Lunch with a Master

Karl Wells
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As he bent over the edge of the tree-lined canal, his knees sinking deeper into the soft new grass, he paused to admire the patterned shells of three large snails in his left palm. Their swirling round houses, his hand and the rest of him were damp from a light morning rain. Indeed, rain had penetrated all of 11-year-old Marcel Kretz's district of Illkirch-Graffenstaden in Strasbourg and perhaps all of Alsace. It was May 1942 in Nazi-occupied France.

As was his custom on rainy days in May, young Marcel Kretz was picking snails from the walls of the narrow canal running through this section of northeastern France. He would put them in a basket and take them home to his Mama. Mrs. Kretz would purge them with salt, cook them, clean them and finally serve them to her hungry snail hunter. The dark, curled, meaty nuggets would be smothered with plenty of melted farm butter, as well as garlic and parsley from the Kretz's nearby garden. The boy would dine with such enthusiasm that rivulets of golden butter would cover his chin as he chewed and periodically smiled with deep, sustained satisfaction.

Marcel Krentz was the first chef inducted into the Order of Canada. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

As he bent over the edge of the tree-lined canal, his knees sinking deeper into the soft new grass, he paused to admire the patterned shells of three large snails in his left palm. Their swirling round houses, his hand and the rest of him were damp from a light morning rain. Indeed, rain had penetrated all of 11-year-old Marcel Kretz's district of Illkirch-Graffenstaden in Strasbourg and perhaps all of Alsace. It was May 1942 in Nazi-occupied France.

As was his custom on rainy days in May, young Marcel Kretz was picking snails from the walls of the narrow canal running through this section of northeastern France. He would put them in a basket and take them home to his Mama. Mrs. Kretz would purge them with salt, cook them, clean them and finally serve them to her hungry snail hunter. The dark, curled, meaty nuggets would be smothered with plenty of melted farm butter, as well as garlic and parsley from the Kretz's nearby garden. The boy would dine with such enthusiasm that rivulets of golden butter would cover his chin as he chewed and periodically smiled with deep, sustained satisfaction.

Now it is fall 2007. I am sitting at a table with that boy. Marcel Kretz of Illkirch-Graffenstaden is now 76 years old. The table is smaller and there is no butter running down his chin on this bright Canadian afternoon. Mind you, he does have a look of considerable satisfaction on his face as he enjoys some sautÉed codfish.

Cuisinier

His beloved Mama is no longer alive to prepare his favourite, sautÉ d'escargots aux pleurottes, but she's in his heart when he makes it for himself and wife Nicole. Monsieur Kretz has more than enough skill to prepare the dish from his childhood - he is one of Canada's greatest cuisiniers and the first chef to receive the Order of Canada medal. I have invited Chef Kretz to dine with me at Bianca's restaurant in downtown St. John's.

Kretz does not look like a man who will celebrate his 77th birthday in April. His hair is white like snow but his total years are belied by a gently worn face and youthful exuberance. That exuberance is intense when he talks of food and cooking. He still has plenty of passion for his chosen profession.

The passion was sparked in his mother's kitchen all those years ago. Marcel's parents kept a vegetable garden and small animals like rabbits, chickens, ducks and geese. They were self-sufficient. Practically everything Marcel watched his Mama prepare was as fresh as it could be. He got into food because he liked it; "In Alsace, food is life." He still contends that food is at its best when it is fresh and simply prepared.

Post-war

Kretz says that when the Second World War ended, a feeling of emptiness surrounded the people of France. Young people felt lost, not knowing what to do. His father suggested a hotel school education might provide Marcel with an opportunity to travel. He accepted the advice and in 1949 graduated with a professional certificate and a diploma from the Hotel School of Strasbourg.

For the next several years, Kretz worked throughout France at various hotels and restaurants. Honing his skills and building a solid reputation at establishments like Hotel de la Providence in Vosges, Restaurant La Grande Maxeville, Paris and Hotel de la Gare in Luxembourg prepared him for the great adventure of his life: introducing new foods, new dishes and the world of fine dining to Canadians. Kretz arrived in North America in the late 1950s and soon found himself employed in Quebec.

