The Haitian-born chef's resilience and respect define the Montreal restaurant co-owned by Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne and Win Butler.
“The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may have previously demonstrated. The mind is the athlete, the body is simply the means it uses to run faster or longer, jump higher, shoot straighter, kick better, swim harder, hit further, or box better.”
— Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One
My late father loved Courtenay’s novel. So much so that he struggled in his last few months of lost speech — fighting the disease that took his life — to impart the teachings from the story of a young South African boy overcoming great obstacles. As I write my farewell instalment of Beyond the Plate, I am filled with gratitude. The many Montreal chefs we profiled helped us learn that rich and meaningful journeys have the most winding roads. Like my father, and The Power of One’s protagonist, they have reinforced the message that true power resides within.
Chef Paul Toussaint of Agrikol restaurant took one of those winding roads, from his homeland of Haiti to Montreal. Born in Jacmel in 1987, he found his life shaped by devastating circumstances. From a tender age, he had to learn how to handle change — perhaps preparing him for a life full of big transitions.
“My mom was 15 when I was born,” he says, “and she was too young to take care of me, and so after two years she decided to give me over to my father’s side of the family.
“Then my father left to study in Canada and I was left with my auntie and grandmother, who raised me until I was seven. But after I turned seven they moved to Canada, and I was then left with my uncle, who stayed with me from 1994 to 2000.
“I never had the same family around me, with me. I always had to deal with family leaving or moving to Canada.”
Mature beyond his years, Toussaint forged friendships at primary and high school with good people whose influence would shape him for years to come. Those relationships are intact to this day.
“The one thing I have: some good friends,” he says. “I always tell my father, ‘If I am a good person, it is not because of you — it is because of my friends.’ ”
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
In 2007, Toussaint moved to Canada to live closer to family, including his father. He lived with his uncle in Ottawa, where he finished high school and then attended the University of Ottawa, though he felt unsatisfied.
“My father wanted me to be a lawyer. In Haitian families, they want you to follow their goals and what they envision for you. I didn’t want university — it’s not what I wanted from my life.”
Toussaint tells of another family member who pushed him toward the kitchen.
“One of the big and important people in my life is my uncle. He took care of me when I moved to Canada. He was the one who showed me how to cook other cuisines.”
Realizing his studies in Ottawa weren’t fulfilling his dreams, Toussaint moved to Montreal for what would prove to be the start of his culinary trajectory.
“I was supposed to attend l’Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, but my diplomas and schooling certifications were held up in Haiti and it would take me one year to get the paperwork. I said no and went to Collège LaSalle.”
After graduating from his culinary studies, Toussaint attended an event on molecular gastronomy hosted by Collège LaSalle, where he caught the attention of chef Stéphane Modat. Modat was taken with the young chef’s passion and introduced him to the Toqué! team. Landing an apprenticeship in such a revered kitchen gave Toussaint a huge boost.
“I got a big chance to go work at one of the biggest restaurants in Canada. I talked with Charles-Antoine (Crête) and said, ‘I want to be a good cook.’
“A lot of people, they want to be a chef, they want to make money. That was not my vision. For me, what I learned at Toqué! was that you take away much more than just the money.”
Two years passed at Toqué!, during which time the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti left Toussaint with a sinking feeling and a need to return home.
“In Haiti,” he explains, “a lot of people want to give back in their retirement, but me, I want to give my young power and energy!” Preoccupied by the gnawing desire to give back to his country, he packed up and headed home.
Toussaint remained in Haiti for four years, helping to construct a hotel project before meeting his wife in 2013 and starting a family.
© Photos by Ezra Soiferman
In 2016, Agrikol was making a name for itself in Montreal, spotlighting Haitian culture and cuisine. Co-owned by Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne (the daughter of Haitian parents) and Win Butler, the restaurant served Haitian food in a relaxed, soulful atmosphere. But the owners needed a true representation of the country they loved so much at the restaurant’s helm: they wanted Paul Toussaint!
When Chassagne and Butler called, Toussaint was ready to give it a go. With young son and wife in tow, he moved back to Montreal, taking the opportunity to shine a light on Haiti and its rich culinary heritage as Agrikol’s executive chef.
“Agrikol opened in 2016, but they started with a Filipino chef and realized it is more complex. The owners needed someone with the experience and soul.”
With a deep appreciation for hard work and strong leadership, Toussaint inspired change the moment he arrived.
“What I found was all the employees didn’t have a vision. There was no respect. I didn’t feel it was work for them — it was just a place to chill. … I pushed them to work hard and go in the right direction.”
Toussaint shared the wisdom learned from his own life lessons, teaching his protégés the value of resilience and taking things slow and steady.
“The thing I always need is discipline and respect. I don’t care about your passion — I need the respect for the restaurant. I want my customers to be happy. While you are at Agrikol, give everything to Agrikol. I am hard on myself and am pushing myself every day.”
Though he has endured many hardships, Toussaint remains a man of strength and positivity.
“I remember being upset with my mom at a young age, asking her why she didn’t take care of me,” he says. “But I realized, of course, as I got older, how hard it is to take care of a child, especially at such a young age. My father also, I love him. He’s given me so much. My aunts, my uncles, my friends.”
Spoken like a man who has learned that the true power of one lies within.
“This is me. I love people; I love my family. I want to be happy in life.”
For our Beyond the Plate food adventure, Toussaint and I visited Poissonnerie Casablanca on St-Michel Blvd. and Boucherie Champfleuri on Mont-Royal Ave. E. We then zipped back to Agrikol to prepare an exquisite Haitian picnic lunch, shared on the restaurant’s verdant back patio. It was delightful — and spicy!
Thank you all for your eyes, your ears and your appetites over the past year and a half.
Agrikol: 1844 Amherst St.; agrikol.ca
This essay originally appeared in the Montreal Gazette on July 10, 2019