Culinary Artist Heloise Leclerc Thinks Outside The Bubble
When Heloise Leclerc was a young girl, she didn’t get an allowance like most kids. Instead, Leclerc and her sister were encouraged to scour the pantry and organize bake sales as a means of making pocket money. It’s no wonder, then, that the PICA graduate would grow up to make a career by merging the love of cooking and the entrepreneurship that were instilled in her at such a young age.
Today, Leclerc runs a popular blog, 180 degrés (180 Degrees), which documents her transition from start-up consultant to professional chef and features over 130 of her own personal recipes. She also manages a website, Foodista en mission (Foodista on a Mission), which details, among other things, her thoughts on Québec’s local and provincial culinary scene and her career as a chef, culinary consultant and more. She has also brought whimsy and mischief to the Quebec City culinary world with her resto-bulles—or “bubble restaurants”—whose locations are announced within only 24 hours of popping up.
While Leclerc always suspected her love for food was “borderline obsessive,” she worked for years in communications and business development before deciding to pursue a career as a chef. To outsiders, it might seem Heloise was fated to become a chef and be her own boss, but Leclerc admits to resisting her innate entrepreneurial spirit before ultimately realizing she needed to create and execute her own projects.
“I needed … to be in charge,” she says, “because it was the only way for me to be happy and live up to my own expectations.”
The road to PICA and beyondLeclerc’s love of food took on a new dimension about four years ago, when she and her boyfriend visited La Tanière, a Five Diamond-rated gourmet restaurant in Quebec City. “Their farm-to-table gastronomical creations deliberately engaged all five senses throughout the dining experience, including sound and touch, which are so often neglected at the table,” says Leclerc.
“From that day on, something changed in the way I cooked at home. I stopped fearing the unknown and gladly accepted to make mistakes in the process of uncovering secret flavours, new techniques, or just a new perspective on an old ingredient.”
A six-month trip to China also encouraged Leclerc to make a career change. During the trip, she was “cooking Chinese food like a madwoman,” she says. That’s when she began to develop a business plan to get something of her own started in Quebec City. It was while working on her business plan that Leclerc realized she had to get the training and experience she lacked by attending Vancouver’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, or PICA.
Leclerc chose PICA for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Vancouver’s expansive Asian community, which allowed her to dine in Asian restaurants, explore their food markets and cook alongside her newfound Asian friends. “PICA is also right next to a market and docks loaded with the freshest BC products,” she says. “It was any cook’s dream.”
Most importantly, thanks to PICA’s “highly intensive and 90% hands-on approach to the curriculum,” she says, the school allowed her to do in six months what it would have taken her much longer to accomplish at another school. She, like all PICA students, trained at the school’s Bistro 101 restaurant, honing her skills by offering à la carte & buffet dining to paying customers.
“I was lucky enough to have resident sommelier extraordinaire Chef Tim (Ellison) for my restaurant management course,” says Leclerc. “Chef Tim was adamant that there was a place (in the culinary industry) for any hard-working and talented individual.”
Thinking outside the bubble
It was at PICA that Leclerc first heard about secretive and clandestine events known as “bubble restaurants.”
“A Chef there told us a friend of his was making big money by serving meals in empty flats to groups of people,” she recalls. “Locations would be disclosed only 24 hours ahead of time in order to avoid any risk of being caught by local authorities. He told us not to do such a foolish thing, but I’m pretty sure he was trying not to wink as he said so. It definitely planted a seed in my mind.”
Being the law-abiding person that she is (“Honestly!” she insists), Leclerc found a way to put together a perfectly legal bubble restaurant upon her return to Quebec City. She wanted to create an event that would appeal to her “as a foodie, cook and food blogger”—one that would engage all the senses of those lucky enough to catch wind of the bubble and attend.
