Société-Orignal rediscovers the taste of Quebec

Alex Cruz (L) and Cyril Gonzales travel to the corners of Quebec to bring restaurants the best in local food • Photos by Dan Haber

If you step into Alex Cruz and Cyril Gonzales’s Montreal office, the first thing you’ll notice are all the boxes of produce. They’re everywhere, and they contain things like rose hip berries and organic pears, hedgehog mushrooms and chanterelles — coveted comestibles ready for delivery to some of the city’s best restaurants. Joe Beef, Les 400 Coups, XO, Laloux, Leméac and Venti are all clients of theirs.

Under the name Société-Orignal, Cruz and Gonzales bring farmers and restaurants together. From farming seashore plants from the Gaspé region to a goat milk project that sees them working with up to 25 different varieties of goat to encourage diversity, the idea is about attempting to replicate nature instead of trying to control it.

The idea for Société-Orignal came about two years ago, though they only began distribution in earnest in Oct. 2011. They currently operate out of a section of Maison Publique while the restaurant is closed during the daytime — a space shared with none other than friend and former co-worker Derek Dammann.

The three men worked together at the highly praised Montreal restaurant DNA until its closing in early 2012, after which they went their separate ways — Dammann with his Maison Publique, and Cruz and Gonzales with Société-Orignal.

“We’ve been working with Derek for a really long time, so it’s just natural to keep on working together,” Cruz says.

Though they occupy the same space, Cruz is careful to note the two businesses are separate and that Dammann is not a partner in Société-Orignal. “It’s more of a friendship, and it’s also about reusing the space. Until 6 p.m., the restaurant is not open, so we’re able to work here, share some of the equipment. It’s like a lab for us.”

During their time at DNA, where Cruz worked as managing partner and sommelier and Gonzales worked as a server, they had the opportunity to work with Quebec farmers and recognized there was a big gap between food production and the restaurant business.

“It was two different ways of life, two different realities,” Cruz explains. “We really liked the artistic side of food, but we really liked the honesty of farming, so what we wanted to do was create a bridge that brings the artistic side to farming and brings the honesty to the food at the restaurant.”

Working with 20 farming families from all over Quebec, Cruz and Gonzales act as food curators, encouraging the growth of indigenous Quebec produce and giving farmers a creative outlet, as well as matching them with clients from some of the best restaurants not only here in Montreal, but also in Toronto, Vancouver, New York and San Francisco.

“Since we’re from the restaurant business, we decided to concentrate. We know chefs, we know how it works, so let’s bring super-cool products to the restaurant industry. It’s based on a small company — we do things ourselves, we go around to the restaurants, we go to the farms. For us, it’s really important to keep a one-on-one relationship that’s intimate. It’s not just about distributing a product and that’s it.”

And their products speak for themselves. From the apple musk reduction that has the equivalent of 50 apples per litre bottle and tastes like the most deliciously pure apple explosion to their maple syrup harvested by hand from trees over 100 years old to the honeydew that comes from bug sperm, stopping by their offices is like visiting a laboratory for your taste buds.

“For us, food should be an emotion. Either love it or hate it, we’ve aroused an emotion. Food nourishes our soul, our body; it should be a pleasure to eat,” says Cruz.

By working with a select group of farming families in Quebec who cultivate specialty products, they are raising the bar for their quality of produce while working outside of conventional farming practices to offer a variety of foods not produced anywhere else in Quebec. Not only are they encouraging this type of farming, but they are helping the farmers sustain their work by pairing them with restaurants eager to get their hands on such high-quality, coveted products.

And so, by exploring the diversity of our province, Cruz and Gonzales are showing us what Quebec has to offer — and they’re just scratching the surface. So what has Cruz learned so far?

“We don’t know anything about where we’re from. We don’t know shit! For us, this is based on curiosity and the sustainability of the farming families we’re working with. Farming is not a business; it’s a way of life, and we have to take it from there. Sometimes you have to take 10 steps back before you take one forward.” 

For more information about their products and how to get your hands on them, go to Société-Orignal website.

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