Meet the queen of confection

The former head pastry chef at Au Pied de Cochon sugar shack tells us what she’s got cooking.

Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller
Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller

For six and a half years, Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller was the head pastry chef at the bombastic sugar shack operated by Au Pied de Cochon, host to some of the best food and culinary experiences Quebec has to offer. I caught up with Rivard-Hiller to tap into her extensive background in farm to-table cuisine, and to ask what’s next.

J.P. Karwacki: So what are you working on now?
Gabrielle Rivard-Hiller: Right now I’m in the countryside, close to the sugar shack, but I’ll be back in Montreal soon. My family has land in Saint-Joseph-du-Lac that used to be an orchard and I want to transform it, add vegetables and fruit. We also have 1,000 maple trees, so my plan next year is to make my own syrup and incorporate that.

JPK: Tell me about your history in cooking.
GRH: I come from a family that cooks a lot. My mother always made desserts and my father has a sweet tooth. I started to make desserts at home when I was 12, and moved on to ITHQ in 2004. I was making pastry for country clubs, and afterwards I worked at [Montreal’s] Globe and then finally the sugar shack with shifts at Toqué! now and then. That was a bit crazy, when I’d work at both restaurants.

JPK: What’s one of the craziest stories you have from service?
GRH: There’s so many stories. The shack is out in the countryside, so it’s not connected to the main services. We run out of gas, electricity, water. One time we had a tornado
close to the sugar shack that destroyed a third of the forest behind us.

JPK: Holy shit. How did you deal with the pressure, the size of services the shack has? What advice could you give to aspiring cooks in light of that?
GRH: Really, I didn’t know before working there that I was the kind of person who could handle lots of stress. You don’t really have time to think — sometimes it’s almost a survival instinct for a lot of cooks, a wake-up call. They come from school, they’re young, and suddenly everything’s hard and the days are long. (At the shack) there’s almost 600 people to feed a day, and you need to keep the quality and consistency in your food. Either you deal, or you quit and do something else with your life (laughs).

JPK: You must have seen your fair share of broken-down cooks.
GRH: Of course. There’s a lot of quitting, people that get hurt, burnt — there’s always someone who leaves during a shift or doesn’t show up in the morning. But on the other hand you have people surprise you who you don’t think would last more than a day. They do the whole season, and they turn out to be warriors.
But we don’t put people in the shit from day one. We like to find out who they are in the kitchen, their personality.

I tell them that they may have learned a lot in school, but sometimes the reality’s different. When you arrive at a restaurant, try to leave some of your convictions behind and learn from where you work. PDC has had a cookbook and has been featured on TV, so I think a lot of (new cooks) arrive with a bucolic or idealized view of the shack, but when they arrive, they realize it’s still a kitchen and it’s still a war.

JPK: What’re you reading now?
GRH: The Third Plate by Dan Barber. It’s a book on the intersections of farming and culinary cultures.

JPK: What are you taking away from it?
GRH: I have lots of experience with animals and agriculture, but I lost that connection a little bit. Working at the shack helped me (reconnect) with that when we started to grow vegetables, raise chickens and buy (locally), and I rediscovered the area I’m from. In Quebec, we’re so lucky to have so much but we don’t talk about it enough… With my experience (of travelling and cooking) behind me, I realize how much we have, but sometimes you need to get out there and see different things before you see it.

JPK: Very true. So what kinds of flavours can we look forward to with your next project?
GRH: I knew I wasn’t going to be a big pastry chef in a Michelin restaurant, making oeuvres d’art. Everything is so complicated in just arriving at the final product, and that’s far from what I am. I like the flavours and textures, but I like (focusing on) how you feel when you eat. I’m more interested in growing things, original flavours, natural flavours. If a dessert is too elaborate, you might lose sight of what the ingredients are. For me, simple is better. ■