“It took me almost three months to put together my first bubble restaurant,” she says. “The theme—The Underground—was an obvious reference to the origins of my concept and it was a great creative trigger.” For the menu, Leclerc “gastronomized” root vegetables, a challenge that gave her an opportunity to put her skills as a chef to the test and, she adds, a chance to “play with edible coal and gold.”
But beyond coming up with a menu that would get her guests talking, Leclerc was surprised by the scope of what she was actually doing. “There were so many aspects to this project,” she recalls. “Advertisement, sales, rentals, front of the house, staff, mise en scène, permits, insurance, decor, transportation, rehearsal, photography, partnerships and so on and so forth.”
As she prepared her first resto-bulle, Leclerc called upon the business and social media savvy she had acquired while freelancing as a start-up consultant. “I did everything I always suggested to my clients, and then some,” she says.
Her blog and social media presence were both huge assets. She timed the announcement of the bubble restaurant with the launch of her own business, creating a buzz among foodies and media alike. A video teaser and press release were circulated, which led to more media coverage. She took every available opportunity to stake her claim as a chef who was truly passionate about food, and utterly committed to her trade.
The resulting “bubble restaurant” was a seven-course dining event—a huge success that sparked great interest in the media, the public and among the myriad of foodies who were intrigued by the concept. Her next resto-bulle is planned for Valentine’s Day but of course, the menu, location and overall details remain a mystery.
“Reporters are very curious and I have tidbits of information ready for them—for example, collaborations with local artisans, a category of food items I’ll be serving, influences—but people are generally respectful of the secret surrounding the whole concept,” she says. “Guests do truly appreciate the ‘surprise’ factor that comes with the concept.”
Leclerc prefers to withhold as much information as possible. The address that lucky guests are given may not necessarily be where the resto-bulle will unfold, and requests for “special gear” that may be required for the event gets everyone talking. Still, Leclerc keeps everyone in the dark until she’s ready to unleash the experience in earnest.
Leclerc is also determined to ensure that the “bubble” is available to as wide an audience as possible. She sells only 25 tickets per event, so she sets up a waitlist for prospective attendees—so many, in fact, that she could organize more bubbles in Quebec City and Montreal based on the waitlist alone. She lets people on the waitlist know that the tickets are online one day before she advertises through other outlets. This way, she says, “there is also an opening for people who just heard about the concept and it doesn’t become a secret society or an overly exclusive club.”
Moving forward in no conventional fashion
Leclerc is inspired to move forward with her career, her blog and her mischievous bubble restaurants. With the industry struggling at the moment, she says she doesn’t think she’ll go by way of traditional restaurants—at least, she says, “not in a conventional fashion.” She’s inspired by a variety of concepts and ideas, from Portland’s offbeat street food scene to the closed-circuit food chains of Prince Edward Island and Îles de la Madeleine. She’s also involved with other Quebecois food entrepreneurs, discussing new cooperative models aimed at “producing responsible, high-quality food that also sustains those who do the investing and the cooking.”
“Playing a central role in those discussions will certainly impact my long term business decisions,” she says.
As for entrepreneurs—culinary and otherwise—who want to take the plunge into becoming self-employed and pursuing their own unconventional career paths, Leclerc offers some great advice. “Allow yourself to think outside the box!” she stresses. “It is sometimes scarier to walk in a path that’s not been beaten before you, but it is extremely rewarding.”
She encourages others to write a business plan, study and do research, conduct surveys and test their products and services. “Get help, find mentors and surround yourself with people who inspire you and share your values and vision,” says Leclerc. “Start with something you know you can nail and use your success as a springboard to reach your next objective. Above all, always be authentic and passionate about what you are doing, and know when to rest a little, so you can run the long run.”
The end result, for Leclerc, is an obvious delight in where her life has taken her.
“Being an entrepreneur is every bit as hard as I remembered it to be (from) observing my parents as a child,” she says, “but it is also very rewarding. I crack a smile every time I introduce myself as a Foodista on a Mission. Yup! This is me! This is my life!”