Articles

Got two hours for dinner?

Told Canada had the best food in the world and the worst cooks, two Belgians emigrated to Quebec City to open a restaurant that now lures epicures from Calgary to Key West

DOUGLAS DACRE September 1 1952
Articles

Got two hours for dinner?

Told Canada had the best food in the world and the worst cooks, two Belgians emigrated to Quebec City to open a restaurant that now lures epicures from Calgary to Key West

DOUGLAS DACRE September 1 1952

Got two hours for dinner?

Articles

Told Canada had the best food in the world and the worst cooks, two Belgians emigrated to Quebec City to open a restaurant that now lures epicures from Calgary to Key West

DOUGLAS DACRE

WHEN they opened a curious little restaurant called Le Bastogne in Quebec City more than twelve months ago two Belgian immigrants—Fernand Henderson and Louis de Locht— seemed to be heading for financial disaster.

They cooked their first meals elaborately on a decrepit old family-size stove, served them with a ritzy flourish on rickety bridge tables and charged an average of three dollars a head.

Their establishment was buried deep down an unfrequented street far from shopping crowds and tortuous to reach by car. Because of Quebec City’s short tourist season and long lean winter they were

challenging one of the highest restaurant casualty rates in the country. Arrayed in competition against them were scores of eating houses which glittered expensively with stainless-steel fittings, padded leather furniture and fluorescent lighting. And, quite obviously, Henderson and De Locht were operating on a shoestring.

Today Le Bastogne is still unknown to the average Quebecer. Out of five taxi drivers questioned recently only two had heard of it. Yet, to a discriminating few, Le Bastogne is famous. Its cooking, atmosphere and service have become the rave of discerning gourmets from New York to

Vancouver and from Toronto to Key West, Fla.

Between them Henderson and De Locht have produced what the Parisian singer Amy Flore described on the back of her menu as the “most perfect French atmosphere and cooking in North America.”

Last summer Maurice Chevalier, the ageing French singer, traveled especially from Montreal to Quebec City to eat a second meal at Le Bastogne. He wrote on the back of his menu, “This place deserves the friendship of all French Canada.”

Les Compagnons de la Chanson, a French vocal group who came to this country on tour with

Edith Piaf and now make frequent appearances in Quebec province night spots, often return to Le Bastogne.

Hugues Lapointe, Minister of Veterans Affairs, and Charles G. (Chubby) Power, wartime Minister of National Defense, are two of several Canadian statesmen who have dined there more than once.

Roger Lemelin, the Quebec City novelist, drools when he talks of meals Henderson has cooked for

But celebrated Quebec lawyers and scholars really gave Le Bastogne its reputation. Jurists like Antoine Rivard, Solicitor-General of the Duplessis Government, and Noel Dorion, Fortier Taschereau and Guy Roberge have been staunch patrons since the opening and have talked so much about its cooking in the legal profession that it is not uncommon to see three judges dining there at the same time. Msgr. A. M. Parent and Prof. Charles de Köninck of Laval University have spread its name through their own calling. Le Bastogne, roughly speaking, belongs to the law, to learning and to the arts.

Canadian and American tourists have also carried the news far and wide. Henderson and De Locht have received letters asking for recipes from nearly every big Canadian city and from many cities south of the border. Typical of these was a recent letter from Benjamin J. Garfunkel, a New York attorney: “Your grillade entrecôte poêle et salade was the finest dish I have ever eaten anywhere.”

The policy of the two temperamental restaurateurs is to serve the best food and wine obtainable, to cater only to the most fastidious palates, to cultivate a clientele which likes to spend at least two hours over a meal, and to freeze out with icy politeness the hot-dog and hamburger hounds. Determined to keep Le Bastogne exclusive to epicures they eschew all forms of publicity and advertising and rely for ninety percent of their new custom on personal recommendation.

When they opened in May, 1951, Henderson and De Locht did all the cooking and waiting themselves and their wives did the dishwashing and bookkeeping. Now they employ a Hungarian, a Belgian and a Canadien as assistant chefs and a Swiss and a Frenchman as assistant waiters.

On their first day they served seven meals between noon and midnight and they hadn’t enough money to meet their first mortgage payment. Three weeks later, as the tourist season burgeoned, they were serving one hundred and fifty meals a day. Last winter, when many small Quebec City restaurants shut down for the off season, Le Bastogne

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Two Hours for Dinner

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served fifty meals a day to local steadies and visitors on business. Early this year Henderson and De Locht both bought late-model cars.

