Yves Lévesque: Did you know that Quebec’s great chefs often use maple products all year round? In an effort to stay local and to highlight the natural flavours of Quebec’s terroir, all while respecting the environment, kitchens are opting more and more for Quebec’s high quality maple products as an alternative to sugar. This series of profiles will shine light on the great culinary ambassadors of L’Érable du Québec, all of whom use maple products in their cuisine throughout the year.
Yves Lévesque is a talented chef and pastry chef who has been working as a caterer in Montreal for over 42 years. Portrait of a man who is passionate about gastronomy and the art of doing things right.
At the age of 10, Yves already knew what he wanted to do for a living: become a pastry chef. “At the age of 16, I headed to the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec (ITHQ). I started with the professional kitchen training, even though I wanted to become a pastry chef, because I wanted to develop an overview of the profession. I then completed my training with two years in pastry,” explained Yves.
The future chef graduated from the ITHQ with two diplomas and started his career on June 7, 1976, at Dansereau Traiteur. At the time, Mrs. Dansereau, the owner of the company, was looking for a pastry chef with kitchen experience to replace a very experienced chef. “It was quite a challenge for me at the time. I wanted to please Mrs. Dansereau, especially when she told me, ‘You studied four years at the ITHQ? You don’t know anything; let’s start over”. At the time, Yves was still taking advanced courses at the Institute on chocolate, marzipan, and service. Over the next few years, Yves refined his techniques at Dansereau, working on both sweet and savoury dishes. It wasn’t until 1991 that Yves and his partner bought the business and took over the reins of this important Montreal caterer.
From the time of the acquisition, Yves was responsible for many aspects of Dansereau’s business, from customer service and pastry, to evening receptions. While building a solid reputation with his growing clientele, Yves created elaborate and refined menus with his talented team. During his career with this renowned caterer, he has been responsible for some very large gourmet receptions for prestigious events. Among these are those for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO), for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and for several receptions for American clients attending conventions in Montreal.
A unique adventure at Dansereau Traiteur
Today, Yves has officially retired from the unimaginable stress that comes with being a catering chef. “I chose to take a break from the intense daily routine of being a caterer. In the United States, it has been recognized as the second most stressful job in the world, second only to being a sky marshal. We are often told by people that they have no idea how we manage to do our job every day. In fact, we face constant challenges, whether it’s logistics or food intolerances, that make this job particularly demanding.”
Today, Yves is only employed by Dansereau Traiteur for the most important contracts, such as those for the OSM and the Red Cross, and he says he has completely fallen in love with the complexity that characterizes the catering profession. In fact, this profession requires constant innovation to create menus that are adapted to the tastes and desires of the clientele. “Some people have compared the catering business to haute couture, because of the constant search for new flavours! Montreal is a small village; you can never create the same thing twice. You always have to offer something different and surprising.”
Not only does catering work involve constant renewal, it also requires a great ability to adapt to different and often minimal kitchen environments. “We’re really into gourmet camping! Often the places where we have to cook have no kitchen or stove or just a small oven; these are extremely minimal conditions. We have to fully equip ourselves and establish a temporary kitchen to do functions for up to 700 people — and, of course, make sure to serve everything hot.”
All of this complexity and challenge that characterizes the catering business makes sense when, at the end of a large reception, Yves and his team receive compliments from their clients. “At the last OSM ball, a well-known restaurateur came up to me and said, ‘I don’t know how you did it; the veal on my plate was hot, even though we were the last table to be served. Everything was extraordinary!’ That, to me, is the greatest compliment. When the organizers come and shake my hand at the end of the evening and tell me that it was perfect, that’s what makes it all worthwhile. Because they didn’t see all of the unexpected and difficult things we had to deal with during the evening.”
His love for the craft
In his creations, Yves has always been strongly inspired by the refinement and innovation that characterize French gastronomy. For him, the Thuriès gastronomic magazine is the pinnacle of what can be found in terms of excellence in the kitchen. “There is no one else in the world who can create a magazine like this! It is perfection. I find that creation in France is serious, professional, and very valued. Especially with the recognition they have, like the Michelin stars and the title of Meilleur ouvrier de France. I once attended a reception at the Paris City Hall and was dazzled; the evening was one of absolute perfection, from each bite to the service. I draw a lot of inspiration from French gastronomy and all my travels give me ideas.”
And that love of France was fulfilled last June when Yves experienced the greatest moment of his career: he was awarded the catering contract for a reception in Montreal organized by the Élysée Palace. “To have been chosen by Emmanuel Macron’s office out of all the caterers available here was a real crowning achievement for me. We organized a typically French cocktail party! I had the chance to meet Emmanuel Macron; he was super friendly.”
A future of exciting projects
Yves is truly a passionate chef who has an unconditional love for gastronomy and creation. Although he will be taking the next few years off to rest and enjoy working on the larger volume contracts at Dansereau Traiteur, he feels a deep attachment to this innovative Montreal company. “I have always loved working at Dansereau Traiteur because of the professionalism of the team. We have people who have worked here for 30 years. They have always followed me in my madness, like serving hot veal for 400 people on three floors. No one believed we could; however, we did it, everyone was very satisfied and we continued to be hired for receptions. It’s something that’s been said 100 times before, but you’re really nothing without a team. I have been allowed to be bold at Dansereau Traiteur.”
Thank you Yves for your passion and for your exceptional dedication to your craft. Good luck!
A few questions for Yves Lévesque
What would you be if you were not a chef? “I think I would be a meteorologist! Science interests me a lot; I like to understand the mechanisms behind things.”
What is your favourite dessert? “The religieuse. It is the most complex dessert to make, because it requires a lot of techniques. When I go into a pastry shop, that’s what I order; it’s a good barometer, because if you do well with the religieuse, you can hardly fail with anything else.”
Do you cook a lot at home? “Yes, one of my specialties is homemade donuts dipped in warm maple syrup. It’s a family recipe! I make them every Christmas for my clients and colleagues; they are very popular.”
L’Érable du Québec Q&A
What’s your favourite way to work with maple? “Obviously, I use it a lot in sweets, but I love working with it in savoury. It’s amazing what you can do with maple syrup! You can use it everywhere, whether it’s to deglaze meats with just a few spoonfuls, to make vinaigrettes or sauces. It allows you to sweeten ingredients without covering up all the other tastes. People often ask what the secret ingredient is that we use in our dishes — this is it!”
When was your first memory of maple? “I would say it was at the sugar shack when I was little. I remember standing in front of a tree for a good half hour trying to figure out how maple syrup could come from there! Also, I remember seeing the cooks cook the pancakes in so much oil that they became slightly fried. They were then topped with maple syrup. Those pancakes were a big part of my childhood!”
What is your favourite thing about maple? “I like the fact that maple syrup has always been a handmade product. I think a lot of people don’t realize all the hard work and dedication behind this incredible product, which is always handmade by passionate artisans. Maple syrup is so pure! It’s a far cry from what we see with all those foods stuffed with GMOs and chemicals. With maple, the quality is there.
How do you savour maple at home? “With a spoon! I like to savour it like a good wine or like olive oil, because maple syrup never tastes exactly the same. The soil, the water, the region and the producers who make it will all influence the flavours you taste.”
Written by Jean-Philippe Tastet
Photography by Érable du Québec