Inside France's Strange Love Affair with Canadian Cuisine
From gravy-drenched poutine to maple syrup and Kraft dinner, the French can't seem to get enough of Canadian comfort food.
Poutine is unofficially considered Canada's national dish. Photo by Adrien le Coärer.
While strolling along the docks of the Isère River, I was surprised to find a Canadian restaurant, serving dishes from my country of origin.
While Canada isn't known as a culinary hotspot, France—a country whose cuisine is only one of two declared an "intangible cultural heritage" by UNESCO—has developed an appetite for Canadian specialties.
French couple Soraya and Georges Ayad, owners of Restaurant Ontario, fell in love with the Great White North while visiting Ontario and Quebec.
"We love the open spaces, log cabins, and nice people in Canada, so we said, 'Why don't we bring this to Grenoble?'" Soraya told me while chatting about their trip.
Using 14 tons of solid wood, the Ayads built their chalet-restaurant in the heart of Grenoble, near the French Alps. The walls are decorated with old sports equipment, advertisements, license plates, and other odes to Canadian-ness.
As we began discussing the extensive salmon menu, Georges, who doubles as head chef, emerged from the kitchen.
"Since opening 20 years ago, salmon has represented Canada for us," explained Georges.
Selling upwards of three tons per year, the restaurant features 12 different types of salmon, including carpaccio, smoked salmon, grilled, and a salmon burger. One of their specialties is salmon tartare, a Canadian twist on the French raw beef version. The fish arrives fresh twice a week from Scotland.
The restaurant also offers different varieties of poutine, burgers, and meat dishes, such as bison, lamb, and pork ribs.
"French customers are demanding. We are inspired by Canadian cuisine and adapt it to suit French tastes," Soraya said.
Despite their mastery of northern recipes, the restaurant's cooking philosophy remains wholeheartedly French.
"You can't make good food without fresh, high-quality ingredients," said Georges.
When asked about the decidedly un-Canadian kangaroo and ostrich offered on the menu, Georges admitted that securing fresh Canadian ingredients can be a challenge. While he wanted to offer caribou and beaver meat, it was only available frozen.
"We don't use frozen ingredients, so we opted for other fresh exotic meats to meet customer demands," he told me. "However, I just found a fresh Canadian meat that is replacing the kangaroo on the new menu."
Although popular among Grenoble's international crowd, the establishment's clientele is mostly French, some of whom have never tasted Canadian food.
"I think curiosity attracts many of our customers," said Soraya. "Many French people associate Canada with the cold."
Offering an authentic Canadian experience—which the Ayads consider to be a warm welcome and friendly service—lies at the core of the couple's business.
"For me, Canadian cuisine symbolizes family and get-togethers, so we offer a smile and as many Canadian products as possible," explained Soraya. "This is what makes the difference between a French and a Canadian restaurant."
A regular visitor to la belle province, Marianne Fournier has been a customer at the Ontario Restaurant for 20 years.
"I feel among friends [in this restaurant]," she told me, nursing a beer. "My son and his family moved to Montreal, so Quebec has become my second home."
Meanwhile, in Paris, Canadian sports bars have become a popular alternative to traditional brasseries.
Off a narrow street in the sixth arrondissement, The Moose is one such establishment. Once inside, the décor plays with stereotypes of the Great White North, including hockey sticks that double as foot rails on the log-paneled bar.
"Our goal is to create an ambiance that appeals to both locals and expats," owner Michael Kennedy told me. "A lot of English speakers feel at home at The Moose."
Canadian pub fare is similar to that of its American neighbors: mainly burgers, chicken wings, and nachos. However, thanks to Quebec, Canada has its very own hangover cure: poutine.
A mixture of fresh cut fries topped with cheese curds and smothered in gravy, poutine is the most popular dish at The Moose.
"Poutine is part of Canada's food identity," said Toronto-native Monica Kroesen, the bar manager. "French customers ask us if we have le squeak-squeak—their way of saying cheese curds."
Despite France's reputation as a cheese mecca, Kennedy says it was initially difficult to find the right curds to make an authentic version.
True to its roots, the bar serves a variety of Canadian beers and liquors, including a maple syrup-infused cocktail.
"The Moose was originally named after Moosehead, the famous Canadian beer," explained Kennedy, an Australian native.
Customer Xavier Martin is a regular. Having lived in North America for ten years, the Frenchman said he enjoys this little slice of Canada in Paris.
"I like that this place isn't a typical French bar. It reminds me of my time abroad," he told me, saying that French people love Canada because of its positive image in the media.
Near the Saint Michel subway station, patrons can enjoy a view of the Notre-Dame cathedral from the patio of The Great Canadian Pub.
"Believe it or not, for the French, a Canadian sports bar is a little bit exotic," explained owner Mark Berry.
Along with pub grub, one of the bar's staples is macaroni and cheese. Prepared with bite-sized pasta, cream, and a mixture of cheddar and emmental cheese, the dish is a restaurant anomaly for French customers but comfort food for Canadians.
"Mac and cheese is pretty universal in Canada," said Berry, who hails from Ottawa. "When someone's hungry and they've got nothing in the house, they usually have a box of KD"—the Canadian term for "Kraft dinner."
For Berry, employing Canadian staff is an important part of The Great Canadian's popularity.
"We try to hire Canadians because if you get the people in an establishment right, they're the ones who provide the atmosphere," he told me.
Alas, nowhere could I order a Caesar, Canada's national cocktail. Clamato, a clam-infused tomato juice that forms the cocktail base, is just too strange for France.