Henderson, the chef, prepares all the main dishes himself as they are ordered —his three assistants, working shifts, prepare the vegetables, desserts and soups. For twenty-six years before coming to Canada he worked in the best kitchens of Brussels and was once engaged as personal chef to ex-King Michael of Rumania who, though young, is no chawbacon.

With De Locht as his maître d’hôtel he came to Canada after being told by a Torontonian on vacation in Belgium: “God gave my country the finest food in the world and the devil sent her the worst cooks.”

Two months before they opened they bought, with less than five thousand dollars joint capital, the early nineteenth-century house in which Calixa Lavallée is reputed to have composed the music of 0 Canada. It stands on a comer of the narrow twisting Rue Couillard in the quaint Quartier T _arin where students of Laval University bum the midnight oil. Like its neighbors it still functions in part as a rooming house; unlike the neighbors its dining room is now the Elysium of a select circle of gastronomes.

By some witchcraft they have imparted to this old-fashioned room a subtle mellow mood which is conducive to lingering three hours or so over a bottle of wine and such dishes as bouchée à la reine, filets de sole Dugléré, rognons de veau flambés, homard armoricaine, poularde à l’estragon and crêpes normande.

With their last six hundred dollars Henderson and De Locht lined the walls two thirds of the way up with dovetailed pine planks crudely varnished to resemble a Flemish kitchen, laid coconut matting on the floor and installed nine cheap tables and thirtysix cheap chairs.

They brought from Belgium several big packing cases full of European antiques and decked a high chintzfringed shelf, which runs round the room, with old jugs, mugs and basins. Two big built-in china cupboards display a fine selection of fat delftware. A large red-brick chimney place shelters a two-hundred-year-old Bruges spinning wheel, a roasting spit, a pair of brassbound bellows and a gleaming bedwarmer. Light shines from two chandeliers fashioned by the proprietors out of crisscrossed lengths of two-by-four stained to a tawny brown and surmounted by electric candles under tiny pink shades. A large centre table loaded with wines, fruits and pâtisseries dominates the room.

In fact Le Bastogne might have been shipped whole from the Left Bank of the Seine in Paris or one of those crooked little alleys off La Grande Place in Brussels. It is clean but avoids that aseptic aspect which gives patrons of many Canadian restaurants a sense of eating in a laboratory.

Nothing distinguishes the exterior from adjacent houses except a modest sign, Le Bastogne, in the smallest of pink neon script. The windows are shuttered in winter and shaded in summer to discourage the uncultivated casual custom which, Henderson and De Locht say, would ruin them.

They love the man who wants a small hot bird and a big cold bottle of Bordeaux and loathe the man who asks for a banquetburger and a beer. Indeed they flatly refuse to sell beer. They are probably the only restaurateurs in Canada who hate to see their place

full They prefer it half-full because this gives diners a feeling of relaxed privacy while enveloped in an environment of quiet conviviality.

One night last fall so many friends of gourmets who had lauded Le Bastogne turned up at the same time that a line-up formed in the lobby. Henderson and De Locht were worried because they felt this would hurry guests already seated. One man in the queue, observing their anxiety, led the others up a staircase and round a comer where all sat on steps awaiting their turn discreetly out of sight. The last to be served were a couple who waited two hours. When they were lea Ling shortly after eleven the man said, “We’d have waited till midnight if necessary.” Henderson bowed and replied, “And to serve you, monsieur, I would have kept open till dawn.”

Thirty-five-year-old Henderson, the spark plug of Le Bastogne, had a Scottish great-great-grandfather who settled in Brussels after the Battle of Waterloo. He is slight, thin-faced, sensitive and mercurial. Although he works in the kitchen he is seen almost as much by the diners as De Locht, who concentrates on the dining room. Wearing his tall cheFs hat, white jacket and apron and blue-checked cotton pants, Henderson ballet dances in from the kitchen to watch his guests take their first few bites of the delicacies he has prepared for them. While awaiting their verdict he stands palms upraised, eyes lifted appealingly to heaven, a figure taut in an immense suspense. On hearing the first grunt of pleasure from the table he vents a sharp ejaculation of triumph and skips back to his pots and pans.

On the wall is a certificate of Henderson’s membership in the Club Vatel, an international order of chefs to which only supreme artists of the skillet and egg whisks are admitted. It was named after François Vatel, chef to Louis Quatorze, who in 1671, at Chantilly, just outside Paris, plunged a kitchen knife into his heart when he heard the lobster had not arrived in time for his turbot sauce.

“Fernand would not go so far himself,” says De Locht. “Büt if something like that happened'to him he would be sick and melancholy for at least «

De Locht, who is also thirty-five, is tall, cadaverous and tight-lipped, « slender Fleming in black tie and tails, a sombre raven of a man with dark plastered hair, big sad eyes, deep slow speech and that sort of sidewise stoop developed through years of attentive listening to gourmets picking titbits from the à la carte.

