Montreal Highlights Festival Gives Foodies Access to Big-Name Talent

During Montreal’s annual Highlights Festival dozens of chefs from around the world descend upon the city to dazzle local foodies with their culinary skills—and give aspiring chefs access to flavours they could previously only read about


Walk into Pullman’s restaurant and wine bar on Park Avenue in downtown Montreal and the first thing you’ll notice is the massive chandelier which is made, fittingly, of dozens of wine glasses. As my dinner date, local chef Joanna Notkin, and I settle into bar stools beneath it, she sighs. “I love it here,” she says. “It’s like the ultimate wine bar. It’s not too stuffy but it’s good.”

Award-winning Chef Barbara Lynch Serves Up Five Courses

I’ll have to take her word for it. I’ve never tried the food here and I won’t have the chance tonight. Instead of their usual menu, Pullman’s is featuring a five-course meal from the James Beard Award-winning chef Barbara Lynch, who has left the seven restaurants she owns back in Boston (including her flagship eatery “No. 9 Park” which overlooks the Boston Common) in order to cook for hundreds of excited Montrealers.

The Montreal Highlights Festival

Lynch is in town as part of the Montreal Highlights Festival, an annual festival that celebrates performance and culinary arts that takes place every February. The next festival runs from February 16 to February 26, 2012.

One branch of the Highlights festival, the SAQ Wine and Dine Experience, aims to bring together chefs from Montreal and those from around the world.The 2011 theme is “Women in the Spotlight” and the 56 guest chefs include some of the best the world has to offer.

“When I heard it was an all-women Highlights festival, I freaked out,” says Joanna, who happily does her share to break gender bias in the kitchen.

At one of her first restaurant jobs (at Rodney’s Oyster Bar in Toronto), when she learned that most women shy away from the smelly and gruelling job of shucking oysters, she picked up a knife and got to work, pursuing the practice so relentlessly that in 2004, she took home first place at the Ontario Oyster Shucking Championship.

Chef Sharing and Wine Pairing

We’re shown to our table on the upper level of the stylish restaurant, and immediately brought a crémant de Bourgogne, which is one of Pullman’s private imports. All five of the wines we will be tasting have been chosen by the sommelier at Pullman to complement Lynch’s unique menu.

“The festival is about sharing between these chefs and the restaurants here,” Joanna explains. From past years, she can attest that although the party only last ten days, its effect keeps the Montreal restaurant scene energized for months.“The chefs leave and go home, but the excitement is still here. It’s like an alarm clock went off and everyone woke up.”

The first two courses of our dinner are delicious (a wild game parfait accompanied by baby vegetables and kale chips, then a delicate green garlic soup with chunks of grilled octopus) but the third stands out as the clear winner.

Lynch has paired weightless gnocchi with Dungeness crab, hazelnut, and stinging nettle.The combination is incredible and we eat in reverential silence, occasionally sipping our wine, a 2007 from Henri Milan in France, Le Grand Blanc, which complements the food beautifully.

The Secret is in the Sauce

As the dishes are cleared, the waitress asks if we’d like to see Barbara Lynch’s cookbook, STIR, which is on sale tonight. She may have seven restaurants but this is Lynch’s first cookbook and the quote from Tom Colicchio on the book jacket declares it to be “worth the wait.”

Joanna grabs it. “Apparently she has this Bolognese sauce that is just…” she rolls her eyes heaven-ward, communicating rapture. “I wonder what the secret is.” In no time, we locate the recipe and scan the ingredients list. “Chicken livers?!” Joanna exclaims.

Dessert—a combination of citrus, vanilla yogurt and coconut muesli—is light and elevated. Joanna is incredulous. “Somehow they’ve turned grapefruit sections into an insanely successful, luxurious desert.” She stares at the bowl, shaking her head. “I don’t know how they did that.”

Photos by Sarah Lolley

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