La Palette offers a dish that is both unique and controversial. People either love it or hate it.
Last year, the restaurant had about 20 protesters outside the establishment protesting the controversial dish. The protesters held signs and spoke into megaphones to make their voices heard. Brook Kavanagh, a chef at La Palette, went out to meet the protesters.
“Once they realized I was actually there to talk to them and have a rational face-to-face conversation, they were OK,” he said.
Eating horse meat has been common in Europe for a long time and, while it is available in North America, eating it has yet to become a widely accepted practice here. Kavanagh said he was 14 when he first heard about horse meat from an Italian butcher. He said for a couple years horse meat at La Palette was only offered to customers verbally, in order to gauge whether or not they would like it. It has since been physically added to the menu.
“This is something we’re proud of and we’re not going to let other people’s opinions change what we do,” Kavanagh said.
Chefs herald the meat as wonderful to work with because of its tenderness and flavour, while animal rights activists claim the horses are killed in inhumane ways and are sick animals. Kavanagh, 29, says the restaurant’s supplier of horse meat ensures him the animals are raised for the purpose of consumption.
“These animals are raised specifically for their meat,” Kavanagh said. “They never know the taste of a bridle or a saddle on their back.”
Bob Timmons, 39, is the animal rights activist who organized the protest in front of the Queen Street West restaurant. He doesn’t believe horses are bred specifically for consumption.
“The horses that go to slaughter aren’t healthy horses,” Timmons said. “They’re horses that are sick.”
Matt DeMille is a sous-chef at Parts and Labour, another restaurant on Queen Street West. He said he was first introduced to horse meat while filming a television show pilot at La Palette. DeMille, 29, says horse used to be on the menu at Parts and Labour, but was removed due to the negative reaction from customers and activists.
“I find it’s not worth the bitter notes and comments,” DeMille said. “I’d rather be liked than hated for something.”
DeMille said his restaurant wants to appeal to a wider clientele.
“I mean, at some point in your career you’re going to make enemies serving anything, but we want to be friends with everyone,” DeMille said. “That’s why we chose to remove the horse and serve something different.”
Chef Kavanagh, who has been in the food industry for 15 years, doesn’t believe La Palette caters to every consumer.
“We’re not trying to appeal to a vegetarian demographic,” he said. “We’re appealing to food lovers and if you’re a true food lover you try anything, including horse meat.”
Kavanagh says, from a culinary standpoint, horse meat is great to work with.
“It’s a beautiful product,” Kavanagh said. “It’s exquisitely tender, delicately flavoured and incomparably juicy; it’s really easy to sell.”
DeMille described the meat as sweet and also warns of overcooking it.
“Since horse is a very muscular animal, there’s not much fat in the meat,” he said. “So you have to cook it rare to medium-rare; it would dry out very easily if you cook it too much.”
Timmons said the horse meat industry isn’t selective in the horses it kills.
“Our world is a corporate world now; it’s all about … the profit,” he said. “This is where the horses suffer.”
Kavanagh and DeMille are both insistent that the horse meat served to their customers was raised for consumption, but Timmons thinks differently.
“They (the chefs) try to disassociate their meal outside of the cruelty that is being exposed, but when you do your research on it, all the information is there,” he said.
While he doesn’t want to take away from the horse meat industry, DeMille feels there are many other animal slaughters that activists could be examining.
“There are a few small horse farms in Quebec that treat the animals with respect, but there are millions of places that kill millions of chickens,” he said.
Timmons, a vegan, believes horse meat is more of a human rights issue than an animal rights issue.
“I don’t talk about the cruelty; people don’t want to hear about it because cruelty is more emotional,” he said.