Henderson and De Locht specialize in beefsteak, veal, lamb chops, chicken, lobster, salmon and sole. They serve only apéritifs like Dubonnet, Cinzano and Byrrh. table wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace and Lorraine, champagne from Rheims and spirits from Cognac.

Their beef is limited entirely to the entrecôte, or undercut steak, a succulent part of the T-bone which has to be butchered especially for them European-style and sometimes runs them as high as two-fifty a pound. Henderson won't look at beef unless it has been hung for three weeks to a month. He draws the tip of his little finger along the lean of the meat, licks it lightly and tells his butcher to a day how long to hang it.

About chickens Henderson is so finicky he almost drives the butcher crazy. They must be within a few ounces of four pounds and between twelve and thirteen weeks old. Since the cost of these fluctuates violently according to supply, chicken dishes, like lobster dishes, are marked on the

menu selon la grandeur, which means that the client must pay according to size and the price of the day.

Canadian veal is Henderson’s most nagging worry. “It is good,” he says, “but not very beautiful.” By this he means it is too pink. The eye plays almost as great a part as the taste buds in the savoring of fine cooking and Henderson never serves veal flesh unless he can get snow-white pieces. When white veal is unobtainable he offers only the sweetbreads and kidneys.

Good sole should be grilled on the bone but Henderson finds Canadian sole too coarse for this treatment. So usually he serves only fried fillets. But if one of his fish-loving clients does not count the cost he will buy whole fresh Dover soles flown from England and serve Dover sole Colbert, a lightly grilled fish topped with parsley butter.

Canadian lobsters and salmon Henderson finds magnifique'.

Like all first-rate chefs he bases his sauces on thick cream, butter, eggs or

His coffee is imported from Holland through an agent in Montreal and invariably served as café filtre. A sterling-silver container with holes in its base is placed on top of the cup. Finely ground coffee, measuring one third of a cupful, is then poured into the container. Pressed down on top of this is a disc, also full of holes, which fits the container exactly. Boiling water is then poured on the coffee as it lies sandwiched between the disc and the bottom of the container. It takes several minutes for the water to filter through the coffee and when it arrives it is “black as night, sweet as sin and hot as the hobs of hell,” as good coffee should be.

Recently Le Bastogne received a wire from Walter S. Hillyard, president of the Hillyard Chemical Co., of St. Joseph, Mo. He evidently remembered the coffee because he said: “Send two filters collect quick.” Henderson and De Locht couldn’t oblige him. They have only enough silver filters brought from Belgium for their own needs and have not seen any store yet where they can buy more.

The Wine Is Labelled

Le Bastogne’s patrons consider good dishes inseparable from good wane. For an evening meal they each pay an average of three dollars and a half for food and two-fifty for wine. Henderson and De Locht, however, run a singlechoice lunch consisting of soup, a meat dish and dessert, for a dollar. A customer often takes a glass of light wine from a bottle bought previously and kept in the cellar with his name tag on it.

Early this year three roistering soldiers, stumbling through the tranquil dark of the Rue Couillard in search of a sandwich and half a dozen beers apiece, chanced upon Le Bastogne. At that hour in the evening the restaurant was redolent with toothsome meats, ambrosial with the wines of France, and heady with the gallantries of Frenchspeaking squires toward their wives and sweethearts.

The soldiers seemed to sense they were far from their own milieu and began slapping each others’ backs and tossing off loud nervous comments. The diners lowered their eyes.

De Locht handed them the menu, which at once had a spectacular effect on their demeanor. The soldiers glanced furtively at one another as they read, Toast aux champignons: 75 cents;

omelette confiture: $1.50; entrecôte chasseur: $2.50; homard armoricaine: selon la grandeur, and so on. A strained silence set in.

A few seconds later the soldiers saw

Henderson caper into the dining room with a spirit burner, a skillet and two matches clenched between his teeth. Hard on his heels at a sort of crablike double came De Locht carrying a plate of pancakes and a bottle of brandy. Gamboling in their wake was the dreamy-eyed Swiss waiter who held aloft a sugar duster and a bowl of butter which had been whipped up with shredded orange peel.

The soldiers watched Henderson draw a side table up to the table occupied by a couple across the room. On this he placed the burner and on the burner the skillet. Into the skillet the Swiss dropped a big pat of orange butter. De Locht folded each of the four pancakes into a neat triangle and dropped them into the creamy, tangy, frothing golden liquid. The Swiss then poured a thick stream of brown demerara sugar over each pancake and Henderson shook the skillet a little with his deft wrist.

