Main article image credit: Benoit Rousseau

Julie Martel goes to great lengths to make sure the needs of the chefs and others she invites to Montreal’s premiere winter festival are met. That includes trying to get a truffle-hunting dog a seat on a plane from Italy.

Martel runs the gastronomic programming for Montréal en Lumière, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, with support from Scotiabank. The festival takes place in downtown Montreal and features outdoor activities for children and adults, concerts, art installations, and, importantly, gastronomy.

The culinary programming begins Feb. 22, while the rest of the festival takes place Feb. 29 to March 10.

Each year, Martel pairs Montreal restaurants with chefs from Canada and around the world to share their culinary cultures and create special menus for food enthusiasts attending the festival. It’s an incredible opportunity for the local chefs, Martel says. 

“It’s all about the human shared experience,” she says. “These chefs are business owners, all year they have to manage the accounting, the human resources, all of that, and it’s a lot of work. 

Sign reads 'Quartier Gourmand'

Photo: Julie Martel
Credit: Frédérique Ménard-Aubin

“But once a year, during the festival, they can focus on the creativity of the kitchen, they can highlight their own culinary culture, they can show their pride in Montreal and its own special culture. It’s very exciting for them.”  

Montréal en Lumière was started 25 years ago to help revitalize the city in the depths of winter, when there wasn’t much going on downtown and restaurants and hotels sat empty. In addition to the concerts and winter activities for the whole family, the gastronomy programming has always been central to the festival. In its first year, one of the invitees was Paul Bocuse, the famous Lyon-based chef known as “the Pope of Gastronomy.”

“That was quite an event, and it helped establish the festival’s reputation right from the start,” Martel said. “Now, when the chefs are coming from around the world, they know about us, they want to experience the flavours of Montreal.” 

Chefs from France, Belgium, England, Italy, Portugal, the USA, Taiwan and Singapore are attending this year, as well as several wine makers from France. Some 30 foreign journalists also attend.

In an age when chefs are international superstars with vast social media followers, many of the Montreal restaurateurs already had connections with their counterparts abroad. They would approach Martel directly and ask her to invite someone they knew and wanted to connect with. 

Others were approached by Martel herself, based on the theme she wanted to pursue for the festival. This year, Martel decided that as the festival looks ahead to its next 25 years, the focus would be on sustainable practices in gastronomy. Among the invited chefs are nine whose restaurants in France have received a Green Star from the Michelin Guide. 

In awarding the Green Star, Michelin inspectors consider such things as the provenance of the ingredients, the use of seasonal produce, the restaurant’s environmental footprint, food waste systems and other elements. 

“Sustainability is an increasingly important consideration in the industry and Montreal’s chefs are very involved in developing sustainable practices, including a tremendous focus on using local products,” Martel said. “Montreal has more urban farms than any other city in North America, which helps a lot.”

This year marks Scotiabank’s third as collaborating sponsor of Montréal en Lumière and Scotia Wealth Management’s role as title sponsor of the Gastronomy Program. 

Aerial photo of festival

Photo: Aerial photo of festival
Credit: Victor Diaz Lamich

“We are pleased to extend our partnership with Montréal en Lumière for the years to come," said Geneviève Brouillard, Senior Vice President, Québec and Eastern Ontario. “This festival celebrates the vitality of the City of Montreal by offering many free activities open to the public and by creating unique opportunities for artists and artisans. In addition, the Gastronomy programming, orchestrated by world-class chefs, immerses festivalgoers in a world of flavours and discovery.”

Martel has worked in festival planning for more than two decades and has directed the gastronomic programming of Montréal en Lumière since 2017. She hasn’t worked in the restaurant industry herself but brings planning skills and a deep passion for food to her work. 

“I'm just a person who loves to eat, I love the storytelling behind food, I love to meet the people who grow the food, I love reading about the culinary culture and where it comes from,” she says. 

“Gastronomy is culture, it's part of who we are. What we eat says things about who we are in the same was as music, painting, or any form of art does.”

And the dog? He belongs to an Italian truffle hunter Martel invited to the festival this year. He wanted to bring his dog – since it’s actually the dog who finds the truffles – but it was too big to bring in the cabin of the plane and he didn’t want to put it in the hold.

“We tried our best to find a way, we really wanted to welcome the dog here, but we just couldn’t make it work,” Martel said. “Fortunately, the truffle hunter agreed to come anyway!”