Exploring Québec’s Unique Terroir With Hilton Chef Marie-Chantal Lepage
Throughout her nearly 40-year career, award-winning Québec Chef Marie-Chantal Lepage has been an ambassador and relentless champion of all things produced in her home province. Now she has taken over the helm of the kitchen in one of the biggest hotels in Québec City — the newly renovated Hilton — and she’s bringing her signature flair and love of local to the job.
During my summer visit to Québec City I was lucky enough to stay at the beautiful Hilton Québec and Chef Lepage invited me into her kitchen to talk about how far local cuisine has come since she began cooking in restaurants.
The Hilton’s new CABU Restaurant
Spilling out into the modern lobby of the Hilton Québec is the beautiful new restaurant and bar CABU boire et manger. With an inviting decor and a variety of seating options — from long bar-height wooden tables to cozy booths and banquettes — the restaurant is clearly designed to create a place for guests to mingle and lounge.
The tagline for the restaurant is “a story in every bite” which suits Chef Lepage’s sensibilities just fine as she believes in telling a story through food. Each ingredient she uses in her food has a unique origin story and together they tell the tale of Québec.
“Guests come here from all over the world and I want them to leave having tasted very local produce that comes from here and that I’ve combined and mixed together in unexpected ways to taste heavenly,” she tells me. “I want people to leave having tasted something truly unique and associate that with the hard work of the local producers in Québec.”
For now, the restaurant is serving a buffet breakfast and a light evening menu at the bar but a full menu is in the works and Chef Lepage promises it will be full of the flavours of Québec.
The 150-km Rule
A door through the back of the CABU dining room leads to Chef Lepage’s immaculate kitchen. It is here that local farmers and producers knock on the back door to speak directly with the chef, introducing her to new products or asking for her advice. It is a part of her job that she loves and cultivates.
“You can’t have good cuisine without good products,” she says. “When you have a close relationship with producers, they become like family, they will call and ask me what products I will need for the next year.”
Chef Lepage prioritizes sourcing products within a 150 km radius of the hotel, but will also buy quality ingredients from other places in Québec.
Having had a chance to drive around the local regions, I know she is spoiled for choice. Within a stone’s throw of the hotel is the Île d’Orleans, an island in the St. Lawrence renowned for its farms. A short drive around the island will yield fresh fruit, craft beer, apple cider, local cheese and some amazing chocolate. Within an hour of the city is the stunning region of Charlevoix where innovative farmers create everything from emu oil to oyster mushrooms.
This wasn’t always the case, Chef Lepage tells me.
Evolution of Québecois Cuisine
Before her current role as Executive Chef at the Hilton Québec, Chef Lepage worked in many different restaurants and venues around the province including Manoir Montmorency and the National Museum of Fine Arts of Québec. A self-taught chef with no formal training, Chef Lepage learned on the job — starting when she was just 16 years old. She is the only woman to date to win the prestigious National Chef of the Year for the Société Cuisinier Pâtissiers du Québec — an accomplishment she is particularly proud of because it is awarded as a vote from chefs throughout the province.
Throughout her various roles, Chef Lepage has watched the Québec cuisine landscape change and grow.
“When I begin in the kitchen, I was very young, and back then they didn’t have products like lamb or so many of the other wonderful products from Quebec,” she says. Many items were imported from France and other places around the world. This included chefs, as most of the high-end restaurants had French chefs at their helm.
But the 1990s brought an explosion of agricultural innovation in Québec, she says. And with it also came a new generation of Québecois chefs.
The more Chef Lepage learned about and used the new products coming from her province, the more passionate she became about them. She spent a part of her career travelling to places around the world, like Japan, Thailand and the United States, showcasing the products created by the unique terroir of Québec. (Terroir refers to the characteristic taste imparted to a product by the environment in which it is produced.)
To this day, she continues to stand behind the producers and believes in the quality of the products.
“Before we were always copying French cuisine and now we have evolved our very own Québec culinary culture,” she says. “And the chefs just keep getting stronger and the products just keep getting better in quality and more innovative in the way they are made.”
The Hilton Québec is located at the doorstep of the Old Québec at 1100 boul. René-Lévesque. A full menu at CABU is expected to be revealed very soon.
If you’re looking for some ideas for your next visit to the province of Québec, please reach out to us!