Stuart Forster interviews Paul Dunits, who in 2013 established The Poutinerie to serve Canadian poutine in London, England.
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What is poutine? It’s comfort food that originated in the Canadian province of Quebec. Drummondville and Warwick count among the places that lay claim to being where poutine was first served, back in the 1950s.
The perfect poutine recipe
At its simplest, poutine is the heavenly alignment of gravy and cheese curds served over chips. It’s unfancy yet deeply satisfying soul food.
“What I need to do is get more people into poutine because there are still so many people who don’t know what it is,” says Paul Dunits, who hails from Toronto, Ontario.
At its most opulent, a poutine recipe may feature luxury ingredients such as lobster or foie gras.
In the province of Quebec, it’s regarded as a dish to savour after a boozy night out in the likes of Montreal. Poutine has the reputation of being the perfect thing to eat to offset a hangover. Buying a portion may even bring a cheeky morning-after bonus of leftovers for breakfast.
Many people now regard poutine as Canada’s national food. Inhabitants of the province of Quebec may take issue with that and argue poutine is a Quebecois delicacy rather than Canada’s national dish.
Paul Dunits, a Canadian, had been working in the United Kingdom as a chef for seven years before establishing his own street food business, The Poutinerie.
In 2013 few restaurants were serving poutine in Britain, other than a handful of establishments with Canadian sous chefs.
During the coronavirus lockdown of 2020 Paul began shipping do-it-yourself poutine kits to addresses on the United Kingdom’s mainland.
“My market situation was amazing because I’ve been doing it for about seven years. I was constantly busy. I’ve taken over a good little number on every market. I was usually the busiest stall at every one,” says Paul.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. The lockdown that began in the United Kingdom in March 2020 forced the closure of restaurants and food stalls.
“We were going to have a shipping container in Hackney Wick that we could sell from. That was the next logistical step for me without a massive overlay of trying to take on a shop that has premiums and crazy rents in London. That was just about to happen right before Covid happened – that’s gone now as well,” rues Paul, who misses the banter he had with customers visiting his stall.
The upside of not working at markets was being able to spend more time at home with his young daughter. However, operating as a limited company resulted in Paul falling through the cracks for government support. His thoughts turned to how to generate income. He hit on the idea of distributing do-it-yourself poutine kits that could be shipped for people to cook in their own homes.
The Poutinerie online
“One night me and my wife were talking…I said, ‘You know, I could probably do 50 kits from my house – that’s more than what the government is giving me right now,’” explains Paul.
“I put 50 kits out online and they sold in about 30 seconds. Then someone reached out and gave me a shipping container not far from my house so I pushed it to 100,” he adds.
Paul first tried a version of poutine three decades ago while working part-time in a burger restaurant in his native Ontario.
Toronto, the largest city in Ontario, is less than six hours’ drive from Montreal, which could well be regarded as the poutine capital of Canada.
“When you get older you can drive to Montreal for the weekend. The drinking age is a year younger there. We would take a lot of trips to Montreal and we could actually get tickets for Leaf games,” recalls Paul, referencing the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team. “To go to Montreal and experience the Toronto-Montreal rivalry was a very cool thing to do for a weekend.”
“That’s when I really experienced poutine first-hand, along with Montreal smoked meat,” he says.
After moving to London – the one in England rather than its namesake in southwestern Ontario – Paul explored the city by visiting markets with his wife.
Poutine as London street food
“My wife, being a little more driven than me, looked at the stalls and how busy they were and said, ‘Why don’t you think about doing street food? You’d be really good at it. You’re a very personable person and you’re a great chef,’” reveals Paul about a conversation that preceded a brainstorming session.
“Being Canadian, I wanted a Canadian angle. When we were writing a list of Canadian food it wasn’t very long,” he laughs. “There’s ingredients; you’ve got maple syrup, salmon from the coast and Canadian back bacon. I played around with the idea of maybe a Canadian back bacon sandwich. Poutine was on the list.”
With the idea of doing street food, Paul took a trip home to Toronto: “When we landed it had probably been two or three years since I’d been back and poutine was on every menu. There was even a chain called Smoke’s Poutinerie. That wasn’t the case when I left 14 years ago. I thought, ‘Wow, when did poutine become so popular in Toronto?’ That put it in the back of my mind.”
While driving to visit his parents, who now live outside of Toronto, Paul noted farms advertising their cheese curds via roadside signs.
“In Ontario, I had never seen that. In Quebec, sure, everywhere. That’s when I thought, ‘I’m going to try to make poutine when I get back to London’,” says Paul of his decisive moment of inspiration.
Back in England, Paul approached dairies in London for cheese curds. Initially, he sourced curds from Neal’s Yard as he began to sell poutine in London.
Sundays at Brick Lane Market
“I started small, doing markets; Brick Lane on Sundays and other markets around London. It grew pretty quickly,” says Paul of his experience selling street food in London.
On good weeks prior to the coronavirus lockdown he’d sell up to 800 portions of poutine at London’s markets.
“One of my best markets was on the last Wednesday of the month at New Street Square, close to the law courts behind Fleet Street. Come 11:30 am the queue was already 20 people deep. By 12 o’clock it was 40 to 50 deep. I was busy until I sold out or it petered off at 1.45 pm,” says Paul.
Experience of selling street food in London has resulted in Paul observing how a queue can be good for business: “When people see a massive queue they think it must be good. It’s a double-edged sword. When it gets too long, people don’t want to wait – it’s a lunch hour and they’ve only got so much time.”
