Both straightforward and layered with interpretations, Candide is the perfect name for this new restaurant in Little Burgundy. With the first restaurant of his own, John Winter Russell –previously known as the chef at Van Horne and for dabbling in kitchens all over town— brings us something that’s deeply sincere, while also being hard to categorize. One of the reasons this project resists simple definition lies in Russell’s approach to food in general. The primary reason he opened this gorgeous restaurant in the presbytery of an old church was to make delicious food. What else is new, right?
Well, a lot, actually.
First, what’s coming out of the kitchen, which just opened two weeks ago, is mostly plant-based. As the chef says, “It comes back to plants having a much larger variety of flavour than meat. The difference between beef, veal, and lamb just isn’t as great as between eggplant, tomato, and mint.”
Proteins will be additions: toppings of fish roe, shavings of dried venison or an egg yolk to create the perfect sauce texture. They’ll be the accents, there to add to and complement the incredibly diverse, seasonal and regional plants that are long overdue for their time in the spotlight. If he succeeds in making you think, “I didn’t know a carrot could be this sweet,” Russell will have done his job.
“The difference between beef, veal, and lamb just isn’t as great as between eggplant, tomato, and mint.”
Then, there’s the space itself. As the chef points out, it was a Sunday school for years and “has the energy of a place that kids were in it for a long time.” The team stripped the room down, getting rid of thick layers of powder blue paint to let the beautiful original components literally come out of the woodwork. There’s something warm and cozy about the atmosphere, the type of spot that will inspire diners to kick back and stay a while. Tables are set up individually, intentionally lit by a single overhead lamp by local designer Anaïe Dufresne of Jacques et Anna, but they’re not so far apart that you forget you’re in public. They’ve struck the delicate balance between creating an intimate setting and a communal experience.
Community is another key word in the Candide lexicon (yes, it sometimes feels like this place should come with its own glossary). It’s no coincidence that they’re paired up with Le Salon 1861, an event venue and shared co-working space that occupies the rest of the transformed church. The idea of community is the most obvious attribute retained from the building’s origins. This feeling works its way right into the restaurant too, all the way into the dishes that will be set in front of you. Russell wants the message that comes across to be: “We love what we do, we want you to come see and share it.”
In this line of thinking, we can add “nourishing” to the restaurant’s list of terms, another concept that seems like it should be a given when talking about dining. Yet, it’s surprising how different incorporating this idea makes Candide. With a certain popular prevalence of excess in fine foods, nourishment isn’t always a menu’s top priority. One of the main ideas here is to find equilibrium between nourishing your body and mind. The young chef is taking what he likes about the fine dining experience and getting rid of the rest.
You won’t be sitting down to a tasting menu because Russell wants to serve the best dishes they possibly can each time, without palate fatigue or boredom. Instead, you’re in for a four-course table d’hôte with a choice of two dishes for the main. You don’t find the food salty enough? Your waiter will be keenly aware of it and might change your wine choices accordingly. Things aren’t set in stone at Candide; if you want to try Russell’s cuisine as a single dish or call ahead for a full-on feast, you won’t get turned away. The proposed format is simply what they want you to experience.
Nothing negative is being said about the local culinary tradition that skews towards over-indulgence either. According to Russell, there’s nothing wrong with a feast. It is, after all, very reminiscent of harvest festivals when people went from having hardly any food to suddenly more than you know what to do with. It’s just that there are those who master the form and those who copy it, creating a lot of waste in the process. A bit of an old-school perspective? This restaurant is certainly about going back to the roots in more ways than one.
After working as a private chef for a villa in the Caribbean where everything was imported from industrial farms, Russell spent some time in Spain’s Basque region. There, cultural belonging breeds fierce loyalty to local production, meaning they’ve been eating a so-called “locavore” diet for centuries. A key component of the products at Candide is their source. Russell deals with well-matched suppliers who understand that using local goods as much as possible can require an open mind. Wild foraging company Gaspésie Sauvage, for example, shares the chef’s understanding of the basic ingredients.
Russell originally got into cooking after quitting his detested commerce studies at UBC and reading all the food-related texts he could get his hands on, notably On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. This book answered one of the chief questions in Russell’s vocabulary that’s still felt in his cooking: why? The chef-in-the-making went back to the basic scientific processes of food to learn how ingredients work, mature, and evolve. This provided a base upon which to build all the other culinary practices and beliefs that have resulted in his undeniably personal approach. However, he might not be willing to throw the adjective “creative” into the glossary just yet.
“’Creativity’ is a tough word in the kitchen. A lot of things people do are just adaptations or reinterpretations. It’s like song covers when you change the chords.” While that’s true, and an idea deeply respected at Candide, I can only describe John Winter Russell’s precise vision and original interpretation of fine dining in this time and place as creative. When curiosity, passion. and knowledge combine in this way, there are few other adjectives left to describe the results.
Visit Candide at 551 Rue Saint Martin, and for more information, visit their website.
Photos by Charlotte Guirestante Ghomeshi