— December 23, 2:45 p.m.
December 23rd and it’s snowing. I have a salmon waiting for me in NDG, three dozen oysters down the hill from there, and halfway between the two, two cases of wine. The roads are slippery and there’s no chance of finding parking. Shoppers are hurrying; I’m super tense too. Tick tock. I keep going. I get to Atwater Market where the door to Première Moisson opens and closes non-stop. The owner, Bertrand Labelle, smiles, doesn’t bat an eye. His shop is operating like a well-oiled machine. Wonder of wonders! In a heartbeat, my bags are full of exactly what I need. Easy as pie. What a blessing!
There aren’t many shops in Quebec where you can show up at the last minute and pick up everything you need to feed a tableful of hungry guests while spending as little time in the kitchen as possible – never mind two days before the busiest holiday of the year.
Since he was old enough to wield a whisk, Bertrand Labelle has been drawn to the restaurant world. His bakery, nestled in one of Montréal’s most lavish markets, has hosted a particular jolly bearded elf for 23 years running. Like Santa, Labelle is a pro at granting Christmas wishes, albeit of the culinary kind. After ransacking his vitrine, the only celebratory flourish left is dropping the last olive into a martini, and making sure you’re not so festive that you forget that delicious meat pie warming in the oven.
As we gear up for Christmas, we asked Labelle for some tips and tricks on how to make sure the holidays go smoothly.
1. Plan ahead. “Christmas is a big deal for us. We start preparing at least six weeks in advance. We look back at the previous year, we make adjustments, we do dry runs. They’re a bit like fire drills! When the going gets busy, that groundwork allows us to be calm and available. So, the more carefully you plan your parties, the more you’ll enjoy them.”
2. Look for new discoveries. “Our bakery is like a huge ship run by a 90-person crew. Each one must help navigate this time of year full of emotion and longing. During the holidays, our counter is brimming over with perennial favourites like our snappy gingerbread men, our sumptuous fruitcakes and our classic chocolate-cranberry bread. But we also offer new delicacies and creatively imagined sweet nothings, like our all-new square brioche loaf with fruit and almonds that’s simply addictive. These are all finger-licking reasons to savour and feast. We know these treats inside out, so feel free to ask us questions! And it’s not a bad idea to come before the Christmas rush to pick up items that can be frozen or will keep well.”
3. Optimize. “Our yule logs and mini-logs are Christmas standards. This year’s menu again includes pralines and chocolate, and our signature log is a thing of beauty. Many people don’t know that the best way to bring out the full flavours of a yule log is to freeze it. Simply take it out of the freezer and let it sit at room temperature for six hours before serving, or transfer it to the refrigerator overnight for peak fluffy freshness. The texture will be firm but tender, the shape will stay intact and the flavours will blossom.”
4. Go above and beyond. “One of my favourite things is sharing joy. I love watching someone walk out of my store with a two-salmon log or our famous turkey-cranberry pastry, knowing they now know exactly how to make them come out of the oven warm on the inside and crisp on the outside. Really looking after someone means listening and understanding the pressure a customer is feeling because they’re feeding 12 people in a couple of hours, and then watching them leave much more relaxed.”
5. Improvise. “In December, there are 10 times as many parties and gatherings. Our holiday focaccia is the perfect thing to serve with cocktails. For something sweet, you can’t miss with our Santa’s sleigh log.”
6. Troubleshoot. “Most of our holiday sales are done at the last minute. On Christmas Eve, I come in at two o’clock in the morning and I close around five p.m. As soon as the lock clicks shut, we pop the champagne! It’s not unusual to see a frantic client come by after closing. We’re obviously not going to let anyone stand around outside, so we let them in and share the bubbly. At midnight, when everyone is up and celebrating, most of us will be sound asleep. After all, New Year’s is right around the corner. It’s less intense than Christmas, but every celebration deserves to be perfect.”
7. Pay it forward. “Have you ever wondered what happens to the goods that go unsold at Première Moisson? La Tablée des Chefs is an organization that provides a food recovery service. In 2017, 72 tons of food were recovered and redistributed to families in need through 27 partner organizations.”