Q&A with S.Pellegrino’s Young Chef Canada winner Benjamin Mauroy-Langlais

On May 10 to 11, Benjamin Mauroy-Langlai will be competing on an international level at the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Canada grande finale in Milan. We sat down with chef Mauroy-Langlais ahead of the finale.

Benjamin Mauroy-Langlais, Chef de Partie at Montreal’s Le Mousso restaurant, impressed judges at the S.Pellegrino Young Chef Canadian semi-finals last fall with a smoked eel dish that earned him the title of best young chef in Canada.

On May 10 to 11, he’ll be competing on an international level at the grande finale in Milan alongside regional chefs vying for the title of best young chef in the world.

We sat down with chef Mauroy-Langlais ahead of the finale.

What lured you into the world of cooking?
Food, and the ceremony of the family meal, was always important for my parents and grandmother. It led me to be curious and enthusiastic about eating and the implications around food – so much so that I wanted to be a farmer when I was a kid, just to make food.

I was also very well fed by my lovely Belgian grandmother who lived just above our house. I know it's a cliché, but she made me love food so much. I still realize after years of professional cooking how much she knew. She cared so much because she loved eating. From my parents I learned about the different ingredients that go into food and what’s needed to produce them through gardening, and I also learned about being grateful for these beautiful and healthy ingredients.

How’d you get your first start in a professional kitchen?
I started to work in a professional kitchen while I was studying sociology at university. I needed a job and I wanted to be a waiter but somehow, I accepted an offer to be a short order cook. It was a lot of fun to manage the stress and multitasking involved.

I was excited by the thrill and the hardship of being a cook

At some point I got bored with my sociology program and decided I wanted to do something that involved using my hands. I loved the idea of learning something I knew very little about and I was excited by the thrill and the hardship of being a cook. So, I went to cooking school and what was supposed to be a break from university became a career. I got caught in the beauty and the craziness of it all.

What are some misconceptions others around the world might have about Canadian chefs?
Besides being a bit ignored I’m not really sure. When I'm abroad it seems as though Canadian chefs are overlooked in the big lists and awards. But I can testify that we have an incredible culinary scene happening here that needs to shine internationally. It's coming.

Has the city of Montreal been welcoming of young chefs in the past?
Yes, there is such a vibrant restaurant scene in Montreal and a lot of excitement around new young chefs. I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of cooks from around Canada, the US and Europe, who’ve all come here to learn.

There is also a strong sense of identity and a lot of good chefs and mentors. I think it is a great city to progress in. Chefs here expect a lot from their cooks, but they also create a balanced work environment to grow and learn in.

What was the process behind choosing your signature dish?
I created the dish around ingredients that are local and relevant to my culture. Eels were traditionally consumed by the First Nations and the Europeans. Smoking fish was vital for our ancestors, along with a lot of root vegetables. The seaweed I use is traditionally eaten in Gaspésie [just north of New Brunswick]. Bread and the act of sharing it are engraved in our minds. I asked myself, what would I like to serve if I had a restaurant. Everything that these ingredients symbolize answered this question.

During the semi-final competition in Toronto, was there anything that you would have done differently?
I would improve my organization a bit. Many competitors came with their tools and had everything planned out. I tend to adapt to my surroundings and improvise but a tighter organization would have allowed me more time and to feel less rushed.

It was my first competition though, and I learned a lot from watching the other contestants. Their technique, the way they move, how they get organized, you can understand their aesthetic by watching them. They were all very good, professional and interesting.

How are you preparing for the grande finale?
My wife and I recently had a baby – a considerable detail. So apart from becoming a dad, I just need to work and practise at a steady pace. That's the hard part, staying focused and always improving the details of the dish that need to be perfected.

I have spoken with Riccardo [Bertolino, Maison Boulud executive chef and Canadian competition mentor] and he’s pointed out areas that need to be improved so I’ve been working on them. He is monitoring my process and always ready to help. He’s a very skilled and respected chef (and a funny person) who I am excited to work with.

I created the dish around ingredients that are local and relevant to my culture

Do you have any down time in between prepping for this, so it’s not all food, all the time?
It's not all food all the time, but almost. That's what I like though. Between baking, practising and cooking at home I’m lucky I like it.

Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs who hope to enter the industry?
It might sound corny but working hard is important. Reading, being curious and open-minded makes you evolve as a professional.

Accept criticism. Welcome it. Develop your craft and worry about money later (it's easier said than done, I know). Take jobs or internships where you will learn and push yourself, not the ones that are easy. Later in life, you’ll see that the cooks who honed their craft early on (whatever the specialty), are the ones with better and more interesting careers.

What are you looking forward to after the final competition is over?
I’ve recently become the executive chef at Antonin Mousseau’s new restaurant Le Mousso. I am sad to be leaving Boulangerie Automne and the incredible team over there but I am thrilled to start this new adventure.

As for my other upcoming projects, they involve agriculture and are yet to be revealed. Stay tuned!