Operating The Poutinerie required Paul to adapt his mindset away from that of a chef working in a traditional kitchen. He learnt the benefit of thorough prepping before opening for business.
“The beautiful thing about poutine is it can be very quick to assemble because all the hard prep is done beforehand,” he observes. “You’re stuck in a little stall but you can do quite a lot as long as you’re organised and well prepared.”
The tastiest toppings with poutine
At first, The Poutinerie offered a coq au vin topping with its poutine. Paul believes that as the chef in him coming to the fore. The coq au vin took a significant amount of preparation, so he looked towards other toppings.
“At Brick Lane Market there’s another trader called The Rib Man. People were getting his rib meat in a bun then my poutine as a kind of combination. We became mates and I approached him to buy his rib meat and hot sauce to do a combo. I ended up moving into his kitchen as well, helping each other out,” says Paul.
“In my experience, the best thing that goes with poutine is a long slow-cooked meat because when you’re eating it, you want to get a forkful of everything. Say you had a steak sliced up on top of the poutine, that complicates things. If you have slow-cooked meat that’s tender, you can get a little bit of everything; a stew or bourguignon works well. Slow barbecued meat adds another dimension because you get the smoky flavour. For me when you have hot sauce on it too, it ticks all the boxes and hits every flavour profile on your tongue – it’s perfection!” he adds.
What is poutine, eh?
Britons unfamiliar with poutine may be tempted to confuse the Canadian dish with chips, gravy and cheese.
“There’s always the argument that poutine is just chips, cheese and gravy and that they’ve been doing it up in the north of England forever,” jokes Paul.
“For so many years I’ve been copping a bit of flack because I’m from Toronto and not Montreal. My grandparents are from the Isle of Man. My brother went there to visit and sent me pictures. They have cheese, chips and gravy on their menus. I think it might be a national dish for them there,” adds Paul laughing. “So now I’ve got some credibility because the reason why I’m allowed to be here is because I’m on an ancestral visa. I guess I have every right to do chips, cheese and gravy.”
How to serve poutine
Paul has found that people like their poutine served in a variety of ways. For some diners, the gravy and curds should be below the chips. Others like them served on top.
Some like the box closed for a few minutes before eating the poutine. Others like the gravy and topping served separately from the chips so that the chips remain crispy.
Ultimately there’s no wrong way of serving it.
However, when it comes to The Poutinerie’s DIY poutine kits, Paul recommends bringing the cheese curds to room temperature before serving.
“The squeakiness comes out more when they’re at room temperature,” says Paul of the curds.
The ingredients are vacuum-packed and couriered overnight in cooled, insulated boxes.
Canadian food available online
Paul has simplified the offering of The Poutinerie to facilitate the online business via Shopify. Additional toppings are not offered at present, but he’s willing to reassess that in three or four months.
The fixed costs of packaging and shipping mean that The Poutinerie’s DIY poutine kits are more expensive than portions served from the stall.
“My regular customers don’t mind paying it but new customers might um and ah… For someone who’s never had poutine before it may be a step too far for them pricewise in these uncertain times,” acknowledges Paul. “It was a bit scary in the beginning, giving it out to people to do themselves.”
He uses a fryer to cook chips at his stall. Obviously, not everyone has a deep fat fryer or air fryer at home. To perfect the cooking instructions that are distributed with The Poutinerie’s orders, Paul spent a couple of weeks experimenting with the oven in his kitchen.
“It’s as good as you’re going to get and, with the current situation, everybody understands that,” he says confidently.
Katherine Ryan on Sunday Brunch
“The response we’ve had to our poutine has been tremendous. Just recently Katherine Ryan was on Sunday Brunch,” says Paul, referencing the popular Channel Four television show hosted by Simon Rimmer and Tim Lovejoy.
“When they came back from the commercial my boxes and logo were sitting on the table. Katherine and the two hosts ate it and were talking. It was only 15 seconds but it was her lockdown treat; poutine and that you have to say it with a French-Canadian accent and that you can get it from The Poutinerie and they’ve been shipping during the lockdown,” he says of the exposure on television.
“She’s Canadian and when lockdown started she had a podcast. She was talking about how you couldn’t get good poutine anywhere in London. My followers were listening, tagged me right away and said ‘You can!’. When I saw that I tagged her in a tweet and when things get back to normal you’ve got to come check us out at Brick Lane Market. When I started doing my poutine kits I was like, wait a minute, I can send them to her,” reveals Paul.
Now anyone can order The Poutinerie’s poutine to addresses on the United Kingdom’s mainland.
Late in 2021 Paul announced that he was closing The Poutinerie. Nonetheless, hopefully you enjoyed reading this interview and about the story of poutine.
Thank you for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about Canadian poutine in London. The delicacy originated in the province of Quebec. Please take a look at this post about poutine in Montreal and Quebec.
I made one portion of chips in the oven following the instructions that are shipped with online orders from The Poutinerie. The result was very good poutine. I cooked the other batch using the air fryer function of my Ninja Foodi. The outcome was outstanding. One serve was with frankfurters the other was with slow-cooked brisket in a spicy sauce.
The homemade poutine proved enjoyable to munch on while watching movies on the sofa.
Thinking about buying a Ninja Foodi multicooker from Amazon?:
Take a look at the Destination Canada website to plan travel to Canada and eat poutine in the country it was first made.
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