‘Ottawa’ Marc Lepine: Juggling a Full Plate
When Marc Lepine, chef-owner of the acclaimed Ottawa restaurant Atelier, was a teenager, he demonstrated flashes of brilliance. But they were at the chessboard and the piano, not in the kitchen.
For this future Canadian culinary champion, becoming a chef was completely out of mind. Meanwhile, Lepine came in second for Grade 11 students in a provincial chess tournament. He also threw himself into composing piano music in the style of Chopin, even though he didn’t take up piano until he was 16 or so.
Apart from that, Lepine was a “pretty average” student. He even failed a science course, which people now find funny given how much advanced cooking gear there is in Atelier’s unorthodox kitchen.
“My parents would say that I’ll apply myself if I have an interest.”
In the last few years, he’s applied himself sufficiently to put Atelier on Rochester Street on Canada’s fine-dining map. Most notably, Lepine has twice hoisted the Ottawa Gold Medal Plates trophy above his head.
He won the city’s top cooking contest in 2011, and in early 2012 came first in the Canadian Culinary Championships. Last November, he repeated his local Gold Medal Plates victory, and was the chef to beat at the national competition, held in Kelowna, B.C., on Feb. 5 and 6. He made history by winning the event for a second time with a dish that included smoked steelhead trout with miso-molasses glaze, cured pork belly, barley-and-corn porridge and corn-cob broth, paired with a single-vineyard chardonnay from Le Clos Jordanne in Niagara.
“Four years ago, we had advantages just because of our style. Chefs in Canada are getting more talented all the time. The skill level is higher across the country. It’s just only natural that the competition will be harder.”
Now that the competition is over, Lepine is able to devote more energy to bringing his tiny and intriguing second restaurant into the world. The six-seat THRU is to open sometime in the next several weeks in the same building as Atelier on the second floor. The space was designed by Heidi Helm of Urbanomic Interior Design.
“The physical space is all set to go,” he says, but it remains for him to refine its menu and service details. For now, he won’t elaborate about the restaurant other than to say, “It’s something that you kind of have to experience.”
Lepine, 39, remains disarmingly mild-mannered, lacking the oversized ego and bluster that can mark some other high-flying chefs.
While he’s renowned for remarkable, elaborate dishes and his use of the latest cooking technology and techniques, at the end of his work day, Lepine’s an ordinary family man — a father of two who lives in Gatineau because he could afford a bigger yard there.
He says he basically stumbled into the field where he now clearly excels.
“I’m not a romantic story, like I cooked with my grandmother,” Lepine says. “My wife says that cooking chose me, I didn’t choose cooking.”
Growing up in Kincardine on the shores of Lake Huron, Lepine took a part-time, menial job at the small town’s top restaurant. Liking the kitchen’s atmosphere led him to study culinary arts at Canadore College in North Bay and then at Toronto’s George Brown College.
“I like working on my feet, like the creativity. I like working with people, like the constant learning.”
“The world’s full of ingredients. You could never work your way through all of them,” adds the chef who, at his most extreme, has served crispy fried duck tongues and even deep-fried beaver tail skins.
After cooking at Bartlett Lodge in Algonquin Park, and in Toronto, Italy and France, Lepine and his wife moved to Ottawa in the early 2000s. A job as executive chef at the Courtyard Restaurant in the ByWard Market drew him here, as did Algonquin College’s sommelier program. But Lepine was also thinking ahead to where he wanted to raise a family, and even open his own restaurant.
For six years, he ran the Courtyard’s kitchen, and was given lots of room to pursue modernist cooking, employing the latest gear and methods. For example, Lepine became known as the Ottawa chef using liquid nitrogen to make ice cream or shuck oysters.
“Suddenly there was this plethora of new ingredients and techniques, stuff I had never heard of. I was curious. I wanted to try some of this stuff out.”
Leaving the Courtyard, he opened Atelier in 2008. He was inspired in part by the famous and cutting-edge Chicago restaurant Alinea, where Lepine did a weeklong internship months before launching his own place.
Then, as now, Atelier serves Ottawa’s only highly curated and at times avant-garde 12-course tasting menu. However, its food had evolved, Lepine says.
“In the earlier years, we were more focused on getting across what made us different, showing people more abstract stuff. Now we have all of those techniques available and we use them when we think they’re going make something better. But we don’t go out of our way to make something specifically for the sake of making it. Everything has to have a purpose.”