HOT SHOP La Depense

The Globe & Mail, October 1, 2005

Perched on a stool at the back of his food shop, La Dépense, Philippe de Vienne holds court in the cookbook library. Like the gastronomic guru of Montreal’s newly expanded Jean-Talon market, he advises a trio of customers on the best chile sauce to use in General Tao Chicken, a spicy Szechwan dish.

Meanwhile, in front of the store, de Vienne’s wife Ethné feeds a steady lineup. The former top model dishes golden brown vegetable Bahji straight from a wok of bubbling hot oil into small plastic cups. The line is long but the sight and scent of the delicious Indian snacks, on sale for a toonie, make it nearly impossible to walk by without joining the queue.

Every Saturday the couple cook up something to satisfy throngs of hungry market shoppers, but the Bahji are by far the most popular item.

“It’s like crack cocaine for foodies,” de Vienne says.

After getting their fix, customers can wander into the shop to pick up the recipe and a package of dry ingredients needed to mix up a batch of Bahji at home. They can also buy a bottle of the homemade sweet and sour Tamarind chutney that is served on the side.

And that’s just the beginning. The walls of the narrow room are lined with shelves, refrigerators and wood crates filled with everything an internationally-enlightened cook could dream of: oats from Ireland, paneer cheese, roasted poblano peppers, Mexican dulce de leche, New Zealand honey, jam from Patagonia and 15 different kinds of soy sauce ranging in price from $3 to $75.

Before opening La Dépense in June, the globe-trotting couple were already known for bringing a new range of international flavours to Montreal’s exploding food scene. They started out as caterers, importing the fresh, top-quality and hard-to-find spices that they discovered during their travels. This led to a small business supplying spices to other chefs and then to stores across Quebec.

Before they knew it, they were retailers – sharing space at the renowned Jean-Talon market with the owners of a chic olive oil boutique. The result is Olives et Épices (Olives & Spices), a shop with more than 100 varieties of spices, many of which are a revelation to the Canadian palate. For the truly adventurous, de Vienne has created a line of special blends including the intoxicating Moroccan Ras-el-Hanout made up of more than 20 different herbs, spices and aromatics such as absinthe and rose petals.

Within months, and with the help of their two kids, they opened La Dépense (which is an old-fashioned word for “pantry”) just four doors down from the spice shop.

“We realized there were a lot of basic ingredients missing in the market,” says de Vienne, “Anything Asian, starting in the Middle East all the way to Japan; everything in central and south America, the West Indies and Africa, and a lot of European countries like Spain, Portugal, and Belgium were not well-represented.”

Between the two shops, de Vienne hopes people will be inspired to explore and experiment with world cuisines. For further motivation he offers a variety of workshops, tasting sessions, and cooking classes throughout the year. “It’s not about exotic cooking, it’s all about improving the taste of the foods we eat every day.”

La Dépense, 7070 Henri Julien (in the new building on the east side of Jean Talon market, Montreal) (514) 273-1118.