Mistral Bistro's Chef Jean-Yves Benoit and wife Minna.

Cooking up L’amour

Romance and good food share a love affair all their own.

It is for this reason that certain restaurants do such roaring business on Valentine’s Day.

The warm allure of Mistral Bistro draws lovers year round. Regardless of what chill wind might blow beyond the glass, all within is warmly wood, richly hued and amply charmed.

The ambrosia of rich aromas carrying from the kitchen is second only to what arrives so effortlessly at the table: a regionally-rooted reflection of French bistro fare that is anything but commonplace, yet utterly without pretension.

Restaurants like this remind you what loving food is all about. Meeting the owners reminds you what might make love itself tick.

It is in rooms such as this that romance and food commingle effortlessly. Much credit belongs to the kitchen where Chef Jean-Yves Benoit maintains a menu grounded in no small romance with food.

The flavours on the menu are deep, the ethos simple: from richly caramelized French onion and rustically roasted butternut squash soups to a braised navy bean cassoulet, brimming with duck leg, lamb and pork sausages and thick-cut bacon, the essence is time.

Having honed the mastery of his craft with some of the world’s best in Zurich, the south of France and Corsica before opening his own restaurant, Fleur de Thym, in the Lubéron region of Provence, Chef Benoit did none of it alone.

A radiant presence in the front of house, Minna Benoit smiles. “For him, cooking is showing love. I clean behind, set tables, open wine and the food is in his hands.”

Her only caveat and his greatest pleasure? He does the cooking.

They came to opposite ends of their shared telescope in the kitchen of Zurich’s Hotel Restaurant Hermitage. She was a young Chef de Rang and he the Chef de Cuisine. The restaurant scored well in Gaulet et Mileau guide. Chef Benoit scored a wife and partner in life.

The two moved to the Vancouver following a chance vacation that re-united Chef Jean-Yves with two very talented alumni from the kitchen he kept at Hotel Negresco: Jean Francis Quaglia, Chef/co-owner of Provence Mediterranean Grill and Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar’s Executive Chef, Frank Pabst.

Chef Benoit set anchor at the Pan Pacific Hotel to head up the award-winning Five Sails Restaurant and Minna joined him as Maître d’ shortly thereafter. It proved a match made in heaven, yet it lacked one essential long term ingredient: the romance factor.

It was not their own, and so the couple crafted a love letter to French food in the furthest reaches of West Vancouver. It was well along the way to Lighthouse Park, beneath the towering pines and romantically tucked behind an antiquated gas station that never seemed to be open. The aptly named L’Emotion shone in all ways save location.

In 2005, the culinary couple made the leap to Broadway and Mistral Bistro has found warm welcome, especially around anniversaries and holidays.

The reason is simple. The key ingredient is enjoying what you do and what the other person brings to the proverbial table.

Chef Benoit shrugs and smiles warmly at his wife. “Someone who loves cooking cannot be with someone who does not enjoy food. It is such an important thing,” he says. “Good cooking is unpretentious and not too intimidating. Anybody can do it, on Valentine’s Day or any other day.”

Minna laughs. “Ladies are tired of flowers. They want something to eat. I don’t do any cooking. It’s really about the caring. If Jean-Yves didn’t give me food, I would not eat.”

Perhaps it’s in keeping with their countries of origin: he cooks, she provides the Finnish. Regardless, they have discovered a relationship with food that works wonders nightly.

May the following menu fortune you as favourably this Valentine’s Day.

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