Exceptional hunter and angler
In collaboration with Karina Durand
The first time I met Chef Jean-Luc Boulay was in January. We met at his restaurant on rue Sainte-Ursule in Quebec City. We were meant to get together in the morning, over coffee, to discuss a project that would bring together Chef Boulay's three passions: hunting, fishing, and cooking.
The director of Réserve faunique Ashuapmushuan, Aurélien Launière, had described Jean-Luc Boulay as one of his favourite clients.
"He's been hunting and fishing for at least 40 years," he told me. "And he cooks pike from head to tail, which most anglers never manage to do. And you'll see, he's so nice and kind."
When Jean-Luc greeted me at Le Saint-Amour, I knew right away that Aurélien was right. What I didn't know, however, was that this meeting was going to leave such a lasting impression on my life.
The discovery of hunting and fishing
When I arrived at Le Saint-Amour, I was struck by Chef Boulay's presence. First of all, he’s a tall man, taller than I imagined after seeing him on television, on the show Les Chefs. He has, I would say, something like a form of raw elegance; he’s very charismatic indeed.
"Hello," he said to me with a big smile, and we sat down at a small table in the back of his restaurant and talked quietly. I had come to talk to him about a project, but first we wanted to get to know each other better. That's how he told me his story, and then how the restaurant business, hunting, and fishing became the great pillars of his life.
Jean-Luc Boulay is French. He arrived in Quebec in May 1976, in the midst of the frenzy of the Montreal Olympic Games. Hotels and restaurants, multiplying by leaps and bounds at the time, were desperately short of person power, and young Jean-Luc, then 22 years old, came to lend a hand.
When he arrived on Quebec soil, he had never touched a fishing rod in his life. But the father of Linda, who would later become his wife and the mother of his three children, was a real hunting and fishing enthusiast. And that's where it all began. "My father-in-law had a small fishing camp in Chaudière-Appalaches and he often invited me to go there. He taught me everything I needed to know.”
Shortly after his arrival in Quebec, Jean-Luc met Jacques Fortier, the man who would become his partner and who would found with him the restaurant Le Saint-Amour, today one of the capital's most renowned gastronomic establishments. A great hunting enthusiast, Fortier introduced him to friends and took him on hunting adventures throughout Quebec, including deer hunting on Anticosti Island.
Over the years, he has met countless people and had all sorts of experiences.
With Stanley Welsh, Jean-Luc discovered snow goose, duck, pheasant, wild turkey, and teal hunting. "My friend Stanley would take me with him in the fall to Île-au-Canot, a small island paradise just across from Montmagny. We spent some memorable weeks there.”
With Johnny Carrier, Jean-Luc left by helicopter to explore the immensity of Quebec's far north, to hunt caribou and fish for salmon in the crystal-clear waters of the Great Whale River. "We made incredible trips with Johnny," he recalls with emotion.
From one trip to the next, Jean-Luc became a curious, versatile, and, above all, passionate hunter and angler.
Today, he has his own small fishing camp, a rustic cabin with no running water or electricity, located on the shore of a lake in the Valin mountains. This is his secret hideout, his "Canada cabin" as he calls it, a place he returns to every spring to fish for native trout.
"I need nature. Hunting isn't just about harvesting game. It's spending time outdoors with our friends, with the folks we love. It's about sharing, relaxing, eating right. But it's also about freedom, the great outdoors.”
His favorite part of hunting and fishing? Unsurprisingly, it's the moment when you prepare then taste the game. Because although he's a hunting and fishing enthusiast, Jean-Luc Boulay is above all a chef.
"I'm a foodie and I've wanted to eat well all my life, so I became a cook," he says with a serious air, his eyes aglow.
Always maximize the product
Jean-Luc's passion for good food comes from his childhood.
"I grew up on a farm in the days when there were no refrigerators. We preserved everything by lacto-fermentation. My father was a gardener, but he didn't know about chemicals and fertilizers."
In those days, growing food was demanding and the crops were precious; you just couldn't afford to waste them. That's how Jean-Luc learned to use everything in the kitchen, to maximize each and every bit of food. And he still applies this principle to all the products he cooks and also to the game he harvests.
"Let's take partridge hunting for example. To skin this game, many hunters put their feet on the bird and shoot the legs. To me, this is a scandal. This technique results in half of the partridge being thrown away, when almost everything in that game is edible, not just the breasts.”
