The Magic of Quebec City

A renowned North Carolina chef retraces his steps in a charming old city

An illustration of a man, in side profile, at a dinner table with a bowl of mussels, dessert, and wine

Illustration: JOHN REGO

When I became the chef at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the early nineties, I was immediately in the weeds. It soon became clear to me that in order to keep at this, I would need to escape the madness from time to time. I had a small kitchen and a small staff, and we were busy, so anyone’s absence meant more work for everyone else. Long vacations were out of the question, but a long weekend might be okay. I needed a place where I wouldn’t have to entertain or be entertained.

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Pretty much my whole family lives at or near the North Carolina coast, so the beach wouldn’t work. I know too many people in New York and Boston. Lord knows I’m not a camper. Quebec came to mind. It’s in the same time zone as the Carolinas. Getting there is no more trouble than flying to New York or Boston. And you feel like you’ve been somewhere. I knew it from my free-spirited youth when I used to hitchhike all over everywhere and eastern Canada was a favorite destination. Using my birthday as my excuse, I returned to Quebec in January of 1993. I was working on my first cookbook by then, too, so I really needed to get out of town for a minute. My French was pretty good. I had exchanged my long hair and errant ways for shirts with cuffs and collars. I found the perfect small hotel in Quebec City. A tradition began.

I managed to get away with these visits for several years until I became a victim of my own minor celebrity and all my time off was used up by “making appearances.” Although I retired from Crook’s in 2019, I stayed busy that first year “off” with food stuff. Then the pandemic came and I sat at my kitchen window for a year and a half drinking either coffee or beer, depending on the time of day. By 2022, I was spending a lot of time in Mexico, organizing food tours and visiting my former Crook’s family, but for some reason Quebec crept back into my mind. On the spur of the moment, I called my old hotel and bought a plane ticket. I hadn’t been there in more than a decade.

Quebec City is beautiful—it looks as if someone built a castle on top of the Rock of Gibraltar. Old French buildings reign, but it also looks like there was a growth spurt in art deco times. Lots of churches built by the Jesuits and the Ursulines dot the streets. I visited most often in winter, but it’s lovely at other times of the year. Come in mid-October when the leaves are turning, and you will instantly understand the flag of Canada. In summer when the sun sets later, the population responds by staying out at night and hosting festivals.

When I would tell people that I was going to Canada in January, they would often ask if I was going to ski. Hardly. I was going to drink pastis and eat sweetbreads. These were trips of merry self-indulgence. Yes, winter is blustery, but it’s also a time when I feel like I have the place to myself—with the locals and regulars of the bars and restaurants I love. Quebec is cozy and welcoming in winter. You can stare out at a snowy landscape over your fricassee of rognons de veau while Edith Piaf sings of having no regrets.

My hotel, the Cap Diamant in Old Quebec, pulled through the pandemic. It is still a marvel with sparkling mirrors and polished wood, almost in the shadow of the stately Château Frontenac. Sadly, during my twelve-year absence Madame Florence Guillot, the owner I had known, passed away. Her daughter Marie is now the patronne and is as charming and welcoming as her mother was. When I was working on that first cookbook, I started coming up here to write sometimes. The year I brought Madame Guillot a copy of Seasoned in the South, she refused to let me pay for my room because she was so pleased that I had worked on the cookbook at her hotel.

Besides the Hotel Cap Diamant, there were a few other musts, old favorite spots, that I hoped had survived and that I wanted to visit. Foremost was what is now called Bistro St-Malo on rue St-Paul. Some years, I ate there every single night. The website said that it had new owners, but that they respected the legacy of the place. The fact that there was no room for walk-ins my first evening in town was encouraging. Discovering that, and after I had made a reservation for the next evening, I went walking down the rue du Sault-au-Matelot looking for supper. I found myself in the tiny dining room of Bistro Sous le Fort. There I did indeed have a pastis. Then, I hit my stride with a cassoulet of snails followed by sweetbreads Forestier, a mushroomy French classic that turns white wine into a savory brown sauce. Alas, this lovely place closed shortly after my visit when, after twenty-three years, one of the owners wanted to retire—I understand the feeling.

Quebec has wonderful museums, and they often offer quirky shows. In 1998 I saw one called Imaginaires mexicains at the Musée de la civilisation. It grouped art by subject rather than in historical context. I recall Aztec owls hanging alongside surrealist owls, for instance. In 2002 at the Musée de Quebec, I ducked through an astounding exhibit of figureheads from ships in the French navy in the 1800s. I saw sirens, mermaids, Neptune, and Napoleon. Needless to say, these things were huge, and there was hardly room to walk among them. A few years later, that same museum showed a beautiful display of original illustrations for La Fontaine’s Fables. This past visit, back at the Musée de la civilisation, I witnessed an exhibit entitled Ô merde! I’m not kidding. A lot of the displays were about the need for sanitation, especially in the developing world, and there was a nice tribute to the toilets of Japan, but there were also video games and a dictionary of ways to say ô merde! in dozens of languages.

My hotel backs up against the Plains of Abraham, which is where Britain and France fought a pivotal battle for control of Quebec. It’s a high spot in the city, and I always walk up there so I can look down the St. Lawrence River toward the sea. The river suddenly widens here, just after the Île d’Orléans. I have a fond nostalgia for this view. I once left here hitchhiking with a friend up the north shore of the river. When the road gave out at Sept-Îles, we paid two dollars each to sleep on the deck of a freighter that took us all the way to Labrador. I take a deep breath whenever I return here.

At dinnertime, I saw that the new owners of St-Malo had rearranged the dining room a little, but it was still its own cozy self with a blazing fireplace and lots of tables. I missed Yolande, who had waited tables there for years. After I’d shown up for a few Januarys in a row, she began to recognize me and would beam as I entered the restaurant. When you had finished giving her your order, she would always smile and say, “Parfait!” almost in a whisper. You felt like Tinker Bell had sprinkled you with her pixie dust, and then the magic would indeed arrive. It arrived this time as well, in the form of moules marinières, a splendid osso buco served with orzo, and a preposterously huge tarte tatin made with maple sugar. Oh, and the new waitstaff is as parfait as can be.

I had a few more old favorites on my list to check out. There is the Buffet de l’antiquaire, a madhouse of a lunch counter a few doors down from St-Malo; and Simons, a real, old-fashioned department store in the center of town. Its motto is “Chez nous est chez vous”—our place is your place. And the bar at the Château Frontenac. I’ve had many a hot toddy there as I watched snow fall. It was under renovation when I stopped in, and they’d taken down the photographs of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King, who strategized about World War II in a room above the bar there in 1943. But the drinks were good, the crowd was warm, and I felt as posh as ever.

I think back to my days in the kitchen in North Carolina. Whenever I was about to get away, I was always uneasy until I boarded my flight. Then I would think, “Okay, they can’t get me now.” Of course, these days I need to find hubbub, not escape it, but that same comfortable feeling of being out of reach returned as I walked around Quebec this time. When I left, I told Marie to look for me next year.

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