In The Land of French Fries

By Nicholas Hirshon
Published April 14, 2007
The Montreal Gazette
Distributed by Columbia News Service

Restaurateur Martin Beaudoin wanted to try something different with the menu at Red Dot when it opened last year in Milwaukee. So the Quebec native offered his customers a treat from back home: poutine.

Some called it a gamble. But Beaudoin thought selling the dish at $4.25 was a risk worth taking.

“It’s been getting fantastic results,” he said. “There are actually three or four restaurants in town that have copied it. They just saw we were getting publicity with it and it was selling well, and they put it on their menus.”

As poutine turns 50 this year, a smattering of restaurants across the United States have added the dish of french fries and cheese curds smothered in gravy to their menus. It’s being served in small towns in New Jersey and North Carolina and in major cities like New York and San Francisco. It has been offered as an appetizer, side dish and main course, with the gravy either poured on top or left on the side. Sometimes it’s served in a bowl and other times on a plate. The one constant is the rave reviews.

Few would have predicted the popularity of a high-calorie dish at a time when more and more Americans are adopting healthier diets. But culinary experts say poutine is winning fans because it capitalizes on an American favourite, french fries, while adding ingredients that make it much more flavourful.

Poutine might even become the snack of choice for future generations. Andy Ford, a food trend analyst for an American marketing firm, calls it a perfect fit for American chain restaurants like Applebee’s, Chili’s and T.G.I. Friday’s.

“I see it as something that has real legs in this country,” said Ford, who works for the Missouri-based Noble agency, which offers menu advice to Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and other major chains. “This is one of those products that is simple enough in its execution and dynamic enough to have a long-lasting effect.”

Not bad for a dish created by accident. Legend traces poutine to Quebec restaurateur Fernand Lachance. In 1957, a trucker asked Lachance to mix french fries with some cheese curds he spotted on a nearby counter. Lachance warned the mix would make a mess, or “poutine” in joual, but he took the order anyway. The trucker liked the dish, so Lachance put it on the menu. Within a few months, poutine had become a regional hit. Lachance added gravy to the recipe in 1964 to help melt the curds.

Oddly enough, poutine did not spread much beyond Quebec until a few years ago. Some fans tie its emergence as a Canadian dish to George W. Bush’s first run for the White House in 2000. On the campaign trail, comedian Rick Mercer, posing as a journalist, convinced Bush that the Canadian prime minister’s name was Jean Poutine and that he was endorsing Bush’s candidacy. The prank aired on CBC-TV’s “This Hour Has 22 Minutes” and Mercer’s special “Talking to Americans” and pushed poutine into the national limelight.

The cooks now serving poutine in the United States are trying a range of strategies to sell the dish. On advice from the bartender at Rat’s Restaurant in Hamilton, N.J., Peter Nowakoski touts his poutine as something great to nosh on with beer or wine. At The Inn LW12 in Manhattan, Andy Bennett only uses the best cheese curds imported from Canada. Perhaps the fanciest presentation goes to Doug Washington and the Salt House in San Francisco, where servers bring fries and curds to customers’ tables, then carefully ladle short-rib gravy over it.

Health concerns haven’t slowed down sales at any of the restaurants. Though poutine sounds particularly fatty – and it is, with at least 40 grams of fat per serving – Nowakoski says it’s no different from what many Americans eat every day.

“Americans sort of perceive themselves as more health-conscious,” he said. “They kind of say, ‘I could never eat that: french fries with cheese and gravy? I’m just going to have a big hamburger with mayonnaise.’ ” Customers at Rat’s are not that naive, he says, and they know better than to miss out on poutine.

There are some tough customers elsewhere, though. Scott Ritchie, co-owner of Milltown in Carrboro, N.C., said he received harsh criticism from Canadian expatriates. They complain the cheese curds aren’t as good as what they get back home, or that the presentation is different. But he hears their stomachs growl louder than their words.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone complain so much that they didn’t want to finish it,” Ritchie said with a laugh.

The future for poutine in the U.S. seems bright – unless it becomes a victim of its own success. Some fast-food chains in Canada began selling poutine with what Washington identified as “frozen french fries and fake cheese” that tarnished the dish’s good name. McDonald’s, which offers poutine at many of its Canadian franchises, said through a spokesman that it does not plan to offer the dish in the United States. Many pray they never will.

“I hope fast food down here doesn’t jump on it, because when it’s not made right with really good ingredients, I think it’s pretty foul,” Washington said. But he pointed out that pizza is served at both fast-food and world-famous restaurants. Is poutine in the same category?

“As long as you use first-rate product, and it’s food that people love, and it’s done in a creative way,” Washington said. “Everything in that dish is the best you can get.”