It doesn’t take long to realize there is something different about Melanie Castonguay, Sous Chef at Hilton Lac Leamy’s showcase restaurant, Arôme Seafood and Grill. There is a restraint, a discipline, and a control to her mannerisms, hallmarks of Chefs that have reached an apex. Melanie is clearly a precocious talent.
Melanie’s cooking skills began in the same way as so many other children; in her mother’s kitchen. “For me it was very simple” she explains, “we always helped my mother either cook the meal or do the dishes at the end, so I quickly realized that I had a much more positive experience when I cooked the meal.” The challenge of baking cookies and cakes from a “Cooking with Melanie” book quickly evolved into baking bread, stewing meats, and mastering vegetables. As a child in the Maritimes, lobster feasts were part of the community life, and Melanie happily contributed.
However, Melanie’s path to cookery wasn’t linear. “I wasn’t going to be a chef” she explains, “I trained as a police officer and was in the military part-time. I found that there is a correlation between how structured the military is and how structured a kitchen needs to be”. You can hear the pride in her voice as she continues to describe her kitchen; “working in the kitchen is a lifestyle. You feel the emotion every day. You rely on your team and they rely on you, just like in the military. It’s a team effort.” It was during her time in the military that she seriously began to explore cooking professionally. “A friend in the military was also taking cooking classes, and something just clicked. It made sense for me to explore it, so I began classes too. While I was still in school, I was offered an apprenticeship in a professional kitchen, a very nice family place. As soon as I finished school, I took a job there for 3 years.”
After an apprenticeship at a hotel in France, Melanie arrived home invigorated and inspired to learn more. She took a role at the five diamond restaurant Le Baccara at Hilton Lac-Leamy, before being recognized as Sous-Chef at Arôme. “Every Chef I meet, every person I work with influences my work” she beams, “my executive chef (Chef Denis Girard) is one of the best chefs I’ve ever worked with. He taught me that a true leader gels teams together, and how to find the best in everybody. He’s a great mentor.”
The military precision follows Melanie home. “I’m a very disciplined person” she states, “I prepare my food for the week, so as soon as I get home I can just toss something in the oven. But sometimes I do go out of my way and make a huge meal at home, sometimes I go out to other restaurants. I like to find a balance.” But that discipline may go out the window if pizza is involved. “I would bring pizza with me to a desert island” she gushes, “any pizza will do. It’s warm, it’s good, it’s the cheese, it’s the sauce, it’s the dough. There’s a lot of emotion for me mixed up with pizza.”
At Arôme, Melanie is in the midst of preparing for tonight’s table d’hôte. Today, alongside the popular Beef Tartare and the Seafood Plate (grilled salmon, tempura crab legs, roasted lobster tail, mussels, steamed scallops and shrimp), Melanie is preparing Tomahawk beef to be served tableside by the Chef. “We age our beef on-site” she explains, “the beef is stored in our aging chamber at a controlled temperature, giving it a slightly sweeter note and a light nutty flavor.” Cuisine at Arôme can be best described as the intersection of the traditional and the extraordinary, with innovative touches on well-established favourites. Tonight the patio is open, prettily placed overlooking Lac Leamy, lit with twinkling lights. It is a romantic backdrop to the luxurious plates.
As dinner service begins, Melanie reflects on the restaurant and the Hilton Lac-Leamy. “Arôme has a great reputation as one of the top restaurants in Ottawa-Gatineau” she states. “We are very lucky; this is a hotel with lots of energy, lots of people working towards pleasing our customers. Whatever it takes to please my guest, that’s what gets me going. I try and give that to my crew also; do the best you can. That’s just the discipline of life. You’ve got to have that fire in you.”