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In a new city like Vancouver, Poirier is the chef and St. Lawrence the restaurant that provide some culinary ballast to our relentless ambition.
In the 12 years from 1997 to 2008, our coveted Restaurant of the Year award was won by one of two restaurants: Lumière (seven times) or West (five times). But in the 12 years since, an astonishing 10 different restaurants have won the big prize, and that figure speaks to how much our restaurant industry has grown and diversified since the Olympics came to town. Winners have run the gamut from upscale Thai to casual Italian and from bare-bones locavorism to formal Chinese—and if there’s one thread that typifies each restaurant’s greatness, it’s an ability to stand out in an increasingly elevated and competitive marketplace.
All of which is to say that winning Restaurant of the Year back to back in 2018 and 2019 is truly exceptional. St. Lawrence is that restaurant, and JC Poirier, not coincidentally our Chef of the Year, is the man who steers this portal to the Québécois food of his youth. By now the chef’s journey has been well documented: arriving in town with only a soupçon of English, rising quickly through the ranks (at the above-lauded Lumière), a too-early reach for the top with Chow on South Granville, and the slow but steady path back to the peak.
They’re all key elements to the success story that is St. Lawrence, and taken as a whole, they afford a certain understanding of how hard it is to achieve excellence as a chef in this town. But the true picture really emerges when you sit down with this modest man: his gaze is relentlessly focused without being angry; heavy with obligation to his team, to his family, yet seemingly devoid of bald ambition. He’s a maestro in the kitchen, yet he approaches his job not as star but as workhorse. If a chef like Wolfgang Puck (let’s use someone far away for self-preservation) comes across as the master of the three-ring circus, Poirier comes across as the guy who would shovel the elephant shit without complaint if that’s what it took to achieve his goals. Where most lauded chefs favour the formal white coat, JC is at home on the line in his workman’s sturdy apron.
And while St. Lawrence is undoubtedly the flagship, our judges were struck by the consistent quality at all his restaurants: Ask for Luigi, Pourhouse, Di Beppe and Pizzeria Farina were all singled out for excelling in their own particular niches. But it’s the open kitchen at St. Lawrence that fires the engine. “I can’t think of more honest food being served in town,” noted one judge, reminiscing about the chef’s ability to take the classics—vol-au-vent, Paris-Brest—and present them in a way that simultaneously honours their past while still making them seem as if he invented them last week. In the case of the last entry, it’s in part true—he transforms the classic dessert of choux pastry and praline cream by subbing in a creamy duck liver, then dripping maple syrup on top for a starter of unrepentant richness. His daily terrines are so thought out and intricately assembled that one half expects Ian Gillespie to commission him to design the next Oakridge tower. They’re the sort of dishes, as one judge noted, that have “every young culinary student angling for a position here,” and one can see why. They want to learn at the hands of a chef who has separated himself from the madding crowd with a recipe of discipline, focus, talent and kindness.
Where most lauded chefs favour the formal white coat, JC is at home on the line in his workman’s sturdy apron.
It’s a rarity in these awards that a chef wins Chef of the Year and his restaurant wins Restaurant of the Year, and that’s because the former award takes into account an entire career, whereas the latter focuses more on a 12-month window of excellence. But this year there’s little doubt that the chef and the restaurant are exceptional in every sense of the word.