Eventually, Kretz found his way to the job that would define him and make his name famous through much of his adopted land. In 1961, he became executive chef of Hotel La Sapiniere in Val-David, Que., spending the next 39 years at the famous Laurentians hotel. In 1972, while at La Sapiniere, Kretz prepared a famous multi-course dinner named for the author of the classic "Larousse Gastro-nomique," Prosper Montagne. The National Film Board filmed the preparation of the entire feast. The resulting documentary, called "La Gastronomie," is still being shown in cooking schools across Canada.

Cradle of cuisine

When Kretz arrived in our country, Louis St. Laurent was prime minister and Punch Imlach was coach of the "winning" Toronto Maple Leafs. Duck a l'orange and chateaubriand were the most sophisticated menu items at hotels like Le Chateau Frontenac. Hotels were the only places where you could find food served with a modicum of style. Fine dining restaurants were practically non-existent. However, things soon changed, according to Kretz. In his words, "Quebec became the cradle of cuisine in Canada."

Soon, other chefs began to arrive in Quebec from France. Slowly but surely Marcel Kretz and his brother chefs began to change the way Quebecois looked at food. Chef Kretz pushed the envelope at La Sapiniere by serving his customers sweetbreads (thymus glands of veal) and calf's brain. At the same time, Quebecois were beginning to travel outside the country. In many cases they would return to La Sapiniere from a foreign holiday and ask for a dish they'd tasted while away.

Once their work in Quebec had been completed, the French chefs spread out like missionaries across Canada, taking jobs in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and beyond. To one degree or another the Quebec model played out in the rest of the country. The European chefs played an important role in the culinary history of Canada, helping build the foundation that supports much of our food service industry.

Today, Kretz strongly believes that we have our own unique Canadian cuisine: "The time of chefs coming over from France is gone." Although there may be differences in our cuisine from the Pacific to the Atlantic, the background of our cuisine is European (western and eastern) but its heart and soul is "our own products and the way Canadian cooks use them. Eating is a cultural thing and we should embrace that. We should treat food right and with respect."

Molecular gastronomy

Although a trend towards classic dishes, classically prepared seems to be developing in Vancouver and elsewhere, something called "molecular gastronomy" has recently gained a foothold. Proponents of these methods that employ chemistry in cookery are Heston Blumenthal of England and Ferran Adria of Spain. Both chefs are as familiar with substances like methylcellulose, xanthan gum, liquid nitrogen and lecithin as they are with garlic and oregano. Using these substances (chemicals) in cooking is second nature to Blumenthal and Adria.

"No. I'm not for that." Kretz was quick and animated when we discussed molecular gastronomy. He had earlier read of Blumenthal's attempt to create bacon and eggs ice cream. "The future of cuisine is not there. What would Blumenthal have to say about that beautiful piece of fresh fish I just had? It all comes back to, for me, that piece of cod and those beautiful vegetables. Where does molecular cuisine come into that? Why? What for? What is better than what we had there?"

I felt that many of Kretz's contemporaries would agree with him, chefs like the French culinary giant, Paul Bocuse. He is well acquainted with and respectful of the great Bocuse, having met him more than a few times at international culinary events.

He believes Bocuse to be one of the greatest chefs of the last 100 years. "Certainly since Escoffier, for France and for the world. He initiated a new way of cooking and a new way of seeing a plate." And Kretz reminded me of something Bocuse once said. "There is only one cuisine. That's good cuisine."

For Marcel Kretz, I suspect that translates to "fresh ingredients cooked simply."

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Organizations: Hotel School of Strasbourg, Laurentians hotel, National Film Board Toronto Maple Leafs

Geographic location: France, Canada, Illkirch-Graffenstaden Alsace Quebec La Sapiniere St. John's Vosges Paris Luxembourg Vancouver North America Prosper Montagne Toronto Calgary Pacific England Spain

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