The Chosen Ones
For Marysol Foucault, the chef-owner of Edgar in Gatineau, Christmas is mostly about her staff. She is, after all, at work for about 18 hours a day in the weeks leading up to the big holiday and doesn’t finish until late in the day on the 24th.
Each year, sociologists tell us that Christmas is a difficult time of year for many people. Invariably, stress levels rise at work, children go crazy, debts climb all too quickly, many people without family or extended social networks are lonely, and then there’s the allout food extravaganza to prepare. For Foucault, “I’ll be very honest,” she says, “it is not my favourite holiday. Food at my family Christmas gatherings sucked.” Which, for an award-winning chef, must have been torture.
Not only was the food terrible, but the petite Foucault was very shy. She spent most of the festivities hiding in a corner, trying to dodge the dancing and the huge family crowd (her father was one of 15 children). But now that she’s through her 30s, she’s reconciled with Christmases past and “my staff made me love Christmas. I really was the Grinch. But they are my family, my all and they are the people I am most thankful for and whom I give all I have,” she concedes. “I try to make our Edgar menu special every year so that they are enthusiastic.” She also throws a big staff party with dinner that she prepares herself, games, challenges and bowling.
This year, Edgar 2.0 will be in the works, with expansion plans for more seating and a bigger kitchen and garden in the spring, which means that the Christmas take-home foods Foucault and her team have prepared in the past will not be quite so expansive. “It’s stressful for all us,” she says, “so I’m trying to make it happy for us too.” But she’ll still be focusing on some favourite Québec traditional dishes, such as cipaille, cabbage rolls, cretons and duck pâté, as well as unique fruitcakes, sucre à la crème (fudge) and pressed cookies.
“I’m really interested in Québecois Christmas dishes,” says Foucault. “Not only do I have the clientele who want these traditional things, but I don’t want to lose the traditions. Many of my clients are nostalgic for the foods of their Québec childhoods and I’m doing this because I fear that they will be lost. So many young people now don’t know many of these dishes.”
Certainly cipaille, cretons and cabbage rolls were dishes designed initially to use easily available, low-cost ingredients. This is not luxury food, but it is tasty and varies regionally across the province. Cipaille, for example, was most likely made with rough cuts of fish in maritime Québec and the Gaspésie and was possibly spelled sea-pie, derived from a dish served to sailors in the 1700s. However, closer to home, it was traditionally made with game and Foucault makes it with cheaper cuts of meat, cloves, nutmeg, onions and leeks. There’s also the historical suggestion that it actually had six layers of pastry — six-pâtes — although Foucault uses only three, “and it’s still about so tall,” she says, holding her hands eight inches apart.
Foucault’s journey to award-winning chef and local culinary heroine wasn’t a clear path, although she had catalysts on both sides of her family. Her grandfather on her mother’s side was an excellent cook and her mother, now struggling with serious health issues, continues to cook for herself and will happily prepare herself a rabbit. Her father was a steelworker who spent a lot of time installing vent hoods in restaurant kitchens, which meant that she had a certain familiarity with the environment. Foucault started work at the age of 14 in a store doing food prep and moved on to bigger and bigger restaurants. She had always intended to go to culinary school, “but I had a boss who kept paying me more and begging me not to leave,” she recalls. “After a while I really fell into it,” she says, “not because of passion, but because the reality of leaving and having no income set in. I’d have loved to have done something physical, perhaps been a dancer.” Luckily, for Gatineau and the region, she’s stuck with food.
In 2013, Foucault won the prestigious Gold Medal Plates challenge for the Ottawa-Gatineau region, the fundraiser that pairs food with sport, raising funds to support Canada’s Olympic athletes. It didn’t really change anything at Edgar, except make the lines longer. “The restaurant was already full,” she shrugs. But it did put her on the culinary map for anyone who hadn’t heard the secret previously.
Chez Edgar seats just 13 people (soon to expand). “But over a four-hour period on winter weekend mornings we serve 80 to 90 people for breakfast and between 150 and 160 during the summer months,” explains Foucault. “People know that they can’t linger over their coffee. They come, they eat, they leave. If nothing else, the line of people waiting makes them move along.”
On a golden fall afternoon, the place is packed at lunchtime. Clients wait outside for their order to be prepared inside and plenty walk away clutching brown bags full of good things to enjoy elsewhere because they can’t get a seat. A member of staff even darts outside to deliver lunch to the driver of the garbage truck, stopped in the street to collect organic waste. To the side of the tiny building, planters overflow with herbs, edible flowers and greens. Tomatoes grow on the rooftop. There’s a palpable sense of community and happiness here. “Food makes people happy,” says Foucault, “and going to a restaurant is about treating yourself.” These days, Foucault herself seems to have found a happier place for the Christmas holidays. She prepares dinner and eats with her mother on the evening of the 24th, before heading to 100 acres of forested wilderness close to Mont Ste. Marie with her boyfriend, to join his family. “I think I’ve always been in love with the idea of Christmas,” she says, “the romantic part of it, the quiet of the snow and the family baking (which was not part of my family).”
And now she has found it.
60 Rue. Bégin, Gatineau, Qué.