For some, French cooking can be seen as fancy, snobby or complex but there is a reason it is one of the most highly-regarded cuisines in the culinary world. While there is a lot of skill required to execute it properly, it's all about the mastering of basic techniques and layering flavours together - something that Chef de Cuisine Sylvain Assié knows well. The French born chef has come to Toronto to take on the task of remastering the menu at Café Boulud, the popular haunt inside the Four Seasons Hotel. The aim? To turn-the restaurant into its very own Parisian style brasserie while capturing the heart, soul and simplicity of well-cooked French cuisine. We chat with the Chef de Cuisine all about his passion for French cooking, what it’s like to have Daniel Boulud as a mentor and his favourite things about Toronto:
What is the biggest difference between North American and French cuisine?
French cuisine is based on regional products and specialties, which can change from region to region. For example, in France, la bouillabaisse – a traditional fish stew will be served in south-east France, but in the northern regions of France, the dish to have is the Alsatian choucroute – a hearty dish made of sauerkraut, sausages and other salted meats and charcuterie.
French cuisine is rich in flavour but simple in design – no more than three flavours are used at the same time.
How would you describe French cuisine to someone who had never encountered it before? What makes it different?
If you have never encountered French cuisine before, you will experience the flavours of butter, cream, sauce and olive oil. These are the main components of French traditional cuisine, as we serve it at Café Boulud. As I said earlier, French cuisine does not use more than three flavours at a time to respect the flavours of the main protein. French cuisine does not use too many spices and is not very saucy.
What is your favourite ingredient or food to cook with?
I am from Montpellier, the sunny region of France. I was born and raised with olive oil, the main ingredient in Southern France cuisine, similar to how Chef Daniel was raised. We always prefer to use olive oil in our recipes to any other type of oils. It gives the spice to any simple dish you cook, and is healthy for any diet.
I find that the most difficult part of French cuisine is trying to reproduce exactly what people are expecting.
So in what way do you interpret traditional French cooking and what is the signature style that you bring to it?
I love old French cuisine and I don’t think it needs to be modified to be great. I find that the most difficult part of French cuisine is trying to reproduce exactly what people are expecting. My style is very traditional, and think simplicity is best when it comes to French cooking.
Is there a dish that you think is uniquely Canadian that you love to prepare?
Poutine, of course! It’s a very simple, but unique dish with lots of flavour. There are infinite ways that you can make poutine, and it will always be delicious.
What has Chef Daniel Boulud taught you as a mentor?
Chef Daniel has shown me how to be consistent in my way of cooking and delivering the final product. He taught me to never assume that guests will like what I like, and to always listen to the advice given by my team. When working on a new dish to add to the menu, I never decide on it alone – I always share it with my sous-chefs and take in their feedback before the dish is finalized.
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Menu-wise, what can diners expect from the new direction at Café Boulud?
When you dine at Café Boulud, you can expect authentic, approachable and comforting cuisine. The menu has many soulful and classic French dishes, such as Quenelle de Brochet, an enveloped northern pike with cognac Nova Scotia lobster sauce, and Boudin Blanc, a dish with white sausage, caramelized onions, apple, and mashed potatoes. The menu also has a global influence with dishes like the Bouillion Pho and Sea Bass Catalane. [We hope that] whether you are dining with us for a special occasion or for a relaxed meal with family or friends, everyone will discover something that they love. The menu is easy to understand (no need to have a dictionary!) and the dishes served are classics.
Why do you think this approach will or has been appealing to diners more?
Guests want to find that go-to place where they can feel at home and relaxed, but also as if they’re going out. Our menu, service and environment accomplishes that, and it shows when we have guests returning for more.
When you're not working, where do you like to go out and eat?
I enjoy taking my family to eat at Local 1794. The restaurant has a very casual atmosphere and there are plenty of good dishes there to choose from, everything from pizza to burgers to seafood or game. My personal favourite is the wild boar smoked sausage.
Toronto is an amazing city with a diverse mix of culture.
What do you love about Toronto?
Toronto is an amazing city with a diverse mix of culture. Each neighbourhood is like a small village with its own personality, all within a large city, which makes it great for exploring. I also love that you don’t need to go far to find the countryside.
What is the best piece of advice you would give someone just starting to cook?
Learn, learn and learn. Start off with simple recipes and if you’re learning through videos, absorb all the information you can from different chefs and cuisines. Sign up for a class or course, if you are really dedicated to learning, and if you have the opportunity, work with different chefs.
How can we all be more French in the kitchen?
Hire or marry French cooks! In all seriousness, be simple in the way you cook: don’t have more than three flavours in your dishes, and use olive oil rather than butter if you want to get it lighter and healthier.