs in Nordic countries like Denmark and Sweden have been making headlines with their creative use of foraged fare, it's nothing new to him. Laprise has been using ingredients like sea parsley and spruce tips for a quarter-century. He grew up learning about them and it was natural to incorporate them into his menus.

He applauds the spirit of collaboration among chefs in Montreal but noted it's important for the younger generation to realize they must continue to be innovative rather than resting on the laurels of their predecessors.

He's also a proponent of sharing. In his early career, a chef he worked for kept his recipes under wraps, tantalizing him with tidbits. One week he would ask Laprise to fetch him 670 grams of butter, another time 12 egg yolks. "That's the way I learned the recipe, to remember what he asked to me, to be focused, but he never says make me the (whole) recipe. It was his recipe and he don't like to share," Laprise recalled.

"That's old mentality and we build nothing. ... Normally when you have a good recipe you share with somebody" in the hope that person will improve on it. "You can't be the best at everything."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.

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