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We chat with St. Lawrence's Colin Johnson on the art of mastering the classic French dish.
There’s no one thing that makes St. Lawrence one of the great restaurants in the country. The room, the evident camaraderie, the focus… all are elements that go into their formula for greatness. But to that, let’s add another—it’s one of few spots west of Ottawa where you can get Pâté en Croûte—the insanely time-consuming labour of pastry and charcuterie and magic. We’re professing our love for the dish in the upcoming issue of the magazine, but our background interview with St. Lawrence’s Colin Johnson, the Pâté en Croûte maestro, was so good that we print it here as a (long) amuse bouche.
So you’re the guy who makes those insane (and insanely good) pastry creations?
Yes indeed the task of pâté falls squarely on my “desk.” Charcuterie, butchery, technical dish R&D, and pastry work all fall in the realms of my concern. The Pâté en Croûte sits nicely in the overlap of circles in that venn diagram.
How did you come to the world of Pâté en Croûte? Can you recall a few variations on the form?
I guess I started young. I grew up in Nottingham not too far from the epicentre of English pork pie cookery, Melton Mobray. This region of England encompasses The East Midlands where fine Stilton is produced, loads of tasty local sausages and hams too, and just a bit further upstream on the river Trent from Nottingham is Burton on Trent which is a town famous for its breweries.
Nottingham also has the best football team in the world.
English pork pies share very similar characteristics, simplistically, to the french Pâté en Croûte. Culturally they’re very different—pork pies aren’t fancy, they have no posh sounding ingredients, and they don’t normally get decorative garnishes. These pork pies are rooted in a blue-collar working-class tradition, not haute cuisine, but still very delicious when enjoyed in situ. Anyway, I ate my body weight in pork pies growing up, and I still can’t get enough of them when I go back to visit my family.
Well-seasoned ground pork baked in pastry with an addition of a rich pig’s trotter aspic, served with pickles, mustards, and condiments is in my DNA. This is the blueprint of how I like to eat and how I like to cook and the lens through which I view the world.
READ NOW: Our 207 Review of St. Lawrence
READ NOW: Our 207 Review of St. Lawrence
Fast forward to life in professional restaurant kitchens where classic French culinary technique ruled the day, and my mind was opened to a much wider world and the noble arts of Charcuterie, pâtés and terrines especially (though not yet wrapped in pastry). And I was most often the cook assigned those tasks and duties. I found charcuterie fascinating, the scope and creativity of working with a whole pig, the making good of every last piece of meat. Using up all the trimmings, the kitchen thrift of it all, and just how versatile and damn tasty it can be. I loved how technical and nerdy it is too. Lo and behold, here is something delicious, and I can obsess about its myriad details, ratios, spice blends, brining times, and salt percentages!!
I also spent quite a few years (pre Bibendum) working in the pastry department in one of those grand country manor houses that were converted into luxury hotels, this one on the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s estate. It definitely cemented a love of all things pastry and baked goods which still remains as ravenous to this day, and a moderately decent understanding of how to make things out of various doughs.
A year or two prior to joining the team at St. Lawrence, I was getting very inspired by what a handful of super-talented chefs and charcutiers were doing with Pâté en Croûte in London, Brussels, Paris, and Lyon. Their creations were jaw-droppingly gorgeous, intricate, and technically superb.
After landing a job in the St. Lawrence kitchen, I soon realized that J-C was also getting inspired by the same talented chefs and wanted to have a Pâté en Croûte on the menu at St. Lawrence too. So it was the perfect opportunity for me to do what I’ve been wanting to do for a while. I got my head down and focused, and put 110% into the task.
My first Pâté en Croûte wasn’t the prettiest. But we analyzed what we liked and what areas we would like to improve upon with the next one. More research. More reading. I baked the second Pâté en Croûte—better still. I continued fiendishly taking notes, testing recipes, and researching, just wanting to get better and better each time and to improve and tweak the details and build on the quality. Soon it became a permanent fixture on the menu. And I don’t think it has ever come off the menu ever since.
