Despite being one of North America’s most innovative chefs — and the only one to have twice won gold at the Canadian Culinary Championships — Ottawa’s Marc Lepine flies surprisingly under the radar; even his restaurant, Atelier, is so unassuming it doesn’t have a sign outside.
I like technology a lot so the kitchen is full of toys for chefs.
But his unique brand of experimental cuisine has molecular gastronomy fans booking Lepine’s 12-course, “blind” tasting menus (diners have no idea what will be served until they arrive) months in advance.
Playful touches are threaded through each course, like perfect hoops of dehydrated carrots or edible, helium-filled, “fruit leather” balloons, delighting diners.
“I like technology a lot so the kitchen is full of toys for chefs,” Lepine explains.
I want people to walk out thinking, What WAS that? Did we just have dinner? What happened?
Currently his emoji fondants, made with one of his favorite toys — a food printer, which prints on edible paper with edible inks — are causing Instagram (and real life) meltdowns from diners. Lepine even admits some tables have screamed with excitement when they saw them.
Currently working to perfect his new culinary concept, “Thru,” a restaurant within a restaurant in Atelier’s backroom, Lepine and team are aiming dizzyingly high.
“We’re kind of rewriting the whole language of restaurants,” says Lepine. “Nothing like this exists, so we’re working from our imaginations.”
His plan? To serve nightly experiences of 50 to 60 rapid-fire courses with no plates or cutlery. “It’s going to be all about the service and the scene that gets built in front of you on the table, so you’re not sure what’s edible and what’s not,” he says.
Describing it as, “ADD dining,” Lepine mischievously laughs. “I want people to walk out thinking, ‘What WAS that? Did we just have dinner? What happened?'”
Marriott TRAVELER spoke to Chef Lepine about what makes Ottawa a great town to visit, his favorite city eats and his insider tip for visitors.
What’s great about Ottawa?
Festivals! We have so many festivals all the time. [There’s] the Tulip Festival, and there are just so many thousands of tulips across the city.
Winterlude is so much fun, too. You can come and skate through the city on the Rideau Canal, and there are so many events on. For me it’s one of the best things about the city; other chefs complain that their restaurants are quiet in February, but we’re always so busy.
Where do you recommend visitors to the city go for something to eat?
I love Asbinthe. It’s French-influenced, and I like going there because they are so great with my kids. They’ll always be well fed, and it’s loud enough that they won’t bother anyone else. They have an amazing tuna and avocado appetizer, which I get every time I go there, and they have a great chicken dish and excellent steak frites.
I love Allium, too. I’ve never had a bad or mediocre dish there; it’s delicious. They do a Monday tapas night, and I could just eat the whole menu. I really can’t describe what it’s like. It’s tasty and so well prepared. Just go!
If you want something that’s a little more boisterous, but comfortably so, then try the Wellington Gastropub. It’s such a fun atmosphere, and you always feel so great just sitting in their dining room — and they have good beer and wine programs.
What are the city’s must-visit cultural spots?
The War Museum is just fascinating. It's the best museum we have, I think; it's just so well done.
Ottawa has just a ton of fantastic museums, but my two favorites are the War Museum and the Canadian Museum of History. The War Museum is just fascinating. It’s the best museum we have, I think; it’s just so well done. The CMH, just across the bridge in Gatineau, is wonderful, too. They have lots of different exhibits, and there’s always something new to see.
Of course, you have to drop into the National Gallery of Canada, too, to see the Group of Seven paintings. I was a chef at Bartlett Lodge in Algonquin Provincial Park, and you just can’t help become a Group of Seven fan surrounded by that beauty.
Can you share an insider tip about Ottawa?
Dows Lake is right across from Atelier. It’s the end of the [Rideau] Canal Skateway in the winter, but in the summertime it’s fun, too. You can rent paddleboats there and go out on the water, or take a picnic, or go and enjoy one of the patio restaurants. It’s just beautiful!