Behind the line: Halifax chef Renée Lavallée

The chef on finding inspiration, her younger self and the importance of marketing.

Renée Lavallée Halifax

From spending her younger years training and working in Toronto, Ottawa, Prince Edward Island and the Caribbean before finally settling back on the East Coast where she now owns the popular eatery, The Canteen in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Renée Lavallée has her fair share of tales of adventure, exploits and life lessons for any young chef. She happily shares some of her thoughts and experiences here.

What's it like finding good kitchen staff in Halifax and Dartmouth?

It’s just a constant battle trying to find good people; either they leave to go to big cities or they expect too much.

When I left cooking school and got a job, I peeled potatoes, scrubbed oysters and picked herbs for six months before I moved up at all. I find kids who come into the kitchen can have no work ethic: "you want me to work what? 12 hours?”

Um, yeah. I do want you to work to 12 hours and I expect you to scrub the floors and do the dishes and this and that. They don’t always want to do that.

One of my workers finally got a callous on his hand for the first time and showed it to me and I said, “Yeah! That's from holding your knife!” Mine is a constant, it’s always there. That is a sign of the fact that you cook! 

Do you think culinary television and chef-focused Netflix series lend to that frame of mind with younger cooks?

I think it can be a bit of that. You can just see and read so much these days [on the internet] and they think everything is MasterChef or Top Chef or whatever is cool right now. People always ask me, “Did you watch Top Chef?” Nope. “Did you watch Chopped?” Nope.

You haven't watched them, but would you ever consider competing on a show like that?

I was in Montreal in April and I ate at Park. Antonio Park was telling me that I should really think about going on Chopped Canada and I said no. He asked me why not and the answer is, “Why would I?” I think being on it can be completely embarrassing. What if you get chopped right off the bat? There was one guy on the episode I saw who was from one of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants and he seemed like such a dick. He got chopped right away.

After your 10-year stint in Toronto, you worked as a private chef in the Caribbean. What brought you back to the East Coast?

I came back over here to work at The Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island because the chef that was brought in all of the way from Vancouver bailed on them. They needed someone and I needed to get off the tropical island! When I came back to Halifax, I worked on and off at The Five Fisherman for five or six years, then had a three- or four-year break. I had kids, wrote for the newspaper, started my blog, did a whole mix of stuff and then all of a sudden, my kids were both in school and I ended up with The Canteen.

Is this the restaurant you had always wanted?

I wanted to be able to be closed at 6 p.m. to be home at night and closed on Sundays, and it’s worked out really well so far. My husband works across the street, I live a five-minute walk away, the kids go to school another five-minute walk away. I’m lucky. I feel like one of the lucky people who have been able to find this balance now.

Where does your blog name, Feisty Chef, come from anyway?

I worked in a place called Gypsy Co-op in Toronto about 15 years ago. Oasis was in town touring with The Black Crowes and Space Hog. We closed the restaurant, just for them.

I was in my mid-20s and being a smart ass, playing some music I liked on the sound system, and Liam Gallagher walked up beside me. I said, “Don’t f$&king touch the music, because I’m working and playing what I want to play.”

He said, “Oh you’re a feisty one, I like that.”

So, that’s where that nickname stemmed from. He actually sent tickets to the concert for me and I couldn’t go. Anyway, turned out the bassist of Space Hog had the hots for me and I ended up dating him for a few weeks. You wouldn’t know that now, but I always tell people that there was another life before I moved back to Nova Scotia and had a family.

Have you ever had any surprise celebrity guests come by The Canteen for lunch?

Well, Joel Plaskett comes in here usually once a week or so. He’s actually opening up a little place just down the road. Record shop/barbershop and coffee counter sort of thing.

What's the Halifax food scene like to you?

It’s good. It’s getting better. I feel so old compared to these young people who have just started out. When I moved here, it was almost old school, and now you have the new guys coming in that do interesting stuff together. Nothing really groundbreaking here yet though.

Which restaurant stands out the most in the city?

If aynone is coming to Halifax and asks me where to eat, I suggest Edna, for sure. The food is solid, the room is really nice, but sometimes [in Nova Scotia], it can feel like we’re stuck in a bit of a rut. In a Lucky Peach rut or something, where everyone just reads that [and that is the way]. I don’t want to sound like a complete bitch or anything, but it can feel like there aren't a lot of people thinking for themselves in this newer generation. 

Where else can people find inspiration for their food other than what they see online, read or watch?

I totally understand looking at something and being inspired and putting a spin on it, but when you take something and copy and paste it--if see popcorn grits on your menu, then I can assume that you've watched a certain episode of Mind of a Chef.

Maybe it’s just because I’m older now and have gone through the phase of like reading the books and thinking I want to be Marco Pierre White or whoever it is, but looking at a recipe and essentially copying it, it’s not original and it’s not me.

Do you think that's more of an age thing?

It’s all about maturity. A lot of the younger chefs just don’t have maturity. You can be super talented, but you need to have the maturity and have been engrossed in everything: seen it, done it, eaten it.

There comes a point where you do the drugs, you drink all the alcohol, you work all the hours, you get shit on. What seemed like a good idea when you’re 24, 25 or 26 does not seem like a good idea when you’re my age.

What's something embarrassing you did as a younger chef that you would slap yourself for doing now?

When I was younger, I thought it was really funny to just pull a carrot from the garden and serving it to people and hoping they’d be really impressed. I remember doing that at the Inn of Bay of Fortune. People would be paying $150 for a tasting menu and just look at me thinking, “Are you kidding me?”

I’d be handing them this little, dirty carrot on the plate with a bit of butter. Fresh from the garden, this is as good as it gets. Taste the soil, taste the terroir. Ha, ha, ha. Oh my god.

If I did that now, everyone would think I was absolutely crazy, but back then, I would have tried to tell people that they just “didn’t understand," that "this is my creativity, my genius," but really there was none of that. It was just me being stupid.

Some chefs have seen huge spikes in popularity through Instagram. Do you see social media as being beneficial for your business?

Oh, yeah! It definitely is, but that stuff is a lot of work! It’s literally remembering to think, "OK, we need to decide what we should be taking pictures of today," and once we do, it usually turns out to be the best seller on that particular day. I can take a picture of anything and I can almost guarantee that it will sell the most that day, but it has to be a good picture.

What's one thing some restaurateurs and chefs might still not understand about using social media?

I think a lot of the restaurant photography still isn’t great. So, making a point of doing it right--which can be a lot of work--is beneficial because then people retweet what you’re posting, re-Instagram, or share on Facebook, and it gets your name out there. I have never paid for an advertisment; it’s all social media, but that has a lot to do with my husband. He’s in marketing, he’s savvy, he’s built a good website, and it’s easy to update. It’s all a lot of work, but it’s all totally worth it.