The best way to describe Chef Marc Lepine is to say that he is so much more than a chef; he is a true artist. Atelier, one of Canada’s best restaurants, is exactly what its name would imply: a studio where creativity is digested.
Chef Lepine has been an active member of Ottawa’s food scene since he moved to the area in 2001. “I love it here. It’s come a long way,” Lepine says about the city’s dining. Before opening Atelier eight years ago, Lepine headed up The Courtyard Restaurant’s kitchen. Though he always wanted to open his own restaurant someday, he found himself moved to action one morning when he woke up and told himself: “I’m going to start today. I don’t know how to do it, I don’t have the money to do it, but I’ll figure that out.” Less than a year later, Atelier had moved from dream to reality.
The creative chef – who not only cooks, but also plays piano – was inspired to create his “delicious, visual and fun” 12-course restaurant after realizing Ottawa did not have a place where you could enjoy a tasting menu experience that meant “a big night out.” This occasion-driven restaurant model is similar to Grant Achatz’s Chicago-based Alinea, where Chef Lepine did a stage. As for why there are 12 courses, Lepine says that though he doesn’t remember the particular reasoning behind the number, “it’s just enough courses to give people that experience of eating so many different things and it’s the right number for us and our space.” His courses are innovative and fantastical. Take, for instance, the Edible Chopin Waltz (Op. 69 No. 2), pictured. This gorgeous creation features the first few bars of this intricate piece of classical music. It is accurate to the note and Chef Lepine originally wanted to include a soundbite of himself playing the piece.
“We draw inspiration from anywhere we can really,” says Lepine who had been learning this piece on the piano when the dish was created.
Though he is absolutely a master of his craft, the talented Chef is humble and credits his success juggling the hats of owner and chef to his “great staff” including Chef de Cuisine Jason Sawision and his “other half here at the restaurant,” award-winning Sommelier Steve Robinson.
Not only is Chef Lepine proud of his staff and the long-lasting success of his restaurant, but he has also won substantial cooking awards and holds them among his highest achievements. He won the Canadian Culinary Championship twice – an event where 11 chefs qualify from across Canada and meet in Kelowna to “cook for the title.” There are three competitions, one of which involves receiving a black box full of random ingredients and having to cook with them in only one hour. This seat-of-your-pants preparation is very different from creating a restaurant dish, which can be a “multi-week process before it hits the menu.”
Lepine prepared for his black box challenge by doing his own trial runs and was pleasantly surprised to find one of the ingredients in his game day box was one he had practiced with; he used it to make root vegetable chips perforated with a hole punch! This office tool might seem like an unusual item to find in a kitchen, but Lepine lists a host of other strange things he keeps in Atelier’s cupboards: helium and nitrogen tanks (of which there are four, one having a capacity of 230 litres), balloons used to shape things, syringes and a cotton candy machine. At home, the molecular gastronomist makes simpler food to cater to the tastes of his children. In his fridge you’d find “lots of milk for the kids, always a bottle of white wine for me, cheese – lots of cheese – Roquefort cheese all the time and lots of fruit.”
No matter whom he is cooking for, Lepine’s philosophy is the same. He hopes “they leave happy and they’ve gained something that makes them think a little differently about food and they say something like ‘wow I’ve never had anything like that.’” That’s likely what the 50 guests Lepine catered for at Ottawa’s first Dîner En Blanc thought. On “one of the hottest days that I ever remember,” Lepine created a three course menu for 50 cooking out of a tent outside City Hall. Given the delicacy of some of his culinary creations, he had to run plates indoors because of the humidity. Another exciting venture currently in the works is THRU Restaurant, a mini six-seater located at the back of the upstairs level of Atelier. This restaurant inside a restaurant is set to open soon, with the space already having been designed and created.
THRU is just one example of Lepine’s brand growing: “sometimes it might be hard to keep up the approach of being a special occasion destination place after so many years. People always like new spots and whatnot, but I’m pretty proud to say that it’s been going in an upward direction.” Maybe it’s because of all the helium in those tanks!
Photos Courtesy of Marc Lepine and Atelier Restaurant.