The upper echelon of Montreal restaurants has remained more or less unchanged for the last decade. For a restaurant to break through and find its place alongside the likes of Toqué! and Au Pied de Cochon, the chef must be utterly fantastic, in terms of both creativity and technique. Countless ambitious young chefs have climbed the ranks over the years, sometimes making inroads yet more often not. But then there are the chefs who spring seemingly out of nowhere, and the next thing you know you’re dining at their table in awe of some serious talent. François Nadon is one such chef.
Bouillon Bilk is the name of the restaurant Nadon owns with his business partner and dining room manager, Mélanie Blanchette. From the outside, Bouillon Bilk gives you little sense of the food produced behind its doors. Located on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint-Laurent, the restaurant is an oasis of elegance on this bleak strip of the Main, better known for vintage clothing stores and camera shops. Its name has no significance whatsoever, having been chosen by the partners simply because it had a nice ring to it. With 95 seats, the dining room is all blacks, greys, and whites, a large central bar, and—a rarity on the restaurant scene these days—white tablecloths. All the colour comes via Nadon’s beautiful plate presentations, the hallmark of this chef’s style. At a time when so many chefs are paring down the fancy, Nadon is making diners “ooh” and “ahh” every time a new dish hits the table.
A recent meal at Bouillon Bilk began with a duck tartare appetizer, in which the meat was enhanced with coffee mayonnaise, sliced dates, pickled sunchoke, radicchio Treviso, puffed kamut grains, and chopped hazelnuts. Overtop came a shower of grated curls of raw foie gras. This dish had it all: diverse textures—soft, creamy, chewy, sticky, crunchy—and flavours galore that ranged from the sweet raw duck and dates, to the bitter coffee and radicchio Treviso, to the earthy sunchokes and grains. And the buttery foie gras added yet another layer of lushness and richness. It’s a dish that grabs you from the first bite of meat to the final sensation of melting foie.
In complete contrast is one of Nadon’s signature plates, made with hamachi crudo (raw slices of yellowtail tuna) with grapefruit supreme, fennel, cucumber, grapefruit gel, and yuzukoshō dressing, the whole garnished with rice chips. Served with a bracing Vinho Verde, this pink-and-green mélange was all about moist mouthfuls and acidic and bitter flavours, followed by the crunch of those delicate chips. Without ever falling into the dreaded category of precious or twee, Nadon’s cooking manages to be both pretty and intriguing. It’s also deeply delicious. Look no further than his dessert consisting of warm rice pudding, pecan nougatine, clementines, juniper Chantilly cream, and clementine sorbet to find a chef who understands how to both wow and please the customer.
Nadon is identified on the Montreal cooking scene as a chef who produces some of its most exquisite food.
“My cooking is contemporary North American with Asian influences,” says Nadon, seated in the middle of his restaurant as customers begin streaming in for the lunch service. “I like to use fruit in my plates, and nuts, as well as a mix of sweet and sour flavours and a touch of acidity. But I don’t even like to categorize my cooking or put labels on what I do.”
That said, Nadon is identified on the Montreal cooking scene as the chef who produces some of its most exquisite food. Yet this 38-year-old Quebecer has never apprenticed under world-famous chefs nor participated in international competitions. And though his presence on the scene is formidable, he most definitely operates under the radar. “I started being interested in food at about the age of 14,” he says. “I used to watch [Quebec City chef] Daniel Vézina on TV and also Wok With Yan. What appealed to me was the work ethic.”
By age 18, Nadon had attended cooking school at Centre Relais de la Lièvre-Seigneurie in Buckingham, followed by a post at Le Tartuffe in Hull when Gatineau was the destination for Ottawa gourmets and government bigwigs. In his twenties he headed to Montreal, working first at Le Club des Pins and then at the restaurant that would shape his style, the late, great Brontë. “No doubt, working at Brontë had the biggest impact on my cooking,” says Nadon. “The chef-owner, Joe Mercuri, was the creator, and his cousin Mike Mercuri [chef at Montreal’s Le Serpent today], who worked with us, was so clean and organized. I was there for five years.”
