June 3, 2006

Jean Soulard

(info about Jean Soulard)

Sport and health seen by a chef

Thomas Kieller

Photo – Copyright United Athletes Magazine

Jean Soulard: A chef who likes sports and particularly triathlon.

Jean Soulard, internationally known chef, has explored the diverse angles of gastronomy as much in the European kitchens as in the Asian and North American ones. With his usual enthusiasm, he shares his knowledge and his recipes based on local products with the public of the Canadian television. Health has an important place in the dishes of this master chef of France. Indeed, his books indicate the importance that he gives to the freshness of the ingredients and to the product of the artisan. His concern for health goes beyond the culinary art. As a sportsman, he devotes himself to triathlon where his favourite events are running and cycling. He has already accomplished two ironmans1 and many marathons. It’s with pleasure that he takes part in long distance runs as he handles with joy his brass pans. Common, not at all!

The interview took place on April 3, 2006 at 10:00 in his office at the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, Canada.

Prelude – Jean, dressed in a white outfit of the chef, arrived in the luxurious lobby of the Château. By taking the great red carpet stairs, he leads me to his office where a window offers an interesting view of the principal kitchen.

Living healthily in our modern society

Thomas Kieller: You have cooked in several continents (Europe, Asia and North America) and in big cities as Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila and Montreal. The lifestyle of many persons is centered on speed. A lot of persons give up on freshness and quality for the fast-food industry. Many replace an active life by a sofa and a television. Do you follow this lifestyle?

Jean Soulard: I am more "slow food" than "fast food". Do you know the version of "slow food"? In Italy, a guy named Carlo Petrini started, in 1986, a "slow food" movement whose purpose was to bring out all the food particular to a country, a region or a village. For example, some species of tomatoes have been abandoned because it was difficult to keep them or they took too much time to mature. But the taste of these tomatoes are excellent. Afterwards, we started again to produce these tomatoes with existing seeds. This movement applies also to the breeding of animals, for example; cattle born on the Iles de la Madelaine, Canada which gives a specific kind of milk; it’s a "slow food" product. They take more time to breed and they do not give the same milk output. However, they give something extraordinary. "Slow food" is a conception of life which means to take the time to live. Big cities and our job make us run around a lot. I think, nevertheless, that it is necessary to take the time, because it’s essential for our body and our mind.

Thomas: In spite of cultural differences, did you notice in the countries that you have visited a common feature as for the importance to be around a table and to share a meal?

Jean: In every part of the world whether it’s poor or rich, the table is the place for conviviality. Whether you have few things to share or a lot, it’s always there. Food is culture and obviously it is done with the different ingredients that you find on your land. The globalization has changed somewhat the rules of the game. Today, you can find in Québec whatever product is on the Asian tables and vice versa. On the other hand, since fifteen years ago or so, a synergy has installed itself between chefs and different producers and the result of this is that we can find local products. I believe in what is from here and what is growing around us because it is also a part of our heritage. Besides, these products will be fresher if they are coming from here. I believe in this synergy which makes an artisan say: "Yes, it’s interesting what the chef asked me. I will not only produce potatoes, maybe there are forgotten vegetables that I can grow." In this way, it’s interesting. To get back at your question, the table is culture. This is the reference point on which the citizens of a country have, on what they have lived and on what their great-grandparents left them.

Thomas: Many persons forget or neglect the importance to eat well, but we know that there is no compromise for your health.

Jean: What we eat shape us and it is all about balance. I take for example "foie gras" that I adore, but if I ate it daily that would not be good. I like also bread because my father was a baker. Bread was an education for me and I could eat it like Asians eat rice: morning, noon and night. It is clear that as we age, it is so easy to put on a pound per year. After 25 years, you have taken 25 pounds too much. Yes, rigor is important, but I think that everything must be balanced.

Thomas: For you, living actively is imperative?

Jean: Yes, it’s like brushing your teeth, it is done daily. It’s something that if I don’t do, I will miss it. When I run, I free my mind. I am in my space and I don’t even know if I breathe. For some people it’s karate and for others it’s boxing gloves. At the end, I think it’s essential for the quality of life.

A chef who moves

Thomas: You come from a small village in France called La Gaubretière. You grew up in the open country. Do you think that your roots had an impact on the fact that you give an importance to live healthy?

Jean: I think so. When you grow up with farmers around you, you see them do their chores. I am a pure "Vendéen", a pure "Souan" and I am proud of it. There were no cities around us. There were only cows and cabbages in the fields. To be born in this environment provokes in a way a certain balance. The people of the countryside know the seasons. They know the sun and the moon. They know when the rain comes and when the storm goes. I was born near the sea and I know that fishermen know the wind which arrives from the open sea. They are people who have that feeling. The farmers know their fields perfectly when it will grow well or when it will grow poorly. Knowing nature and to preserve it, I thing it’s primordial.

Thomas: What are the sports or physical activities that you practice?