Now Henderson, De Locht and the Swiss were bent over the pan like the Witches of Macbeth over their brew, making many movements and exchanging kitchen implements with a drill precision the soldiers must have found awe-inspiring, for they were by this time speechless and pop-eyed.

De Locht grunted and poured a good slug of brandy into the pan. With a flourish Henderson removed a match from his mouth and applied the flame. The soldiers started as an iridescent sky-blue fire leapt eighteen inches high from the frizzling morsels of egg, flour and cream. With cavalier abandon the Swiss then plunged his hands into this aromatic conflagration and turned the pancakes over. De Locht whipped the four blazing pieces onto the plates of the diners and bowed. “Crêpes

Suzette!” cried the Swiss.

Apparently exhausted, Henderson stood back, head bowed, hands over his eyes, hardly daring to look on the clients as they took their first bite. They looked up beaming and said in French, “Excellent!” Henderson tripped back to the kitchen humming a little French song. The Swiss followed, looking as if he had just taken Communion. Sadly De Locht turned to take the soldiers’ order.

But they were already on their way out. “I think,” said one, “we kinda made a mistake.” De laicht brushed them down. Henderson came out and bade them an apologetic farewell.

A few minutes later one of the soldiers came back. This time he knocked timidly at the door. De Locht bowed as he opened it. “How much,” said the soldier wistfully, “how much is that pancake stuff-?” De Locht replied gravely, “One dollar-fifty a head.” The soldier said, “Thanks! Sometime I'll have one."

‘"I shall be glad to serve him," says Henderson. "We are not snobs here. But we are specialists. Canada is full of restaurants for people who eat to live or live to eat. We want only those who appreciate the higher arts of cooking and eating.”

Since its opening I,e Bastogne has hidden itself so effectively that only three groups of unwanted people have arrived.

"They all left without ordering,” savs Henderson. "The menu and the atmosphere was enough for them." Rising for a spot of pantomime he adds: “If we said ‘go awayto people who can see we have empty tables they would get very angry. But if we look at them like this . . .” and here his eyes glint with a chilling light of mingled astonishment, superciliousness and pity. “. . they apologize for troubling us and run away.”

Le Bastogne’s regular customers are far from being fat or rich old gluttons.

Six pretty Quebec City working girls often dine there and split a pint of claret between them. A young Dutch immigrant takes the one-dollar lunch occasionally and a glass of claret from his own bottle. Young civil servants from the provincial government building are not uncommon customers. A few traveling salesmen are beginning to patronize the place steadily.

Last summer a young, bluff, heavily built and well-dressed extrovert ate I twice a day with gusto at Le Bastogne for eight days. When his vacation was over he said, “You’ll be hearing from me. I come from Springfield, Mass.” For the next six weeks Le Bastogne was inundated by casuals from Springfield, many of whom could not be accommodated. They told the curious Henderson and De Locht that they had heard their local disc jockey say it was the best place he’d ever eaten on this side of the Atlantic.

The speciality of Le Bastogne is homard armoricaine—lobster cooked in flaming brandy before the guest and served with a cream-and-Madeira-wine sauce on top of boiled rice.

Most people, says Henderson, roast chickens in too slow an oven. When he gets one of his ideal four-pounders he plunges it into an oven of six hundred ; degrees and roasts it for a maximum of thirty-five minutes. In poularde fine champagne, which gets the flaming ¡ brandy drill, it is roasted even more briefly.

He serves salmon only as darne de saumon—sauce Mousseline because to him there is no finer recipe. A big cut of salmon centre is boiled for twenty minutes in water, vinegar, a glass of Alsatian wine to which celery, carrots, onions, parsley and thyme have been added. Steaks are then cut and served with a sauce which consists of yolks of eggs beaten in butter, pepper, salt and lemon juice.

His richest sauce is archiduc which goes with veal cutlets or chicken. It consists of fresh cream, Madeira wine and butter choked with fresh asparagus tips and button mushrooms.

Henderson and De Locht start work at 9 a.m. and finish at midnight seven days a week. When Henderson’s three assistant chefs approach his own high standards he will open a second dining room on an upper floor—until then his business depends one hundred percent upon his personal touch.

Mrs. Henderson and Mrs. De Locht, who each have one son, still help in the kitchen, though now they employ a number of women to wash floors and dishes, bringing the total staff to sixteen. The two families live in rooms above the restaurant and let other rooms in the four-story house to students and couples.

Henderson learned most of his j culinaryart in Brussels. De Locht picked up his maim? d'hôtel wrinkles in Antwerp.

