Tall and handsome, with a flash of grey flecked dark hair, Jean Pierre Challet strides quickly into the dining room of The Fifth Grill. He's been up early, shopping at Kensington Market to prepare for a busy Saturday night. Back from a break, Challet has a small window of time to talk. JP strikes me as introspective, intense, focused, yet with a wry sense of humour. This all translates to the creations that make their way to the plate. The transformation of the food isn't merely by way of cl
assic French technique. It goes beyond that. I get the feeling that Challet is not out to compete with anyone but himself and the ingredients he chooses in order to remain at the top of his game.
Challet grew up in Lyon, France and recalls his earliest memories of things he made for himself. " I used to make a sandwich with milk bread, butter it and add chocolate. I loved that " he states, "and even now, when I work with classic dishes, I feel like a little kid, trying to take an idea and make it my own." JP's influence started with his grandmother, who took him with her to the different markets with her when he was a child. "There was always so much variety, so even back then, I was learning," Challet recalls, with his whimsical spectacles perched on his nose. JP studied land surveying and wanted to become an architect, but a chance advertisement for a culinary school in Nice changed his mind, as he says, "360 degrees!" JP says his biggest influences were his teachers in Nice, especially Joel Robuchon and Michel Lorain. The past two decades in Canada have seen Challet at the helm of many restaurants, from the Inn at Manitou, to his own place and back to top tier dining spots like The Fifth Grill. Challet has also wowed New Yorker's as guest chef at James Beard House.
The pleasures of the table that Challet creates embody palpable, striking sensuality. The marriage of flavour, texture and presentation evoke many things; the seasons, ocean, earth and sky. The tasting menu provokes pleasure, introspection, and even laughter at the witty culinary surprises presented on the plates. Challet's intent is to make you enjoy, yes, but to think. A perfect lobster claw bedded with tapenade brought the salty sea to mind. It's partner, a sensual mini crab cake feast, all sweet and yielding flesh. A tasting of escargot with white asparagus is spring, with a finishing touch of pillowy pastry clouds for contrast. Going a little retro with a classic French dish, a perfect, rare duck breast a l'orange with succulent crispy skin gives way to it's partner, a melt in your mouth slice of drunken foie gras. Astonishingly delicious, controlled perfection, bordering on abandon, but all within the confines of classical cuisine. Challet plays a serious game; perhaps like the passion he has for the sports world of squash and rugby he enjoys after hours. There is no doubt that he plays to win, but at the same time, to enjoy.
The attention to detail begins early and ends late, often at 12 or 1 AM. Top those hours with private catering, teaching at George Brown College Chef School and his recent sommelier accreditation and you've got a man constantly on the move. Talking with JP about his influences and vision brings me to thoughtful questions about food and the bigger picture outside of it. Finally, I wonder if JP ever tires of thinking about food. His response is honest." I always feel that I am an apprentice because I still have fun in the kitchen. " Making it look simple is often the hardest thing to do. Challet is many things but from now on, I'll call him the poet of the plate, the metaphysical chef.