RATINAUD FRENCH CUISINE - A must visit culinary destination on Gottingen Street
I feel inclined to kick this article off by sharing a few lines from a sort-of love letter I wrote to Ratinaud in their aptly-named The Cure e-newsletter a couple of years ago: This, my friends, is an ode to artisanal meats on Gottingen Street. A sonnet for sausage and saucisson sec. A rhyme for rillette. A poem for pancetta, pâté and prosciutto. A love letter to a brilliant traditional French craft in a place that not all that long ago you couldn’t possibly imagine.
“Could the north end of Halifax get any cooler?” said no one ever until recently. Is it possible one can find a little solace in an artisanal meat shop on Gottingen Street? The answer is yes! I, like many a Ratinaud regular, often find myself lingering around their counters humming and hawing over the selection, overwhelmed by what exactly to order when I most definitely do not have the time. But I’m making time for meat, and the clock is ticking for duck prosciutto. Sérieusement.
Gottingen Street, one of the main entry points to Halifax and once a shopping and entertainment district in its own right. Think New York Dress Shop and the Vogue Cinema. Think about just how central it is in relation to every other part of the city—from Dartmouth to the north end to downtown to the south end. There’s even public transport plummeting right through it. And this is precisely why Frédéric Tandy chose it as the location to open the city’s first retail artisanal charcuterie, Ratinaud French Cuisine, back in 2009. Although he admits the first years were tough trying to convince people to make the trek to one of the city’s most misinterpreted ’hoods. People used to be afraid to park their cars here. These days the only thing that could happen to your car is that you’ll get a ticket from an overzealous parking enforcement officer. Truth.
Tandy has been cooking since the age of fifteen. A classically-trained chef from France, he worked his way seasonally through Europe as a young man. A little over a decade ago, in one of those seasonal bumps, he found himself at the Keltic Lodge in Cape Breton like many a fresh-faced Frenchman in this town. After bouncing from coast to coast in Canada, he finally settled in Halifax, where outside of intensive shifts at some of the city’s busiest restaurants, he started selling his cured meats at the Dartmouth Farmers’ Market in 2005. He then shifted to the Historic Farmers’ Market and then the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market before zeroing in on the idea to open his own storefront.
And behold, the shop. This is the kind of place you only find in big cities, that you would make an epic subway pilgrimage to get to. Refrigerated counters full of all kinds of artisanal cured meats and other delicacies: coppa, chorizo, prosciutto, pancetta and more; six kinds of sausages, pâtés and rillettes; the hands-down best cheese selection in the city; and a plethora of other offerings ranging from house-made pickles to ready-to-eat items like croque-monsieur and stuffed brioche to chutneys and jams. Right out of the gate, Tandy gained a fiercely loyal and engaged customer base.
Enter Tom Crilley. Although he’s West Island-born, we’ll refer to him as hailing from Montréal proper. He has years of successful graphic design experience behind him and an unsurpassed passion for perfecting stock. “Stock so good, you can just heat up a little cup to drink,” he says with a laugh. Stock so good and so readily at hand that he has sometimes helped out chefs in a squeeze, once supplying eight litres of duck stock at a moment’s notice for an event.
Crilley is no slouch to his chef cohort. For as long as he can remember, he has had an insatiable interest in cooking, watching every PBS cooking show on offer as a kid. Just utter the words “Jacques Pépin” and he quivers. He did his time at a few unmentionable restaurant kitchens as a rite of passage in his teens, but alas, this was not going to be a clear career path. Designing a restaurant website or logo, yes. Perfecting a classic cooking method for a dinner party of friends, yes.
Crilley moved to Halifax almost a decade ago for love, and his gal was well worth the relocation even though she professed not to cook when they first met. To him, this was the best kind of challenge, as he could woo with food. But alas, this isn’t their story; this is a boy meets boy story. Crilley and Tandy first met at the market, and the two struck up a friendship that soon had them cooking dinners together for friends. This tradition continues today through their business partnership. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of sitting at this table, sipping wine and watching the two of them take the piss out of each other’s cooking.
