Among chef J-C Poirier's favourite childhood memories is the time he spent at his grandfather’s sugar shack.
The shack, Poirier recently recalled, was handmade in Quebec and became a gathering place for his massive family: “My father had seven sisters and three brothers.”
The building’s primary use was to transform maple sap into maple syrup; they heated the raw liquid to remove its water, leaving behind the more concentrated sweet solution.
“Watching my grandfather reducing that liquid over a wood fire was something very special,” Poirier shared with guests at St. Lawrence, his Michelin-starred restaurant at the edge of Railtown.
Those memories were the inspiration for the evening’s occasion—Cabane à Sucre—a dining experience that pays tribute to the rustic meals served at traditional Quebecois sugar shacks.
First conceived in 2020, Cabane à Sucre was launched as a long-table dinner series. This year’s iteration of the event featured both a communal dinner option (which ended in January), as well as a seven-course chef’s tasting menu, which guests can enjoy from now until early March.
The sugar shack is core to Quebecois culture, and in the winter months, a form of reprieve.
“In the winter, in the cold, it’s an escape. There are two escapes for the Quebecois people: Florida,” he joked, with a raised index finger. “That’s number one. You go to Miami, they’re all there. Second one, it’s the sugar shack that everyone looks forward to.”
But when Poirier moved to British Columbia in 2004, he learned that most people were unaware of the unique mix of influences, ambiance, and food that features in the feast.
“When I came to the West Coast 20 years ago now, talking to people, I realized that people had not experienced it. They have seen it, only maybe on TV, maybe they read about it,” he explained. “I said, ‘Let’s bring everyone together on a long table. Let’s recreate that atmosphere.’”
Guests to January’s long-table meals were treated to Poirier's take on a number of French-Canadian classics. Think: fried pork rinds with maple and Montreal steak spice (oreilles de crisse) and cocktail sausage with rosehip barbecue sauce (saucisse cocktail and bbq sauce à l’églantier). There was also the Quebec staple of yellow split pea soup (soupe aux pois). Poirier added foie gras, brioche, cretons, and mustard to it. Yes, it was delicious.
And for this meal, there was no need to wait until dessert for something sweet (though many sweet things eventually arrived). Key to a sugar shack meal is the practice of putting maple syrup on everything—everything!—including a cheese croquette and venison tourtière and charcoal-grilled duck and maple tart.
It all worked. Of course it did. As Poirier reminded guests: “The flavours are traditional, but you’re not in a brunch spot. You’re in a Michelin-starred restaurant.”
This fact was also made clear through the beverage pairings selected by St. Lawrence’s sommelier David Lawson. On this particular night, Lawson treated guests to a number of rare wines from France, Germany, and Quebec, along with beer and a cocktail. The pairings for those abstaining were equally robust.
Near the end of the meal, Poirier invited everyone in the restaurant to take a shot with him (we’ll avoid saying exactly what it was so as not to ruin the surprise).
“Hopefully it makes some room for the next course,” Poirier said in jest. “Does it work? I don’t know.”
He continued: “In French, we say, ‘sante.’ It means ‘to your health,’ because health is the most important thing in life. I don’t know if that dinner is going to help, but we live only once.”
When: To March 2
Where: St. Lawrence (269 Powell Street, Vancouver)
Price: $148 per person plus tax and gratuity