Martin Juneau says he attracts bad luck, but a recent victory proves otherwise
If you can believe it, Gold Medal Plates champ Martin Juneau worries he may be cursed. Most major restaurants on his résumé close once he leaves. In fact, shortly after speaking with the humble Francophone, news hit that acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud was shuttering his upscale Vancouver restaurant Lumière, where Juneau cooked in 2000.
But, while many of the chef ’s former haunts have closed — beginning with the small Quebec hospital he worked at as a cook and ending with Lumière — it’s clear the supposed curse hasn’t befallen the man himself.
The 33-year-old toque recently took top honours at the Gold Medal Plates Canadian Culinary Championships in Kelowna, B.C.,for his crispy piglet belly, glazed with beet juice and an unorthodox cider pairing. For the formerly shy chef, the honour was unexpected. “I never, ever do things like this,” insists Juneau. “When I was younger, I tried to enter cooking contests, and I didn’t have any success — I always choked. This was a serious competition, and we were treated like stars. It was like living a dream.”
For the chef who used to toss and turn the night before a school presentation, throwing his lot in with 10 contestants was a challenge.
But, Juneau is no stranger to challenge. He co-founded Montreal’s La Montée de Lait in 2004, which literally means “breast milk.” Taking the culinary concept from the dairy to more traditional French cuisine, the café serves six-course meals with wine pairings and individual dishes such as foie gras ($9) and magret duck ($12). Although he still coowns it, Juneau recently took a new job as executive chef of Newtown, owned by former Formula One champ Jacques Villeneuve.
Cooking didn’t figure heavily into Juneau’s childhood ambitions, but his love of food did lead him to France, where he cooked at L’auberge de la charme in Prenois. “When I was enrolled at the ITHQ [the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec], I applied for an internship in France,” says Juneau. “I worked in a small town outside Dijon with about 300 people. Every day, a truck brought in the food [for the whole town].”
Working in France gave the young cook an appreciation for the basics he needed to create more upscale cuisine in Canada. “I’ve learned basic products are what I have to work with, and if you have basic, quality products, then you have a [good] restaurant.”
Sticking to the basics — and preferably local ones, when possible — has helped him keep the menu at Newtown simple. “We try to reach everyone,” explains Juneau. “Newtown is a dance club and lounge as well, so we have a lot of finger foods.” Another challenge is acclimating to a high-octane kitchen in a more unpredictable and energetic environment. “It’s also hard to change the [culinary] direction of the place. It’ll take me a while to have it fully under my jurisdiction,” he says, with a laugh. For diners who want haute cuisine, Juneau cooks up a celeriac and leek soup ($10), a braised bison short rib ($35) and rabbit saddle ($30).
The chef predicts it will take time for people to adjust to the new, more seasonal cuisine at Newtown, although his recent Gold Medal Plates victory might just speed up the process.