I want our Pâté en Croûte to be the best it can be; for probably quite a few of our guests, this could be their very first taste of a Pâte en Croûte. They may have saved up and waited a month or two to get a reservation, and I want them to love it as much as I do.
I seem to recall you were at Bestie before, yes? And Parkside? Any other stops in Vancouver? And am I correct that there was some time at Bibendum?
Yes, that’s correct. And you’re also correct in reverse chronological order going back to the mid to late 90’s—5 gigs in the last 25 to 26 years. And yes, I spent 4 years cooking sauce and roasting poulet de Bresse at Bibendum before immigrating to Vancouver. Simon Hopkinson is a legend. It was a dream come true to be working there.
Any other thoughts about the team at St. Lawrence?
It may be easy or lazy just to think about making things like the Pâté en Croûte as a self-indulgent vanity project, but the impetus of the kitchen at St. Lawrence is rooted in classic culinary traditions. We do these things so they can be carried on, passed down, believed in, and to give the recipes life and longevity. These dishes are delicious, and I can’t and won’t let them be forgotten, to be banished to old and classic cookbooks—not on our watch! They can and should be enjoyed in the here and now for dinner and here in Vancouver too, not just Lyon or London. Being a part of that legacy. Passing on the skills and techniques. Showing that these things are still possible. That’s why.
J-C is so supportive to all of us at St. Lawrence and helps us build on what we have done, encouraging us all to get better and better. He has helped me enormously and brings the best out of me, without a doubt. Here I am, 34 years into my career, and because of J-C and the STL team, I think I’m doing the best work I have ever done. J-C has a huge commitment to R&D, the likes of which I haven’t seen in a restaurant of this size before.
All the crew at St. Lawrence are so great; it is a truly special place to hone our craft. We all support each other with so much positive camaraderie.
What is your title at St. Lawrence?
I have no idea.
‘Colin’ I guess. I do ‘Colin Things’. Part prep cook, part teacher, part R&D, part charcutier, part butcher, part baker, and very much the Pâté maker. Really though, sous chef, I think. I will have to ask. Never really been too bothered about titles. Just love the craft.
Broadly how long does one Pâté en Croûte take?
There are some efficiencies to be gained with having Pâté en Croûte always on the menu that you wouldn’t get if you were just making one from the ground up, out of the blue.
So I have base mixes, reductions, diced cured meats, dried fruits soaked in cognacs and armagnacs, toasted nuts, and other bits of mise en place stocked away and at the ready. Gratefully, the Pâté en Croûte keeps me very busy. There is always something to do to keep up with demand, and I am always thinking about Pâté.
But usually it’s a three-day process, with the assembly and baking on day two being quite a busy day. I can normally get one in the oven in two to three hours, depending on how intricate the inlays are, with a bake time of about an hour and a half.
(inlays = internal garnishes or specific placement of ingredients inside the pate for visual, textural, and taste interest)
If you fancy having a go yourself, I bared my culinary soul to write an incredibly in-depth St. Lawrence Pâté en Croûte recipe that will be featured in the upcoming cookbook Where The River Narrows by J-C Poirier and Joie Alvaro Kent, which is slated to be released by Appetite Random House in November 2022.
I personally love the Pâtés with some boozy soaked dried fruit in the middle, be it prunes in armagnac or figs in mulled wine, cherries in kirsch or apricots in brandy. Love that pop of sweetness in amongst all that rich Pâté business.
Pâté still gets me rushing into work early so I can set them with the gelée and have a moment to myself to cut into the Pâté to see how it’s turned out (yes, I squeal with delight) and enjoy a sly taste before the rest of the crew rolls in. It’s the best part of my day. Peace, quiet, and Pâté. A time to ponder the possibilities of the day ahead.
There have been so many Pâtés, hundreds of them in fact. In 2019, I baked well over 150—I stopped counting when COVID hit.
The March and April menu at St Lawrence features a new Pâté en Croûte: Guinea fowl, Morels & Pistachios, garnished with a frisee and shaved black truffle salad. Reservations can be made here. You can follow Colin’s hunger-inducing Instagram account here.