It became clear that they would eventually find a way to work together. At the end of May 2012, Crilley began taking on some of the roles that Tandy didn’t have the time for, and, through his belief in product and place, a website, an engaged social media presence and a strengthening of the brand evolved. Tom admits that at first he was paid in sausages, but shortly thereafter he partnered in and finally joined the store full-time in April 2013.
Time is such an important part of this whole equation. This business of making artisanal meats requires care, attention to detail. Every single step is done by hand—cutting, grinding, curing, smoking, aging—and I’m not sure you’re going to find better quality anywhere else. And sometimes they’re going to run out, but understand that’s a very good thing. Would you respect the meat if you had access to it all the time? Or are you happy when it shows up again, and you receive a call from the store because they remembered how much you love the merguez sausage, the spicy salami with fennel or the cold-smoked goose prosciutto?
Customer service reigns supreme here, and this matters perhaps above all else. The first time I realized this was when I just asked the question, “Hey, would you guys order in some fresh burrata?” It happened just like that. This is the city’s best cheese counter. You might have a very meat-centric picture in your head if you’ve never darkened the door, but let me draw your attention to one of the pillars of Ratinaud: you will walk into this store and see cheese that you can’t get anywhere else in the city. In fact, the second it shows up anywhere else, it’s removed from their slate.
The small but mighty team of staff meets a couple of times a month to study and educate themselves about the cheeses so that they can give you an informed opinion. The focus is largely on cheeses from Québec and France. As I write this, I am drooling over the idea of a couple favourites—the dreamiest blue cheese, Canadian Cheese Grand Prix Award-winner Bleu d’Elizabeth from Québec, the triple cream stunner from France Brillat Savarin, and the gorgeous orange flesh of the nutty, crunchy Mimolette. Époisses de Bourgogne is on my cheese bucket list. But I digress.
There are over twenty times more products than the first year. Fresh bread, Pain à l’Ancienne, is baked daily in-house and is typically sold out by noon. By fostering great relationships with suppliers, the most amazing array of products show up in the shop: fresh truffles, wild foraged mushrooms, oysters, urchins, greens from the sea, parsley, asparagus, rocket and lettuce. And not surprisingly, their wholesale business is growing solely by word of mouth as some of the city’s and region’s best restaurants—Edna, Field Guide, The Nook, Front and Central (Wolfville), Lion & Bright, Jane’s, Indochine, The Stubborn Goat and Pictou Lodge Beachfront Resort, to name a few—are stocking their goods.
I admit, it may be intimidating to check out the events page of their website and see their premiere piece—The Kitchen Table—show up sold out across the board for the whole season, but there’s a reason for that. Since they launched the concept, an ultimate chef’s table in the centre of their working kitchen, back in November 2012 they’ve never looked back and have almost never had an empty seat. They even built the table themselves.
These intimate dinners for ten feature a set menu and run the gamut from rustic French to the classics to nouveau cuisine. Tandy laughs, as he does not consider himself much of a planner when it comes to these meals, but it appears his customers don’t mind. This kind of tasting menu is on trend with what’s happening in cities around the world. No questions asked, the chef is going to ensure that you’re eating seasonally, that you have quality, fresh, local products on your plate, and that there are a number of engaged producers, farmers and foragers waiting breathlessly in the wings. For Tandy, this is nothing new; this is how he grew up watching his grandparents cook. Everything was from the home or yard, foraged nearby or from the guy down the road. The challenge for him is to make sure he’s having fun while doing it, and with the demands of the business aside, there has to be an element of spontaneity and inspiration built in. It’s as simple as this: here are today’s ingredients right in front of you—now go.
Tandy feels that their customer base has shifted since the very beginning, skewing a bit younger, along with the radical change in the neighbourhood itself. Homes in the surrounding area have been renovated, designer condos hover over the street, major network television studios call this part of the city their home, and a slew of like-minded businesses have popped up, which include Edna, Field Guide, The Nook, The Food Wolf and many more. They both laugh about their own in-store, early warning system as new customers step into the kitchen door by mistake almost daily. Either way, the street is becoming a destination, and for food no less.
The Ratinaud boys are full of the spirit of entrepreneurship, and they’re so good and passionate about what they do, it’s no wonder they are making such a name for themselves. Halifax is lucky to have Ratinaud, and Ratinaud, in turn, truly belongs to Halifax.