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Beyond the Plate with Charles-Antoine Crete
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From a Mirabel dish pit to the famed kitchen at Toqué! to the bold presentations at Montréal Plaza, Crête has taken the right direction.

Charles-Antoine Crête brings a creative vision to life

May 3, 2019

Speaking of the difference between watching a film on an iPhone and on the big screen, director Baz Luhrmann said: “The grand experience in the cinema is about being able to luxuriate in the story, and the image, and the sound, but the biggest difference is to communally experience a story.” In that regard, the textured big-screen tableau of Luhrmann’s iconic 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! can be likened to a night out at Montréal Plaza, only this theatrical St-Hubert St. restaurant has chef and co-owner Charles-Antoine Crête as its director.

Born in 1979, Crête was one of four children in a Mirabel family. As a chef, he would develop a proclivity for precision — a trait shared with his father, who fixed antique clocks as a hobby and had grandfather clocks spread around their home.

Crête settled on his career path at a very young age.

“At nine years old, I had decided,” he says. “I told my mom I wanted to be a chef, and I never changed my mind.”

That clarity afforded the eager boy an early start to his career: much like many of the chefs profiled in this series, his first job was a dish pit gig.

“At 11 years old, I started to wash dishes for $2 an hour at Le St-Augustin (in Mirabel),” he recalls. “It was a bad restaurant, but then all of a sudden, a year after I started, a French guy from Brittany named Jean-Paul Giroux bought the restaurant. (One day) we were cooking Costco food, and the day after we were getting the eggs from the chickens out back, we’d go get all the vegetables in the village, and drive to the city to buy fish.”

Crête worked with Giroux until he was 17. He smiles as he nostalgically remembers a small detail: “Jean-Paul was so poor. He drove an old Volkswagen with a hole (in its floor). You could see the street when we were driving!”

With a desire to sharpen his English skills, Crête set out for Toronto. “You can tell I really didn’t learn it well,” he says humbly.

Back in Montreal with a serious appetite for higher learning, Crête applied to the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, but was denied entry to the prestigious school’s culinary program. He studied butchery in Ste-Adèle instead, but his determination to attend the ITHQ was undiminished.

“One day I went to meet (the ITHQ administration). I told them I was worse than cancer and that if they don’t accept me I will just come back over and over,” he says. “Then they finally accepted me!”

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

While engrossed in his studies, Crête scored a coveted stage at Toqué!, where he was mentored by legendary chef and owner Normand Laprise. But he left during summer break to help an old friend in need.

“Jean-Paul (from Le St-Augustin) had nobody in the kitchen to cook with him in the village. So I left Toqué!, because as I told Normand, ‘You will have a much easier time finding chefs. It’s going to be easier for you than for Jean-Paul.’ ”

Laprise understood, but told Crête he would be calling at the end of August. He was true to his word.

Crête recalls how he took a break from his post at Le St-Augustin before a night service. “I always go to my parents’ place before service for swimming. They lived close to the restaurant. There was a message on the fridge to call back Normand.”

Crête reunited with Laprise, and did double duty working at Toqué! while pushing forward with his studies at the ITHQ. But it didn’t take long before his spirited personality clashed with the constraints of the school’s structure.

“I got kicked out of cooking school because they wanted to control me,” he says.

What was supposed to be a graduating-class trip to France became an extended stay overseas by himself.

“One of my teachers helped me get a stage in the north of France, in Normandy, and I left for five months.”

Crête made the journey in 1999, at a time when the buzz all around the chef community was centred on the Michelin-starred restaurant El Bulli in Spain, where reservations had to be made six months in advance.

“I was stuck in France with no money. I was cleaning and cooking in a hotel so that I could stay there for free. I was waiting for my friend to arrive and join me. She had her parents’ credit card, and we took the train to Spain. We went to eat at El Bulli and I said, ‘I want to work here one day!’ ”

Starting in 2000, Crête rejoined the Toqué! team for four years. All that time, he never lost the hope to return to Spain and work at El Bulli.

“I sent my resumé 18 times. Every time, they said no. Normand helped me buy a ticket and I flew to Spain.”

Upon arrival at El Bulli, Crête made a brazen move.

“I went through the back door by the dish pit and walked into the restaurant. It was like a TV show. There were about 35 cooks running around everywhere. I was looking for a guy called Albert. I was just pointing to everyone until I found him. He was chef de cuisine and I said, ‘I am Charles from Canada and you have to hire me’ — so he hired me!”

The tenacious chef was given a highly prized one-year post in El Bulli’s kitchen, but he was thwarted by red tape surrounding his work visa. He then hatched a plan to visit Sydney, Australia, where his adventures included time spent with renowned Japanese-born chef Tetsuya Wakuda. He then learned about the olive oil trade in Adelaide, and capped off his year-long sojourn with a two-month stay in Japan. Then, it was back home.

“I came back to Montreal and I was pretty much wondering, ‘What am I going to do?’ ”

Crête says he had offers of financial backing to open his own restaurant, but first he wanted to perfect his craft as a chef de cuisine.

“This is when I went back to Toqué! and worked there for 10 years straight.

“If I could live until 200 years old, I would have stayed 20 years more at Toqué! Normand is like my second father. I am the godfather to his daughter. We are family.”

At the end of a decade of full commitment to Laprise and his landmark restaurant, Crête led the team of a special project.

