If you had the pleasure of watching the cooking competitions on the Taste of Nova Scotia stage at the Saltscapes Expo held in Halifax last April, you may have seen Renée Lavallée in action. Renée doesn't usually have such an audience at the Five Fishermen Restaurant in Halifax, where she is executive chef. But that didn't cramp her style-she wowed everyone with her flavourful offerings, earning her the points to take home both the title of top chef and the grand prize.
Originally from Shawville, Que, Renée attended the Centre for Hospitality & Culinary Arts at George Brown College, in Toronto, before going to Italy, where she apprenticed at the prestigious Bagaglino Hotel. Since returning to Canada she has worked in such notable restaurants as Canoe, Biff's and Pastis in Toronto; Les Fougères and Café Henry Burger, in Gatineau; and The Inn at Bay Fortune, on PEI.
Renée has also taken a few detours off a typical culinary career path: she has been the chef on tour for the musical groups Black Crowes and Oasis; she has cooked for Ferrari Formula 1 and Audi Superturismo events; and has appeared as a sous chef on six episodes of the Food Network's series "Cook like a Chef."
Q What inspired you to become a chef?
A As a child I enjoyed cooking with my parents, but I wanted to follow my dad's footsteps and become a lawyer. The only catch was that I hated school. After a few years at Western, my parents told me to either start getting better grades or find a new career. Along came cooking-I applied to George Brown, and now 14 years later, here I am.
Q Who do you look up to?
A Four people have had a big impact on my life and career. Stephanie Ortenzi took the time to inspire me and show me what was possible for a woman in this industry. Charlie Part, chef/owner of Les Fougères in Chelsea, Que, gave me the space to figure out my cooking style. He also put up with a 20-something girl who thought she knew everything! Then there were Anthony Walsh at Canoe and Gord Mackie at Biff's. They never expected you to do something they would never do themselves. They worked six days a week, 15 hour days, and always managed to find time for me.
Q What is your favourite ingredient?
A I love pork: pork belly, pork hocks, pork fat…yum! And cheese - at one point in my career, I had cheese in every dish!
Q What kitchen tool can you not live without?
A My rasp-it zests my lemons, grates my cheese and minces my garlic. What else could a girl ask for?
Q Do you have a favourite cookbook?
A I have many, but I always reference my River Café cookbooks. Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have a very simplistic view on cooking.
Q What foods do you eat in secret?
A Cheesies, marble cheese and saltines, and I have a love affair with Nutella.
Q What do you like to do when not in the kitchen?
A My daughter, Zoe, keeps me busy. I like to walk a lot, and my husband and I cook quite a bit at home. We almost always have people over on Saturday nights. We have India night, Japan night, Mexico night, and so on, using our guests as guinea pigs. Other than that, my evening would be dinner, a glass of wine and a good book.