Charles-Antoine Crête: The touching madness of an excellent chef

Charles-Antoine Crête is one of Quebec’s greatest chefs.

A journey where genius borders on madness

“When I was 9, my dream was to become a chef. That’s pretty much what I did.”

  • Charles-Antoine Crête comes from Saint-Augustin de Mirabel.
  • He started at Jean-Paul Giroux’s restaurant at the age of 11 where he worked as a dishwasher and an entry-level cook.
  • A little later, he moved to Toronto and worked for David Lee and00 Mark Thuet.
  • Upon his return to Montreal, he enrolled at the ITHQ; from where he was quickly expelled. Jean-Philippe Tastet has always called Charles Antoine Crête a free electron. “An electron weakly bound to the atomic nucleus; which participates, among other things, in the circulation of electricity”. That’s hard to control in a classroom. But oh, how creative.
  • After being expelled from the ITHQ, a friend of his referred him to the restaurant Toqué! – which was on St-Denis street at the time. He started as a clerk, and then became a cook. The Toqué! establishment is now a Relais et Château and is one of the 100 best restaurants in the world.
  • He then left to travel, working in Spain at El Bulli, among others, then elsewhere to Australia and France.
  • He returned in 2004 and took the position of chef de cuisine at Toqué!
  • A few months later, Charles-Antoine and Normand gave a “Cooking from scraps” conference in New York City on the importance of scraps in cooking. “We thought about how we cook; about what we do differently, and what we do differently is use every element of each ingredient. We have a ‘poor man’s heritage’; we peel the potatoes, but we don’t throw away the peels: we invent a dish with them. From our heritage comes an imagination that forces us to be creative with every element of the ingredients.” Many top chefs now work with this principle.
  • In 2010, Charles-Antoine Crête and Normand set up Brasserie T. “I made the menu, hired the people, we trained them, took care of the running of the place, and I was the chef for a little while.”
  • In 2012, they released the book Toqué – “I’m really particular with the details. We postponed the book because of the asparagus. It wasn’t asparagus season, and we couldn’t put up pictures of less than perfect asparagus. If you look at the book, there are 4 photos of asparagus. But we saved time and did it exactly the way we wanted. I’m very proud of the book.”
  • In 2013, he left Toqué! after years of work. Normand Laprise said at the time, “It’s not really a departure; it’s more like a normal evolution, a bit like when children leave home, they don’t really leave, ever. Charles-Antoine is one of the chefs of the future for Montreal. He’s one of the kind of cooks that are innovating. David (McMillan), Derek (Dammann), Martin (Picard), they are all trailblazers. And with Charles-Antoine, I will remain as I did with Martin, very close, very connected.”
  • In 2014, he participated in the program “Dining with the enemy,” produced by TV5 Monde.
  • He then helped develop the spirit of the bar and restaurant Majestique; putting together the menu, building the kitchen team, etc. The place quickly became a success – in fact, it’s one of our favourite places to have a drink and a bite to eat.

On August 29, 2015, Charles-Antoine Crête opened his own new restaurant, Montreal Plaza, on the Plaza St-Hubert with his work partner Cheryl Johnson. 

A breath of fresh air on the Plaza

Why the Plaza St-Hubert? Charles-Antoine Crête and Cheryl Johnson – a friend and colleague for over 15 years – announced last April their plan to open on the Plaza. “We’d been thinking about it more seriously for a year. We think the neighbourhood is cool, interesting, and lively, and we get so much love from people. We love our location. People are super excited, it’s really fun.”

A restaurant for everyone

“Now it’s like, ‘If you’re not a cook, you don’t understand the concept.’ We don’t want that. We want a restaurant that’s accessible to everyone; from 0 to 100. Really everyone.” Their space is the previous location of Holder restaurant. It’s a very large space that originally had 130 seats, but now has about 70.

A personal concept

“I realize that with this restaurant, I’m recreating my parents’ house; my mom collects flowers and there will be a flower room, my dad is a woodworker sculptor and a lot of our wood will be worked by him; he collects clocks and we’ll have a wall of old clocks. At our place, you haven’t even come in and they give you a glass of wine. I want that atmosphere. I don’t want to impress the world, I want people to feel welcome and comfortable, like they’re at home.”

In the kitchen and dining room

They will be open for dinner; seven nights a week. Eventually they may offer breakfasts – “not brunch okay. I hate that term”. (Ok. Laughs.) In the kitchen, Amin Nasrahllah will be the chef de cuisine, with whom he worked for 10 years at Le Toqué, Sophie Juneau – ex of Le Conti – and Cheryl Johnson – chef and owner – will lead the way. In the dining room, Sébastien Blanchette – one of the partners – will be the director of the dining room and operations with his team. Samuel Chevalier will be in charge of the drinks. “I want to be everywhere and useless. I always manage to end up being useless. It’s when I’m useless that I’m most useful” (laughs). As for the menu, we’re talking about dishes between $12 and $30. “There will be a backbone menu, which lasts year-round, but also with tweaked classics; 50% classics, 50% specials.”

Zébulon is in charge of the decor

“it’s ‘Zébulon and Charles-Antoine,’ or ‘Charles-Antoine by Zébulon.’ We worked together, developing something that would look like both of us. Zeb, he brings the fuel, and he has the sensitivity to bring my personality too; we are two heads to conceive this space. Sometimes I tell him: this is too beautiful, stop! It must be less beautiful.”(laughs)

“I’m opening a restaurant to be in it. I’ll have my office and everything to watch the game with Normand and Martin. I like that. I can’t wait.” Thank you Charles-Antoine Crête for your inspiring madness. Thank you for your touching sensitivity. Good luck to you in this wonderful project. I can’t wait to eat and celebrate there.

Charles-Antoine Crête opened Foodchain in Montreal in May 2017 and will open in TimeOut in the fall of 2019. 

Photography by Hans Laurendeau

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