Poutine. It’s the great Canadian snack tradition. In our expansive city, you can enjoy it many different ways. Get it at your local diner in a chipped bowl, try it the Jamie Kennedy way with beef brisket and cheddar cheese at Gilead Cafe, or enjoy it with lobster (and a classic bearnaise sauce) at Bymark. In any given establishment, poutine wears many hats. It’s an appetizer, an entree, and in others, a tongue-in-cheek shout out to a Canadian culinary tradition. However, in a sunny little storefront on Queen Street West, just a block east of The Drake Hotel, poutine is the bottom line.
In 2008, the Laliberte brothers opened the doors to Poutini’s – a little eatery with only one thing on the menu. “It was just the one size and just our poutine – fries, cheese curds and we had the beef gravy and vegetarian gravy and that was it,” Nick Laliberte told OurFaves recently. Since then, the retro-cool House of Poutini’s with its old, dented wood floors, exposed brick walls and painted tin ceiling, has been the birthplace of three new variations on the Quebec treat: It’s been the birthplace of three new variations on the Quebec treat: the pulled pork, the “Pou-ti-gly” (poutine avec bacon), and The Works (poutine topped with sour cream, bacon and chives). We sat down with Laliberte and four bowls of poutine recently to get the lowdown on the best way to enjoy poutine, why lineups sometimes extend out the door on Friday and Saturday nights, and whether it’s possible to get sick of poutine.
So how’d it all start?
I went to school with my older brother and we worked in hospitality a lot together. There’s this place in Ottawa we always used to go to for smoked meat sandwiches. They had a big menu, but we only went their for a smoked meat sandwich. And somehow, in school, it came to this idea of, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do a place that’s poutine-only?’ That way, all our energies are put into making a really good poutine.
Two years ago, we found this spot with its hardwood floors and beautiful ceiling. We thought this would be perfect for the idea we had for poutine.
Was poutine always your passion?
I’d say my brother was more into it. But we did a lot of experiments and had fun making poutine and I liked what we were doing because we were making a classic French stock for our gravy. Ours tasted so much different. I liked it compared to a lot of the ones I’ve had. It wasn’t always a passion but it came to be one.
Do you guys have a food background?
My brother does. He’s the one that went to culinary school. I went to business school.
How did you come up with the recipes for the poutine here?
The recipe was Fred’s brainchild. Basically, his thought was he wanted to make it completely from scratch and just use the best possible ingredients. So with the fries, we knew we had to get good quality russet potatoes and then twice blanch them, do them the Belgian style so they get real good and crispy. We never wanted to use frozen fries. We knew for sure, for sure that we had to cut them ourselves. Then with the gravy, Fred always just said he was going to make an amazing classic French stock except we tweaked it a little bit and added more onion flavour and stuff like that. We roast the bones, roast the onions, roast the carrots, roast the leeks, and throw that all in together.
And we thicken our gravy with roux which is basically like fudge. Roux is butter and flour cooked together over high heat. And we just tweaked our own seasonings and it came together that way. For the cheese curd…we always stopped in at this little place called Maple Dale Cheese which is just outside of Tweed. It was on our way home. I went to Wilfred Laurier. They always had the fresh cheese curds on the counter that you just pick up in a little bag and it squeaks in your mouth when you eat them.
Do you remember the first time you had poutine?
It’s not a clear memory, but I’d say my earliest memory was at the chalet in Mont Tremblant.
How did it taste?
I remember thinking it was too decadent. I’ve never been one for rich food. For me, it was always too much cheese, but I’ve grown to like it. I loved the concept of poutine.
How many poutines do you have in a week?
It’s hard to say. I always try the gravy. I’m always tasting, sampling it. I probably have little bits of really teeny weeny ones.
So you don’t have it for lunch everyday.
No. But if I’m hungry, a lot of times I’ll have our vegan poutine because it’s a little healthier. I was vegan for 40 days once and I actually enjoyed it. Since then, I still enjoy eating vegan foods.
What’s the most popular poutine?
Our traditional poutine with beef gravy. Our pulled pork is very popular too. We roast it bone-in and pull the pork off the bone and we make our own barbecue sauce as well.
How is the best way to enjoy a poutine?
I like grabbing a poutine and walking with it. Walking and eating a warm bowl of poutine, because it’s got that hearty soup stew, I’d say anytime like that is the best time.
Do you ever get tired of poutine?
No. I’m surprised I haven’t. Same with the staff here – they eat it all the time. I always thought, let them really gorge on it the fist week and they’ll probably not have as much, but they always do.
What days are the most busy?
Definitely Saturdays are the busiest. We’re open until 3:30 am, so we experience the whole after-bar rush.
Have you ever done that shift?
Many, many times.
Do you have any interesting stories from those nights?
Once, I saw a crowd building up out front doing all sorts of clapping and cheering. I squeezed through and saw that there were BMX bikers and skateboarders doing competitions jumping over our sign. All of a sudden, I saw this biker coming really fast and everyone cleared away and he was about to jump over the sign and I was like, ‘No! Don’t!’ And then I was like, ‘Oh, I hope he makes.’ But they were doing that for a little while.
Did they make it over? It’s not short.
Yeah, they did. It was actually pretty impressive.
What’s the secret to killer poutine?
It’s maintaining the quality and being there to try it and taste. It’s amazing that there’s a lot of things that can go wrong with poutine. Potatoes are so finnicky. They’re always changing with the seasons. A lot of times, it can happen that the sugar content is too high in them and they fry up black or they wont’ fry up crispy so you always have to be on the ball with that. And our blanching times vary depending on the potato.
Why do you think people are so drawn to poutine?
Poutine has always had its sub-culture following. If you look up poutine, there’s so many fan sites and things like that. It’s just always been so ridiculously decadent that it’s like, ‘Come on.’
What are you most proud of?
I’m just proud that I did this. It was a really amazing ridiculous struggle. When I started, I just turned 24 and it was just a big feat. My brother and I didn’t have much outside investment or help, so we really maxed ourselves out to the fullest. And the first year, we were working all the time. We didn’t even have staff in the beginning. It was just myself, my brother and his wife and then some friends would come and help.
I’m proud of how long I went working 15 and 20 hour days sometimes consistently. I learned so much. No school can teach you like opening your own business can.
What’s the story behind your utensils and bowls?
We’re very proud that everything here is biodgradable. The cups are made of sugar cane extract, so they’re 100% biodegradable. Our forks are 100% biodegradable. It’s like a plastic enzyme, so it can all go in the green bin. The only thing that goes in the garbage is sometime the food packaging we get. And we have cans and water bottles.
Everything is Ontario local. From the beef bones we use to the vegetables we use. We pick a lot of it up at the food terminal ourselves.
Interview and photographs by Maria Cootauco