10 things to know about Jehane Benoît

Jehane Benoit: la grande dame de la cuisine québécoise et canadienne

Jehane Benoît: The trailblazing queen of Québécois and Canadian cuisine!

Your mother or grandmother may be familiar with this beloved, charismatic, and driven woman on television. Jehane Benoît was a career woman who resisted the societal norms of her time; norms that left little room for women on the job market.

Jehane Benoît was a cook, teacher, writer, food lover, radio and television host, and speaker, who, among many things, became a pioneer of Québécois cooking. For her, cooking was an art, and a social identity specific to each culture. “The cuisine of a country bears witness to its geography, its history, the gourmet ingenuity of its people and its atavisms” – Jehane Benoît, the encyclopedia of Canadian cuisine, 1963. She taught the know-how and culinary manners to several generations of Quebecers.

A gastronomic identity

At the time, many people thought that Quebec and Canada did not have a strong and complex gastronomic identity, due, among other things, to our short historical background. Jehane, through her books and conferences, has slowly deconstructed this idea. She has done extensive research and travels across Canada to understand and analyze the culinary traditions that forge our identity and our gastronomic heritage.

Born on March 21, 1904 in Montreal, Jehane Benoît, née Patenaude, was born into a wealthy family. As the eldest child in her family, she received the same education as the young boys of her time! Despite a social context where women had to marry young and start a family quickly, she wanted to work all her life and realize her dreams. Marriage was not a priority for her. She took cooking classes in Paris, then opened her own cooking school and restaurant!

After several years working in the industry and publishing a few books, she became a star of the radio and the small screen. Her numerous cooking shows included Femmes d’aujourd’hui, Bonjour Madame, The Young Chiefs, and Take 30. Author of more than thirty books, she was honoured by the Order of Canada in 1973. She is a great local woman who is much admired — for her perseverance, determination, courage, and culinary heritage.

Here are 10 things to know about this charming woman:

  1. Jehane Benoît was the first to write an encyclopedia on Canadian cuisine. The Encyclopedia of Canadian Cuisine was published in 1963 in Quebec, and was translated into English two years later for distribution across the country. This book, which sold over a million copies, has marked several generations; it was commonly given to newlyweds as a wedding gift! It was an indispensable resource in the 60s and 70s, it has been republished several times, and is still consulted today.
  2. She opened one of the first vegetarian restaurants in Montreal in the 1930s: The Salad Bar. It was ultra modern at the time: people served themselves, the atmosphere was very convivial and the food was healthy and vegetarian.
  3. She was a pioneer of local cuisine — even in her day, this great woman cooked with local and seasonal products. She emphasized this essential aspect of cooking: people should cook with what is available at home.
  4. Jehane had a dozen microwaves at home! In the 1980s, she worked with Panasonic to promote microwaves. She worked for several years on recipes for “microwave cooking” and published several books on the subject — microwave fine dining. She wanted to reassure people that these new appliances were indeed safe to use, as many people at the time thought they were very dangerous to their health.
  5. She founded one of the first secular and bilingual cooking schools in Montreal: Le Fumet de la vieille France. She worked very hard to make her school known, because the educational environment was reserved for nuns. She wanted to pass on the knowledge she had learned during her years of study in Paris.
  6. She and her husband Bernard Benoît owned a sheep farm, Noirmouton, in the Eastern Townships, and were among the first to cook and sell lamb. She transformed her meadow to plant vegetables, herbs, fruits, and raise lambs. She regularly received film crews from Radio-Canada to prepare food for them.
  7. She graduated from the Sorbonne in food chemistry. Her father allowed her to attend college so that she could get a good education. In addition, she refused to bow to convention and give up her freedom. She had only one goal: to work all her life.
  8. Jehane wanted to become an actress. When she studied at the Sorbonne, she secretly took acting classes, but she quickly abandoned this idea and redirected her focus on food chemistry.
  9. She was one of the first to do cooking shows on television! In the early years of television in Canada, there were few cooking shows, only a few reports on the art of living. When Jehane Benoît appeared on the small screen, she was the first to actually teach cooking. Her face was known across the country; she paved the way for what we know today as great cooking shows.
  10. Her signature dish is a recipe for… squirrel! Squirrel?! Yes. We would never have thought of cooking this meat at the time. A great way to democratize a little known meat, to promote available resources, and to reduce food waste. Martin Picard has a recipe for squirrel in his book Cabane à sucre Au Pied de Cochon.

Tribute to a great woman — infinite thanks to Jehane for passionately pursuing what she loved.

Photography by André Le Coz

From the magazine