Jean: Strangely, I started with triathlons. I say strangely because it’s not natural to cover this kind of distance. One day, around 15 years ago near the Lake Beauport, I saw a guy doing it and I told myself: "Hey! This is interesting. I want to do this." I remember the first race that I did, it took me an eternity to come out from the water, because I’m not a good swimmer, but I persisted to do the triathlon because there is cycling and running. You could tell me to do only a duathlon; it will be sufficient. No, for me, it has to be done entirely. Gradually, I made my way to a half-ironman and then to the ironman.

Besides, in passing from the triathlon to the duathlon, I ventured to marathons. Of course, there are mythical marathons like New York. One must do in one’s lifetime New York, Boston or Paris.

But, since I have done two ironmans, I will not return there. In everything xtreme there is lack of balance. If you need to do it to prove something, do it once. "Nice". You will tell me that a marathon is also extreme. Yes, but I think it’s less extreme. On the other hand, a classical triathlon takes approximately three hours. Anyone can run a triathlon. There are older persons than I who run triathlons. We are not there to make records. I adore running and I believe it’s the thing which takes less time to be fit, and because my schedule is quite tight, running is perfect for me.

In winter, it’s cross-country skiing and snowboarding for the past nine years. I wanted to follow my daughter. I followed her and I hit the ground during two days of learning snowboarding. Afterwards, it became a thrill to slide and I like it a lot.

Thomas: And you exercise how many times a week?

Jean: Four to five days a week. As soon as spring arrives, it’s five times per week. I take my running shoes from my locker and I’m already on the fields of Abraham. I run one hour for a distance of 10 km, which is my dose for the day. I get back and in five minutes I take a shower. It takes one hour and 15 minutes to do my run and I’m back once again in my office. I do this in the afternoon or early in the morning just before the radio show that I animate from 7:15 to 8:15. I like this a lot. Moreover, when I ride my bicycle Saturday morning, I can go for three hours without problem.

Thomas: In endurance sports such as jogging, cycling and cross-country skiing, one has a lot of time to reflect. I heard that your culinary ideas emerge during your running or cycling tours. Is this true?

Jean (laughs): It’s true. When I run, I’m in my bubble and it’s there where you can resolve… I have observed one thing. Pressure can be strong in an organization and it’s during those moments that I tell myself: "Take your running shoes and take off." I come back one hour later and it’s clear. The decisions that I have to take are clear. Pressure has dropped and I feel better.

On the other hand, it’s true that when I see an herb along the road, it will find itself in a sauce. I tell myself that it will go well with a fish. Sometimes, ideas start like this. It’s strange! There is a wellbeing sensation when you run. You have the impression that your spirit is doing the same. When the mind is clear, new ideas arrive.

Thomas: The creativity of chef never stops?

Jean: It never stops and so much the better because in a sort of way we do an artist’s work. Yes, there is the production aspect because we have to multiply the dishes not only for 10 but sometimes for 642. It is also fabulous to be part of a team which feeds you in ideas permanently. I throw out an idea and 10 will come back to me.

Thomas: After, the experimentations are done in the kitchens?

Jean: There was a time when I told myself that you cannot explain that the recipes that you thought out, you imagined them while running. I was telling myself that people would not understand. For them, a recipe it’s done with a pan. As a matter of fact, a recipe is done in the head. Today, I know it is the case for the majority of chefs. With the professionals that I have around me, we know what can work. Afterwards, it becomes technical and we went to school for this. Even in a race, it is the mind which will bring to the place you want to go. It’s not natural to run an ironman. It’s the mind which will bring you to the end and will tell you that you are capable of doing it. There are only 42 km remaining to run!

Quality of the food

Thomas: At Château Frontenac, 2,000 dishes are served per day for 120 persons. Considering the number of meals offered, can the quality of the food be compromised?

Jean: No, if everything is structured and partitioned. Each one has his work. There are sauce cooks, pastrycooks, a butcher and people who work for the cold cuisine. There are teams in every kitchen. We have four kitchens at the Château. On the contrary, there is a purchasing component which permits us to buy well and to buy good. On the other hand, there is talent in the kitchens. Without the team at my side, I would be doing nothing here. It will be like a conductor without his violins and without his brasses. Even if I knew cuisine or music, I will go nowhere without this great team. The answer is no, principally because the people know their work.

Thomas: Besides, it’s you as the executive chef of the kitchens who’s in charge to order all the food. The relation that you have with the suppliers is important, because it’s their products which will be found on the table.

Jean: There is a bond of trust which has been built with my suppliers after 5, 10, 20 years. I have suppliers that I know since I am in this country. They become your work colleagues and they are with you in the kitchens. There are questions that you don’t ask anymore concerning the quality and the price. There is a bond and it is indispensable. I am terribly faithful with my suppliers and they know it. It’s important because, one more time, the ingredients are the basis of the cuisine. This applies as well as to the person who delivers 10 crates of onions or the small artisan who grows a special small vegetable or who is responsible of the husbandry of the pheasants and the guinea fowls. Another example is the supplier who produces "foie gras". You must believe in him. You must believe in what he does and in the way he does it. You know that in the end it is of quality and it’s what you want to buy. At the same time, the supplier expects that you will respect his product. You will respect the cooking method for his duck and that the "foie gras" will be cooked the way it should to bring out the taste of the duck. Quality, it’s important.

