- Meghan Tansey Whitton
Owner and chef The Canteen, 66 Ochterloney Street
Renée Lavallée seems, at first glance, like a bit of a badass. She's tiny and strong. She's loud and she laughs a lot. Her big, fawn eyes are keen and observant. Her mouth slashes into a wicked grin at a moment's notice. That first impression is wrong, though. Lavallée is, in fact, a total badass.
The food world has become a circus in the past five years. Media attention and marketing have created a funhouse mirror of life as a chef. As The Feisty Chef, Lavallée built a brand in this new world, but there's no costume or character, no artifice or alter ego. There's no bullshit. Her career is built on hard work. She's the real deal.
"Chefs take themselves too seriously," she says, rolling her eyes at the idea that bad attitude can be excused by misunderstood genius. "Gimme a break," she says. "We're tradespeople: We cook for a living. It's important, but it's not that important. The electrician, the plumber—we're all on the same page."
Growing up in the small town of Shawville, Quebec, Lavallée always liked cooking, though she didn't originally see herself as a chef. After high school her parents asked her why she wouldn't consider cooking school. "You don't make any money," was her response. "Which is right," she laughs. "You don't make money as a chef."
Things changed once she went to university. "I lasted about two years," she says. She flunked out. She sat in on classes at George Brown College's Chef School. "I just waited till people dropped," she says. "I sort of weaselled my way in and sat there until they were like 'Alright Renée, six people have dropped out so welcome to George Brown!'"
It's that tenacity—that trademark feisty nature—that continued to get her where she wanted to be, starting with Cafe Henry Burger in Hull. "It was the highest of the high-end where all the politicians used to eat," she says. "I would drive down every day and go to the back door of the kitchen, hand in my resume, and ask if I could speak to the chef. The chef was always too busy. I did it every day for two weeks and then finally they were like 'Oh, Jesus Christ, Renée. Fine. Come tomorrow and we'll figure something out.'"
That something was "shit jobs," says Lavallée. "Scrubbing oysters, piping butters, picking through mesculin mix, peeling potatoes, onions. Whatever they wanted me to do." Then one day someone was sick so she got to go on the garde manger station. Six months later someone else was sick and she got bumped up to the hot line.
Lavallée is a firm believer in starting at the bottom. "You're not going to become a brain surgeon and do major surgery your first day or work." she says. "It's like with anything: You're not just going to be plunked down and be master, you've got to work at it."
As she continued to work her way up, Lavallée secured her first sous chef position with the Oliver & Bonacini Restaurants which runs a group of prestigious Toronto restaurants, like Canoe. "I was the first female executive sous chef that they ever hired," she says. The first three months at Biff's Bistro were a living hell.
"I'd go in at six in the morning and I'd be there until 10 at night, six days a week. It was expected of you. I remember these kids—well, a lot of them were my age, because I was around 25—and they were just like 'fuck you,' 'fuck you, I'm not doing this,' 'I can cook circles around you.' You've just got to step up and put your head down."
At 40, after 20 years with her head down, carving out her reputation and her Feisty Chef brand, Lavallée is seven months settled into The Canteen, a small sandwich shop in Dartmouth. The changing daily menu of sandwiches, salad and soup is thoughtful, full of seasonal freshness and compelling flavour. Huge, they all teeter, Jenga stacks of tender meat, crisp vegetables and an ever-present swipe of butter.
Her left and right hands are Jessica Best—"I call her my work wife," says Lavallée—and Elizabeth Lee. Best came from Raymonds Restaurant in Newfoundland. Lee used to work at Gio.
"Jess was here from day one helping me paint, picking out equipment," says Lavallée. "She wants to do more of the ordering and do more charcuterie and sausages. We're a real team."
The Feisty Chef brand doesn't matter to her much now that she has that team. She's more than the sum of that name: she's a business owner, a boss, a partner, a mentor and a cook. But, you know, Lavallée's still feisty. —MB