At fourteen Henderson was persuaded by a friend to become a kitchen boy in the Trianon Restaurant. Liege, Belgium. Soon afterward he moved to the Hotel Cecil in Brussels.

His first job was washing tables. Six months afterward the vegetable chef, then an omnipotent and terrifying figure to Henderson, patted him on the back and said he would be allowed to peel potatoes for the next twelve months.

The memorable day came when he progressed from peeling potatoes to cleaning fish. When he was eighteen he was summoned by the chief chef and told he would be promoted to frying potatoes in the rôtisserie. i Belgium is the most famous country in the world for fried potatoes and Henderson wept with pride at the trust that had been placed in him. “Your

true gourmet,” said the chief chef, “will first try your fried potatoes and if these are not done to perfection the rest of the dish will be like sawdust in his mouth and we shall never see him^ again and all the years of work of the great chefs above you will be brought to nothing. Do you see how important you will be? Every chip of potato you fry is a bridge to a greater work in which you might one day share. Go now, my son. and le bon dieu be with

For six months Henderson watched another man fry potatoes. He learned how to get a fluffy inside and a golden crisp balloon of a skin by dipping the chips into fat and lifting them out again at frequent intervals, intervals which vary according to the type of potato used, the soil in which it has been grown, and the age at which it meets its end.

For two years he did nothing but fry potatoes and he says. “In all that time I never ceased to learn how to fry them

When he was twenty he moved to entremets and made pâtisseries, sabayon and macédoine aux fruits, and there came one golden night when he was called to carry the sugar duster into the dining room and stand as an acolyte to the maître d'hôtel himself at the high altar of erépc Sujette.

The years went by and he climbed laboriously to sauces, then from fish flesh to fowl, and finally to those great peaks of achievement where meat off the cloven hoof is readied for smacking lips and watering mouths.

He found himself in a clique of chefs who worked as a team, moving from the Cecil to the Metropole, to the Hotel Taverne Royale, and back to the Metropole again.

When Brussels was overrun by Germans he fled to Antwerp but too late to escape to England. To live he took a job as a waiter in the Antwerp CountryClub—“Because.” he says, "chefs do not get tips.” Here he met De Locht. They spent the war years listening to the conversations of German officers and passing on the information to the local underground. During the liberation theymet many Canadien soldiers and began to wonder about their chances in this country.

After the war Henderson went back to the Metropole in Brussels and started cooking dishes fit for a king. Ex-King Michael of Rumania sampled one of these and hired him as personal chef throughout a seven-week visit.

After hearing the vacationing To-

ronto gourmet complain about Canadian cooking Henderson was convinced there were bigger opportunities for independent work in Canada. De Locht agreed with him. On the advice of Canadian immigration officials, who knew they couldn’t'speak much English, they headed for Quebec City.

Encouraged and helped by Professor de Köninck and his many friends they obtained a bank loan and a license. Then they bought No. 22 Rue Couillard and Le Bastogne came into being. Theychose this name because they figured that it would remind many Canadians and Americans of the Battle of the Bulge which was a trying time in their own lives.

“Many people laughed at us.” says De Locht, “including most of the big restaurateurs in Quebec City-. On May 19 when we had an unofficial opening we used two borrowed bridge tables and hadn’t enough moneyfor rugs. By May 26 we had proper tables and the coconut matting. So we had an official opening and invited people who had befriended us. Among those who dined at Le Bastogne that night were Msgr. Parent, M. and Mme. Noel Dorion and M. and Mme. de Köninck.”

With all their capital sunk into the house Henderson and De Locht had a few feverish weeks borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. But their reputation spread and one night they turned away sixtycustomers. A thousanddollar refrigerator and a fifteen-hundred-dollar restaurant range were soon added to their equipment. Today they are saving money.

Nothing interferes with Henderson's devotion to cooking in the kitchen and De Locht ’s reverence for peaceful mastication in the dining room. To the one. cooking is a noble science and to the other, eating is esoteric ceremony.

One night some months ago clients at Le Bastogne heard the wail of sirens and soon afterward much shouting, clattering and hissing in the kitchen.

Impassively De Locht removed the apéritif glasses from a customer’s table, popped open a tall cool bottle of fragrant Alsatian wine. Henderson floated into the dining room bearing on a great silver platter a sizzling nutbrown chicken garnished with asparagus. The Swiss stood by, readyto give his masters a deft hand here and there.

“What’s all the noise back there?” asked the customer.

“It is nothing of importance,” said Henderson. “It seems I set the kitchen on fire but les pompiers will soon put

it out." *