Thomas: With your grandmother during your youth, you gathered the fresh products from the garden. At the Château, there is also a garden. Why did you give yourself the trouble of a garden and what can be found in it?

Jean (while laughing): Oh my god. First, my garden it’s a therapy. I have to explain myself. The garden is a place where one can find onetself alone. It’s something that I drag along from my childhood. When you see your grandparents in their garden and you are five years old, and that your grandmother tells you: "Go find some savory, go find some basil." Everywhere I have been in the world, it was necessary that I grow something. And there, you will run with your small legs to the garden and you would know where are the savory and the basil. There are places where I was in a concrete jungle and it was not obvious. There was not a corner of soil. It was a challenge to grow something. When I arrived at the Château, I saw that the roof had gravel in the middle. It is just above the kitchens. You can go there through a window that I never wanted to modify because precisely I don’t want it to become a boulevard. I don’t want it to be the Grande Allée (main street) of Quebec City. I want to keep it unique.

I remember when I started the garden, I began with chives. Where I have a considerable amount is really in the fresh herbs. A gardener keeps an eye on the garden and every year he comes to see me. He asks me what we will do new in the coming year. I do some experiment with him. I like small tomatoes, yellow or red. Last year, we planted a few artichokes and small egg-plants.

Thomas: Is the quality of the food always a preoccupation?

Jean: Yes, absolutely. There is no chef nor a cook in the world who can prepare a quality cuisine without using good products. And when I talk about good products, I mean fresh products. We can count ourselves lucky to have these fresh products in our supermarkets and in our grocery shops. This synergy that I explained a few minutes ago, that is the relation between chefs and artisans, made it in a way that it has positive repercussions in grocery shops. Ten years ago, you had to forget about having fresh fish in January. Fifteen years ago, you could not find fresh herbs in supermarkets. I could give many examples. There were basically three cheeses ten years ago. They were three cheddars of different colors. Today, we have more than 642 cheeses on our shelves. The artisan and the chef have seen to it in such a way that the customer could appreciate the new products in the restaurants. It’s extraordinary.

The books signed Jean Soulard and a visit at the Château

Thomas: Your two last books, "Naturellement" and "Entre amis" (translation Naturally and Between friends), focused on good dishes easy to make and on health. Did you observe a demand for good cuisine?

Jean: Fifteen year ago, I wrote a book "La santé dans les grands plats" (translation Health in great dishes) which was for me a reaction to my father’s cancer in which my mother did not know how to make him lose some weight. Today, fifteen years later, the health aspect in gastronomy is something a lot more anchored in me. I have grown with it. The movements that I do with my casseroles are naturally healthier. I was born with cream and butter. It’s difficult to get rid of it overnight. Besides I never got rid of it, but there was an evolution in what is considered healthy. There is also an evolution in the quantities, because often in North America the big problem is quantity. Everything is too much. This does not mean that I have to stuff a small pea. You understand me. It must be reasonable.

Thomas: Does healthy cuisine mean less good and less enjoyable to eat? Sportsmen and sportswomen do not want, above all, to just eat salads.

Jean: Not at all. Healthy cuisine is not only salad and tofu. Well, tofu can be seasoned although I’m not a fan of that! A good fresh fish with a good olive oil, a little bit of basil, garlic and fresh tomatoes, alleluia, it’s fabulous. Recipe of halibut with green scales and crushed tomatoes by chef Jean Soulard.

To tell the truth, good cooking means to use fresh ingredients and to respect the cooking method, for example, not to overcook a fish or a seafood. Often sportsmen lack a little bit of time. If he buys a good piece of fish or a good meat and he adds good ingredients such as pasta, oil, vinegar, a particular salt, a piece of ginger or curcuma, it will make all the difference.

Thomas: Should we visit the Château to eat a good meal prepared by the great team under your supervision?

Jean (while laughing): Of course, I invite you there. The persons who are coming to the Château is for something special: to celebrate a great occasion like Christmas, a wedding or a fiftieth anniversary. Evidently, the Château is first of all a feast, but you can find there healthy dishes. Health, it can also be found with a little bit of cream and a little bit of butter. If you take the buffet, you must choose without abuse. For me, health in dishes is important. It has to be done little by little. Once more, food as well as balanced as it must be it must bring conviviality. If it is only to put in some fuel, "big deal" really.

1. Ironman: Race including three events that are swimming, cycling and running. The competitor swims approximately 4 km, than he pedals almost 200 km and finishes by running over 42.2 km (the equivalent of a marathon).