A culinary transformation
When a star chef takes on the ambitious upgrade of a timeworn but important restaurant, workaday offerings turn to gold
When it comes to la vraie haute cuisine — the rarefied, dazzling dishes rife with foie gras and truffles that make gourmets swoon, served in elegant, top-dollar restaurants that measure their worth in Michelin stars and CAA/AAA diamonds — there isn’t an Ottawa-area chef with better credentials than Frédéric Filliodeau.
The 42-year-old Aylmer resident’s collection of accolades sparkles brightly. Before he was 30, he was the sous-chef at Georges Blanc, a three-star restaurant in his native France named after its acclaimed chef. In his 30s, Filliodeau came to Canada, and under his leadership, two restaurants, Nuances in the Montreal Casino and
Signatures at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa, received five-diamond designations. Typically, just five or six Canadian restaurants each year are so honoured.
Why, then, is Filliodeau extolling the virtues of the Cobb salad, Caesar salad and other down-to-earth items on his new menu? “It’s not anywhere you’ll eat this club sandwich,” he says proudly.
He is sitting an arm’s-length away from these dishes at the Carleton Grill, the dining room of the Sheraton Ottawa Hotel on Albert Street, where he is the new executive chef. Filliodeau began work here in mid-December, following the departure of Russell Weir, who, after 11 years at the hotel, left to oversee food operations at Algonquin College. It must be said that the club sandwich, one of nearly 40 items on Filliodeau’s new menu, is a beaut, neatly combining a poached egg, diced tomato, julienned romaine lettuce, warm chicken breast and bacon within its bready embrace.
But at the end of the day, a club is still a club, in stark contrast to the opulent food that Filliodeau served wherever he worked for at least a decade and a half. In 2001, the Citizen’s former restaurant critic, Anne DesBrisay, said Filliodeau’s Signatures spring menu at the time was “awash with luxury ingredients: foie gras, lobster, sea scallops, truffles, offal, game birds and beasts.”
Now, Filliodeau says: “To be a chef, to prove your ability to cook, is not only to use very expensive ingredients.”
As his first order of business at the Carleton Grill, in a matter of weeks, Filliodeau rewrote the menu and he has more to do at the Sheraton.
But beyond that, in moving from haute cuisine to the accessible, affordable bistro-style fare that his latest kitchen produces, Filliodeau has in a sense rewritten his life, too.
The Carleton Grill has been around as long as the Sheraton — since 1972. Today, it’s a well-maintained, but less-than-fashionable-looking room that still, especially at midday, sees its share of business people, event attendees and Ottawa movers and shakers. Jean Chrétien reportedly pops by every few weeks. During a recent lunch hour, former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord was in the house.
However, Filliodeau — and the people who hired him — hope to boost the Carleton Grill’s prominence so that Ottawa residents take notice and try it for dinner, and out-of-town leisure travellers take the celebrated chef’s dishes into consideration. “I really want this location to again be part of the Ottawa community,” Filliodeau says.
One measure of the Carleton’s previous lack of profile: the Citizen’s DesBrisay reviewed it twice in the 1990s, but not since 1999, when she called the food “hotel humdrum.” Filliodeau has several new, more appealing phrases for what’s offered. “Bistro plus” and “bistro luxe” he calls it during a conversation.
Luxe? While his menu omits Kobe beef and lobster, at a recent lunch, Filliodeau served perfectly cooked Atlantic scallop with a celery root remoulade and properly poached halibut with polenta, ratatouille and a citrus-infused vinaigrette. He preceded the seafood courses with a well-executed butternut squash soup and a showy creation of baby cabbage stuffed with escargots and mushrooms, topped with an airy emulsion of milk with garlic and coriander. The meal ended with a refreshing and sunny pineapple carpaccio, accompanied by a delectable scoop of lemongrass and lime sorbet.
His Carleton Grill menu, he says, focuses on “simplicity, flavour and fresh elements.” Plus, he says his team can serve the meals quickly, either for lunch or for patrons wanting to catch a film or some theatre later. Finally, his dishes are very affordable. (At dinner, one can create a two-course table d’hôte for $39, or a three-course table d’hote for $49. The Carleton’s lunch deal is a $25 combo of a sandwich or salad plus an appetizer or dessert.)