Thighs? Jean-Luc recommends that we make them candied. We put them in baked beans, in a stew, we make a juice with them, or a sauce. There's more flavour in the thighs, he says, than in the breasts. Liver? We preserve it and we cook delicious terrines, mousses. Everything is edible in a partridge, even the heart.
The technique Jean-Luc recommends is simple. You pluck the creature and keep it whole, like a chicken. It's the best way to recover all the parts, so you can prepare them later.
According to Jean-Luc, this principle should apply to all game, even bear, and to all fish, including pike. Everything can be recovered and almost everything is edible. "When you don't know, you have to find out," he says. You just have to use the right techniques to properly gut your game and fillet your fish. Then it's much easier to prepare them.
For Jean-Luc, this is a real philosophy; we should always maximize and respect the product, and that also applies to the food we buy at the grocery store.
"Food is precious. There are still people in the world who don't have enough to eat. We forget this because we are spoiled here at home and live in a world of plenty, but so many people are still suffering from hunger all over the planet."
And then, he adds, "it's also a question of respect for the animal we hunt or the fish we catch, as well as for the producers who carefully harvest what feeds us," he concludes.
Boreal cuisine: a revelation
Jean-Luc's initial contact with boreal cuisine dates back to his very first experience hunting caribou in Quebec's far north. "I discovered chicoutai, a small, tangy berry that's a bit like a raspberry, but has the colour of an apricot. I cooked my first piece of caribou with this little-known fruit. It was delicious."
One thing led to another, and Chef Boulay discovered dozens of new products from the boreal forest that he believes are a perfect replacement for those imported from around the world.
Take camelina oil, for example. This oil is excellent for cooking, contains as much good fat as olive oil and has a delicate flavour. But it's an oil we produce here at home. And the same goes for cranberry seed oil.
Curious to find out more about Quebec's pantry, Jean-Luc took a closer look . Some 15 years ago, his path crossed that of Fabien Girard, a biologist who is madly in love with the gourmet pleasures of the forest. Fabien is a "harvester of the woods." In fact, he is behind the Origina line of products: spices and teas made from plants, roots, stems, leaves, and flowers that grow in Quebec's forests. With Fabien, Jean-Luc discovered the extremely rich and little-known world of boreal cuisine, also known as northern cuisine.
“People cook with spices from India and China, oils and vinegars imported from Europe, while Quebec's pantry is filled with refined, delicious, and nutritious products," he says.
Green tea? In Quebec, we have Labrador tea. Pepper? Here we have pepper from the dunes. Cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves? We have the blueberry seed. Nutmeg? It can easily be replaced by pine nard. Balsamic vinegar? Cider vinegar is an excellent substitute. The possibilities are infinite because Quebec forests abound with a thousand and one flavours.
It is in this spirit that in 2012, Jean-Luc opened, with his partner Arnaud Marchand, the bistro Chez Boulay, a restaurant where only products from the boreal forest are used. Of course, Chez Boulay has become one of the most respected eateries in Quebec City, revered by foodies and critics alike.
According to Chef Boulay, not only is our pantry an underestimated treasure, but "Québec cuisine has everything it takes to become one of the best in the world."
Adventure in Ashuapmushuan
After spending almost two hours in the pleasant company of Chef Boulay, I suggested that he film his next pike fishing and bear hunting trip to Réserve faunique Ashuapmushuan, a wildlife reserve that he knows well, since he has enjoyed various hunting trips there.
What did we hope to achieve by inviting Chef Boulay on such an adventure? To learn with him how to better prepare bear meat and to get the most from pike flesh, a game and fish harvested in a number of wildlife reserves in Quebec. Both are known to give hunters and anglers fits when it comes time to prepare them. Bear meat suffers from stubborn prejudices, and pike filleting remains a little-known technique.
"Bear meat is a healthy meat, one of the most appreciated game meats. It's tender, it's tasty. The same goes for pike. It's a tasty fish that has made the reputation of various illustrious European chefs. And everything in this fish can be cooked, even the bones", he explained to me, once my proposal was on the table.
Because it’s true that Jean-Luc Boulay is kind, and because he’s genuinely passionate about cooking, hunting, and fishing, and because he advocates with his heart for Quebecers to learn how to make better use of forest products, he graciously accepted our invitation.
I left Le Saint-Amour restaurant satisfied that day, since I had Jean-Luc's agreement to make a film with him.
But I also came out of this meeting with one observation in mind: there’s a category of people in this world who are so intelligent and generous that a simple moment spent in their presence is enough to become imbued with the passion that drives them. They are exceptional people and Jean-Luc Boulay is one of them.