Sitting in the minimalist dining room of Cena, his new restaurant in Manhattan's Flatiron district, the 37-year-old chef Normand Laprise surveys the arc of his career. A wiry, earnest man with a ready smile and a twanging Quebecois accent, Laprise became one of Canada's most influential chefs when he opened Toquè in Montreal almost five years ago; he is now poised to become a major player in the United States as well. He stresses that his cooking is built around one principle: fresh produce is the heart of good food.
"When I was young," he recalls, "my mother was ill, and so I was sent from our home in Quebec City to live on a farm. The lady of the house had a big garden, kept chickens, milked cows. When I moved back home, I upset my mother because I refused to drink the milk there. Even now, I can't drink supermarket milk: it has no taste."
Laprise dropped out of accounting school to study cooking in Quebec City, where he found that French gastronomy was regarded as dogma: "The teachers would have us prepare the classic Sole à la Florentine with frozen spinach even when we had fresh broccoli. They'd want us to do the recipe exactly as it was written." The young chef eventually traveled to France to work with Jean-Pierre Billoux at Hotel de la Cloche near Dijon. One day, he recalls, "a farmer brought in two bags of beautiful leeks, and one of the cooks threw them into the refrigerator. The farmer grabbed the cook by his jacket, pushed him up against the door and shouted, 'You never do that with my vegetables!' And I thought, he's right. He's worked hard to grow perfect leeks."
Laprise's technique may be French, but he is definitively a North American chef--where else could anyone have created roasted venison with a jus flavored with spruce tips, or seared foie gras with rhubarb compote, baby corn and pumpkin seed oil? While many produce-driven chefs strive to make their food delicate, Laprise revels in the robustness of his ingredients and delights in unusual combinations, as in a salad of fennel and vanilla-pickled onions, tangy almost to the point of bitterness, which accompanies his seared sea scallops with fig confit. Laprise, however, is concerned with freshness, not novelty--he began using Asian ingredients, for example, because they were shipped in fresh to ethnic markets during Montreal's icy winters.
After he opened Toquè, Laprise began looking for a new challenge. He had become friends with the New York restaurateurs Thalia and Stephen Loffredo (owners of the SoHo restaurant Zoë), and the three began to hash out plans for Cena. (Cena, derived from the Greek word for hospitality, is also the name of the Loffredos' baby daughter.) Checking in on Toquè isn't a problem for Laprise--Montreal is just an hour's flight from New York.
Opening Cena has forced Laprise to establish a new network of purveyors. He likes the Union Square Greenmarket but has found it difficult to obtain consistently high-quality vegetables. Actually, satisfying Laprise isn't easy for his Canadian suppliers, either. When diners at Toquè comment on the paucity of Quebecois choices on the cheese board, for instance, he politely explains that not many make the grade, whereas he can rely on perfectly aged French raw milk cheeses from the shop of Pierre-Yves Chaput. Though he proudly serves Canadian venison and foie gras at Cena, he admits that the struggle to import raw milk cheeses has been an uphill one.
Not long after Cena's opening, Laprise cooked a celebratory dinner at the Loffredos' SoHo loft. The dishes are simpler than the ones he prepares at Cena, but one requirement remains unchanged: perfectly fresh produce.
Recipes by NORMAND LAPRISE; text by JONATHAN HAYES, a freelance writer who lives in New York City.