(Dec. 4) With 2,500 meals to prepare daily, from a room-service breakfast to lunch for 5,000, chefs at Montreal’s Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel go through a ton of produce, literally.
The shopping list for this spring’s Formula One Montreal Grand Prix race alone included 5,000 cases of potatoes, 100 cases of Quebec tomatoes, 40 cases of grape tomatoes and 2,640 pounds of vegetables to serve raw as crudités.
“It’s important for us to put forward the best for the international jet set who come to the Grand Prix,” said executive chef Alain Pignard, “so we try to use local produce as much as possible.”
Between May and October, Pignard estimated up to 90% of the fresh produce he buys is local.
“I love working with the seasons,” he said. ”I can’t imagine buying U.S. strawberries in July, and we were still buying local strawberries in early October.”
Along with the baby vegetables and lettuce grown for the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth and other Quebec Fairmont hotels by a Charlevoix grower, Pignard depends on Montreal foodservice distributor Hector Larivée for local and imported produce.
“Hector takes care of us,” he said. “I could never do it without them.”
The feeling is mutual over at the 68-year-old produce importer and distributor, run by the founder’s three grandsons. Though the QE is just one of its 2,500 clients, which include restaurant chains, it’s treated like a queen.
“They can buy $25,000 (Canadian) a week in produce,” said Benoit Lecavalier, director of sales and development, “so when the chef calls at 6 a.m. to say he needs an order in 14 minutes, we’ll get there in 12.”
Larivée also works with up to 30 Quebec growers to provide Pignard and other clients with produce nearly year-round. “Local growers are developing an expertise in offering consistent quality and supply,” said Lecavalier, “and we like to encourage them as much as possible. Though the growing season is short, from the end of June to early October, we can still supply chefs with local potatoes, cabbage and onions from storage for a good eight to 10 months.”
Pignard said more and more corporate event planners are asking for ingredients that haven’t travelled thousands of miles. For a gala in early November for 700, he planned a mash of local sweet potato and butternut squash to partner the Quebec lamb.
Whether he buys local or imported produce, however, the executive chef’s standards remain high. Send him hard-as-rock melons or any other unripe fruit and it will be sent back in a flash.
“Food sold has to be edible,” he said. “Often it’s not the case. Fruit is still picked green and hard so it’s easier to transport, like a can, and the big companies don’t lose money on shrinkage. Sometimes fruit from the market never gets ripe.”
Once again, however, it’s Larivée to the rescue. With a week’s notice, the company will prepare displays of exotic fruit for large hotels and ripen them to perfection. At the Queen Elizabeth, they’re displayed on mirrored platters for corporate buffet breakfasts.
“You need to build that relationship,” Lecavalier said. “He wants quality product, and we’re proud to serve … he’s a breed apart.”