Given the culinary heights that Filliodeau has scaled, you have to wonder whether this new gig is in any way too ordinary, too every day. After all, he is a chef who has competed for, and even won, culinary honours at competitions in Canada, France and Singapore. He is someone who, in 1996, prepared menus along with his illustrious boss, Georges Blanc, and the great French chefs Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros for the G7 meetings in Lyon, France. In 1999, he was involved in preparing menus for the meeting of Canadian premiers in Quebec City. Now, his newest menu includes dishes for children 12 and under, including burgers, buttered linguini, pizza and chicken fingers.
It turns out that in the bigger scheme of things, children do indeed matter to Filliodeau — above all, his own. “I had 10 diamonds already. I just want to keep three — my wife and my two daughters,” he says. “This is where I am today.”
Consider how he enumerates the milestones in his life. At 26, the Brittany-born chef worked at Georges Blanc. At 31, he elevated Nuances, and at 35, he achieved his second five-diamond rating at Signatures, he says. At 38, he became a father, he points out, without skipping a beat. “Ma première fille. Voilà. C’est la changement.” (Translation: My first daughter. There you have it; that’s where the change came.)
After leaving Signatures in 2006, Filliodeau has been a bit of a globetrotter. He was the executive chef at the Hilton Amsterdam for a time, but says his wife did not want to leave Ottawa, and he came back. He has also worked as a restaurant consultant, and his work required him to travel and be away from his “three diamonds” for extended periods. Last year, he worked on contract in France to open a 230-seat bistro moderne at the Atlantic seaside resort La Baule-Escoublac.
While he still works long hours at the Sheraton — 12-hour days are the norm at this point, he says — at least he isn’t on another continent. Filliodeau also expects that his new position will afford him more free time on weekends for his family. “This is good for them,” Filliodeau says. “They feel happy and comfortable.”
To work in the world of haute cuisine, Filliodeau says, is a “life choice.” His sister, he says, is married to a chef and together they run a restaurant with one Michelin star. Their lives, he implies, are consumed and defined by work. In a word, the lifestyle is fatigant — tiring, he says.
Asked if in his new position he will be able to one day go home and not have to think about work, Filliodeau responds, “Exactly!”
He points out that Vancouver chef Rob Feenie moved from his acclaimed restaurant, Lumière, to oversee food for Cactus Club Café, a B.C. casual dining chain of restaurants. Similarly, he nods when it’s pointed out that international culinary star Daniel Boulud has added an affordable New York bistro to his name.
Yes, Filliodeau says, haute cuisine and bistro fare are “two different worlds.” But he adds, “in the end, it’s to make people happy, to please the customer.” As an aside, he notes that Nuances and Signatures have both closed.
In coming weeks, Filliodeau will be revamping the Carleton Grill’s wine list, focusing on Canadian and French wines. He will make over the menu at the hotel’s bar, Sasha’s, so that it offers charcuterie, small plates and cheeses.
But who knows? Filliodeau hasn’t closed the door on a return to his haute cuisine roots.
“Maybe one day we will have the opportunity to chase diamonds,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Atlantic scallops with a celeriac rEmoulade, shiitake mushrooms and soy beurre blanc
Serves four as an appetizer
For the scallops:
- 4 large, dry scallops (meaning no preservatives)
- ounce (20 g) butter
- Heat a non-stick pan on high.
- Add the scallops, reduce the heat and add the butter. Turn the scallops, season with salt and pepper and finish cooking. The scallops should be medium-rare in the centre.
For the remoulade:
- 11 ounces (300 g) peeled celeriac
- 3.5 ounces (100 g) Shiitake mushrooms, minced
- ounce (20 g) butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 2.6 ounces (75 g) cream cheese
- Cut the peeled celeriac in quarters and grate.
- Add the lemon juice to the grated celeriac.
- Heat a pan, add the butter and the mushrooms. Sauté and season. Let cool and add the mushrooms to the celeriac. Add the cream cheese and season.
For the sauce:
- 1 ounce (28 g) peeled shallots, chopped
- cup (50 mL) dry white wine
- 2 teaspoons (10 mL) red wine vinegar
- 2 teaspoons (10 mL) soya sauce
- 4 ounces (125 g) butter, chopped into big cubes
- Heat a pan on medium. Add the shallots, white wine, vinegar and soya sauce.
- Cook together until the liquids reduce to one quarter the original amount.
- Add the cut-up butter and mix with a whisk to create an emulsion.
- Pass through a sieve and season with salt and pepper.
- In a soup plate or shallow bowl place the celeriac, then top with a scallop and pour sauce around it.
- Garnish the dish with some fleur de sel.
(Note: To make a main course for four people, triple the recipe and serve each guest three large scallops.)