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Haute Cuisine - Poutine!

After four decades, poutine reigns king of Quebec comfort foods.

Story and photos by Steven Howell


Quebec's contribution to world cuisine...poutine.


Philly serves hot pretzels with mustard. Boston bakes a mean bean. And there's nothing quite like a slice of New York pizza.

So what's the local flavor to savor if you're headed north of the border to Montréal?

Une poutine, sil vous plait.

The basic poutine recipe consists of French fries topped with cheese curds and drenched in brown gravy. OK, so it's not exactly haute cuisine, but it is comfort food at its best - Quebec style.

Restaurateur Ferdinand Lachance invented poutine over 4 decades ago. His idea for poutine was part customer request, part cooking experiment, and now pure folklore.

In 1953, Lachance bought his first restaurant, Café Ideal, in Warwick, Quebec, an hour's drive northeast of Montreal. Inside, patrons could play a game of pool, buy some penny candy for the kids, and even get a haircut.

"It was practically the rule," Lachance says, who's since hung up his apron and now enjoys retirement. "If you had a barbershop, you had a restaurant, too. It brought in customers."

Great Places for Poutine

The poutine legend goes that one day a young patron placed an order for French fries topped with some cheese. Lachance was dumbfounded.

"But it will be a maudite poutine," Lachance replied, which politely translated into "a damn mishmash." But Lachance complied. He served the young man a cupful of hot French fries and soft curd cheese. The addition of brown gravy was still a few years away. So there it was, the messy, melting, maudite humble beginnings of poutine.

Eventually, Lachance renovated his restaurant and renamed it Le Lutin Qui Rit, which translates into "the laughing elf." With the grand reopening of the restaurant in 1957, Lachance wanted to offer a dish unique to the establishment. Since the odd concoction of French fries and cheese curds proved to be not so odd after all, his wife suggested a way to improve the dish by adding some gravy. But not just any gravy. She created a mélange of brown gravy, tangy barbecue sauce (quite new at the time), and a hint of ketchup to pour over the French fries and cheese.

The rest, as they say, is histoire. Poutine was born.

Today, poutine remains popular not only throughout the province, but has spilled over the border as well. Many North Country restaurants serve the dish and Quebecois snowbirds have even introduced poutine to the tropics of Florida. Lachance says his culinary concoction has made it as far as Korea. But while the French fry, curd cheese, and brown sauce recipe has reached the four corners of the globe, there is still no place like Quebec when it comes to poutine authenticity. As inventor of poutine, Lachine has forever taken his place in Quebec culture.

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Over the years, the basic poutine recipe has expanded to include a number of interesting variations. Italian poutine substitutes meat or tomato sauce instead of brown gravy. Galvaude is your basic poutine recipe with pieces of chicken and peas.

If you prefer, you can prepare a platter of poutine in the comfort of your own kitchen. The secret to a successful poutine is simple: hot crispy French fries; soft, squishy cheese curds; and poutine gravy (try the St. Hubert brand). If you're not in the Quebec area, try substituting the poutine gravy with the canned brown gravy easily available at your local store. Bon appetit!

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