“The last thing I had to do for Toqué! — my heritage and my gift — I took 2 1/2 years to work on a cookbook (Toqué!: Les artisans d’une gastronomie québécoise, written by Laprise). That was like my mission. I put a lot of work into building this: ideas, pictures, editing, texts. This is what I left behind. I felt when I finished the book, it was time to go.”

Crête’s sous-chef at Toqué! was Cheryl Johnson; they met in 2000 and instantly shared a bond that Crête describes in fiercely loyal terms. When Crête’s ambitions of opening a restaurant grew, Johnson was on hiatus from Toqué!, doing a consulting job in Thailand.

“We talked on the phone every day. Two years apart proved to us we needed to work together. You cannot split us. We have to be together. My life would not exist if Cheryl wouldn’t exist. We decided to do a restaurant and gave Normand one year’s notice. … We made sure everything was OK for me to leave.

“Normand was happy. For sure it was sad to go, but he said the most important thing is our friendship.” Even now, Crête says, “we are like old ladies that talk on the phone for an hour every day.”

In fact, it seems Laprise was way ahead of Crête: the father figure was already preparing his apprentice for the launch pad.

“Normand told me, ‘Even if you wouldn’t have told me you were leaving, I was planning on telling you it’s your turn to go.’ This is how close we are and how generous he is.”

© Photos by Ezra Soiferman

For almost two years, Crête and Johnson were “crossing the desert on our own,” readying and steadying themselves for what would become Montréal Plaza. Two ambitious projects helped their ideas develop: they helped build the concept and menu for Le Majestique restaurant on St-Laurent Blvd., and Crête travelled around the world for TV5, co-hosting the show À table avec l’ennemi.

Crête fondly recalls how he set aside rigid timelines, showing his customary flair for the dramatic. “I said to Cheryl, ‘We will travel around the world with no budget!’ We went to southern France, Spain, New York.”

With a smile, he remembers the point at which he realized they had run out of money and it was time to get to work on their own restaurant. “When I went to buy gin, I started with Hendrick’s, then moved to Belvedere, then Gordon’s. Then at a certain point I bought a bottle of the cheapest gin and when I came home I said to Cheryl, ‘OK, it’s time. Let’s open a restaurant!’ ”

Crête says he tends to have incredible timing, and sure enough, the owner of a restaurant called Plaza phoned him to ask if he would be interested in doing an event. Crête says he didn’t have the heart to turn the owner down on the phone — “The guy was so nice and he always called me” — so he headed down with Johnson to decline the offer in person. But fate had another plan.

“After four minutes, I told Cheryl, ‘It’s here!’ ”

Crête and Johnson had found the perfect space for their own restaurant, and the artfully designed Montréal Plaza took the scene by storm when it opened in the summer of 2015.

“We wanted to build a restaurant once we answered three questions: why are we open, for whom, and with whom? We wanted to open a restaurant where we want to hang out, like a house. We love to be with staff. We wanted to open a restaurant for the zero- to 100-year-old. Everybody can feel good here. It’s a picture of society.” Most important, Crête adds, they set out to have a crew of “the people we want to be with every day.”

It took that crew, led by celebrated interior designer Zébulon Perron, almost six months of demolition, renovation, painting and decorating before the doors opened for a pre-kickoff event that brought Crête and Johnson full circle with Laprise, cooking a special dinner for the Omnivore food festival.

“It was Normand the first night in the restaurant, cooking all the classic dishes from Toqué! All my sous-chefs, like 25 of them — I raised them — everybody was there helping. We did 144 customers, and we opened officially a week later.”

Montréal Plaza’s seasonal menu features small plate options and shows off Crête’s creative genius. He takes the usual and makes it fantastical — whether it’s scallops played up on the back of a triceratops or freshly shucked oysters, classics are served with a flair for the dramatic.

Patrons get a one-of-a-kind experience each time they visit the celebratory restaurant. When they book a table for a birthday dinner, they can be treated to staff in zany costumes, sparklers, even a drummer —  it’s a front-row theatrical experience. 

The doting staff’s energetic antics seem effortless, but it’s clear that this is a well-oiled, well-directed enterprise, and that the kitchen is distinguished by impeccable precision.

Since a love of family and friends is so vital for Crête, it made perfect sense that he suggested we visit his family’s 200-year-old home in Mirabel for our Beyond the Plate food adventure. Decades ago, his father set up a private cabane in a woodshed in their backyard. The rustic space, heated by a 100-year-old wood stove, has been used for special meals ever since, and you can watch it in action in our webisode.

We shared a traditional cabane à sucre meal — heaps of bacon, cretons, scrambled eggs, roast ham, split pea soup and an array of maple syrup-infused desserts — in the remarkably authentic space. Once lunch at the cosy cabane was played out, we continued our adventure at Montréal Plaza. It was a time of lights, camera and a whole lot of action.

If Crête is the creative director at the helm of Montréal Plaza, ushering in patrons and readying them for the show, it is his life partner Johnson who conducts the crew from the centre of the ingeniously designed modular kitchen. Their cast falls in line, delivering inventive dishes and presenting a deliciously satisfying show.

“Yes, we work hard,” Crête says, “but I spend my life with my best friend every day. Fifty-five people wake up every day and come to work. We are responsible for them. They follow us and all the crazy things we do. We make them wear a cucumber costume and they are happy to do it!”

This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on May 3, 2019

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