Ricardo set to cross the two foodie solitudes

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Chances are you’ve never heard of Ricardo, but, like Madonna, he’s so big he doesn’t need a last name. He’s popular enough in Quebec that he says he no longer goes to the mall, so that the tabloids won’t “remarry” him. He isn’t a singer or an actor, but a food personality. And if he has his way, Ricardo will soon be a household name around the world. For now, though, he’ll settle for English Canada.

Ricardo Larrivée was recently in town to promote his new English-language book, Weekend Cooking (Whitecap Books, $29.95), and the launch of his new Engish magazine, Ricardo. The Straight met him for breakfast on Granville Island, curious to find out if he does indeed have charisma to burn.

In black jeans, a blue cowboy shirt, and a long black pinstriped wool jacket, Ricardo has a style that immediately sets him apart from the market’s Gore-Tex crowd. He chooses a schnitzel burger for breakfast, explaining that the Asian noodle place was closed, and enthusiastically launches into his dream, which he jokes is to become the “Céline Dion of recipes”.

Not a trained chef, Ricardo studied hotel management in Montreal, then broadcasting in Ottawa. When a Radio-Canada job opened up in Saskatchewan, he “moved there with an old car and a pair of jeans and my Bay card”. To make friends, he invited colleagues over for dinner. His reputation as a good cook eventually landed him a food show on Radio-Canada. From there, he moved back to Quebec and on to TV and other radio food programs. The 2005 French edition of Weekend Cooking has sold over 60,000 copies, and his French-language magazine is entering its fifth year.

“Since day one the plan was to have it in English,” Ricardo says of the mag, explaining that Canada has great food and talented chefs but no national glossies devoted solely to food. “I would like if somebody goes on vacation somewhere, say Portugal, and they see the Ricardo magazine, and they feel proud. They say, ”˜Hey, this is Canadian.’?”

But before going global, he needs to conquer the two solitudes. “For me, the real test was, Is the rest of the country going to like it?”

Ricardo went national when Ricardo and Friends premiered this fall on the Food Network. In it, Ricardo visits local food producers in Quebec, then cooks for loved ones at home. These two themes—buy local and eat together—form the cornerstone of his culinary philosophy. Photos of his wife and three daughters pepper Weekend Cooking, and although many of his dishes—like Maple-Glazed Bok Choy—are fusion-influenced, recipes for Sugar Pie, Foie Gras Terrine, and Five-Spice Sweetbreads clearly have a French-Canadian flavour.

That’s not something Ricardo is about to change for the sake of national appeal. “I want to represent the part [of Canada] where I’m from,” he says. According to Ricardo, Quebeckers see food a bit differently. He cites a Kraft Foods study that found people from Quebec devote 12 minutes more per meal to cooking than those in the rest of Canada. “I think it’s the French tradition,” he notes.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean complicated meals. “For me, it’s more important to be together than what you eat”¦I prefer a family that would eat Kraft Dinner together than a huge meal separately.”

Although he feels confident, Ricardo says crossing the cultural divide is frightening. “It’s like being in love,” he says, explaining that you put yourself out there at great risk of rejection. “If the rest of the country wouldn’t like it [the magazine], it would be very hard, because it’s not a product, it’s me,” he says. “I am hoping that people will say, ”˜He’s a bit who I am also, with a difference—he has an accent. But the hard core of who he is is a bit like every family.’?”

Strolling through Granville Island, we pass the soup vats at the Stock Market. Owners Georges and Joanne Lefebvre excitedly call Ricardo’s name and strike up an animated conversation in French. (The couple hails from Quebec.) Ricardo is thrilled, and tells me this is the first time he’s been recognized in Vancouver.

Georges says that even though he doesn’t pay much attention to food programs or television, he knows Ricardo. “He’s everywhere,” Georges says. “You open French television in Quebec and you stumble on him. He’s either on his own show or invited on some other talk shows.

“He has a nice energy,” Georges adds. “In French, anyways, he has a very sweet kind of attitude.”¦He’s really not frightening in terms of ”˜You have to do this that way or you’ll never be good.’”

As we talk, Ricardo is recognized once again. Parise Siegel, owner of Siegel’s Bagels, tells him she loves his Food Network show, of which she’s seen just one episode. Does she think Ricardo will do well in English Canada? “Absolutely,” she replies. Why? She mulls it over, and then says, “I like the concept of the show.” She searches for more, and then laughs. “Well, I always like a French accent.”