Joe, now chef at Mercuri Montreal, is a master of plate presentations. Renowned for his scattered—as opposed to stacked—style as well as having a great eye for colour and movement, Mercuri remembers interviewing Nadon for a post in his kitchen. “François was quiet in the interview, but in the kitchen he came to life. He was wow… spectacular! I just loved watching him. Whatever I threw at him he could do, and everything would be perfect. He’s a natural. I knew he’d be a great chef, and I would tell him that every day.”
Before Brontë closed in 2010, Nadon followed Mike Mercuri to Montreal’s posh Hôtel Le St-James. But after six months, he was desperate for a change of scenery. “I was working 70 hours a week at that point,” says Nadon. “I didn’t move enough. I didn’t travel enough. And I was working a lot more than I was learning. I needed to relax, so I took four months off and went backpacking in Asia. It was extremely beneficial.” It’s also where he picked up some of the Asian influences in his cooking. “I found the Thai food repetitive after a while and the Filipino food disappointing despite the extreme beauty of that country. Maybe I didn’t get a chance to taste their best. But in Malaysia, I was inspired by the Malay cuisine, with its wide range of influences from China to India with curries, noodles, and all kinds of fresh ingredients.”
At a time when so many chefs are paring down the fancy, Nadon is making diners “ooh” and “ahh” every time a new dish hits the table.
Back in Montreal, Nadon worked alongside friends in a few places before landing at one of the city’s iconic restaurants, Globe. Closed in 2014, it was known for 20 years as one of the city’s party-hearty restaurants, where seafood platters rose sky-high and revellers, especially during Grand Prix weekend, were plentiful. Globe was also a social restaurant where former chefs were known to work the often celeb-filled room. Nadon didn’t follow suit. Says the chef: “I’m not shy, but I’m not going to pull up a chair and start talking with the customers. People tell me I have to start putting myself out there, but being in the dining room… Well, that’s not for me.”
In 2011, a mutual friend introduced Nadon to Blanchette, who at the time was working at the popular Montreal bistro Leméac. Together they opened the original 55-seat Bouillon Bilk. “After the first three months, it wasn’t great,” says Nadon. “I’d look out and see the dining room was empty. But then the critics came in, and things started to pick up.” Three years later the restaurant expanded, close to doubling in size, as did the endlessly appealing wine list compiled by sommelier Nicolas Charron Boucher. Says Nadon, “Using local products is not necessarily a priority, organics either. And the wine list isn’t strictly all-natural wines. Our goal is simply to serve refined food in an unpretentious setting—even if there are white tablecloths.”
Nadon makes it sound like he prefers the relaxed route, but his kitchen staff number between 20 and 22 cooks and his cooking has never been so intricate. Yet his self-effacing character goes against so much of what professional cooking seems to be about today. But Nadon is fully aware of his strengths. “I’m fast, productive, and hard-working,” he says, “and right now I’m focused on developing my staff. I send young cooks on stage so they can bring back information to share with all of us. We’re open to everyone’s ideas.”
Family life for Nadon revolves around his two small children, Nora (4) and Éloi (2), and the woman this busy chef refers to as his “very understanding wife,” Gabrielle Rioux. Future plans include opening a wine bar with Blanchette later this spring a few doors down from Bouillon Bilk that will be called Cadet, a nod to the locale’s former incarnation as an army surplus store.
Nadon says he’s busy, constantly asking himself questions and slowly pulling away from cooking and moving into management. “Fine dining is a great school for structure and rigidity,” he says. “I’m getting older, though, and less fanatic. But I still take pleasure in refining all the little details.”
Bouillon Bilk, 1595 boulevard Saint-Laurent, Montreal, Canada H2X 2S9, 514-845-1595.
More food for thought in our Chef’s Table section.
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