Jean-Pierre Côté is an irrepressible sort. Good thing, because his chosen path included plenty of patience until his business really got rolling. The French Canadian arrived in Vancouver in 1991, determined to make his way here. “There was really not much in the line of fine spices, infused oils. These things were quite exotic back then,” says Côté, as he contemplates his cappuccino. These days, at his Maison Côté kiosk on Granville Island, there is virtually no limit to the kind of goods customers can find, and consumer awareness is at an all-time high, which suits him just fine. “I love the fact that this community has so rapidly grown into its culinary knowledge,” he says. “I love the challenge of enticing well-informed people with new things.”
It all began when Côté was working for Stock Market, making ends meet, and doing some moonlighting, cooking for some friends. They then opened a restaurant in Richmond, but people were most impressed with his collection of sea salts, and some infused olive oils. His gift for repartee, and his penchant for speaking his mind clearly, became trademarks of a sort, as his loyal following grew into a demand for a retail option for his products. He had a cart at different locations across the Lower Mainland before settling on Granville Island. “I did everything by hand, basically homemade, which is exactly what I do now,” says Côté. “Although the business has grown, and I do travel a lot, to find great new things to share with my clients.”
When he says everything is done by hand, that is meant pretty well literally. He sources the best ingredients, in bulk, portions and packages them, specializing in creating completely unique blends or combinations. Côté still appreciates cooking for some of his clients, and it is a way of introducing new ideas to people. “My clients are often friends, as well,” he says. “So I really enjoy cooking for them.” There is a balance between exploring new things, and fulfilling expectations, but he walks that line very well.
Using his Papineauville upbringing as a base, Côté began infusing olive oils and doing unique sea salt infusions, and steadily grew the menu of items, while simultaneously helping nurture and grow his customers’ appreciation and subsequent desire for the products. It is easy to forget, in these times of market saturation, that such a thing as smoked sea salt was considered extremely exotic 20 years ago. “It took time, of course,” says Côté. “But I really knew my customers would enjoy the products. Many of them had travelled, and had great culinary knowledge anyway. It was a case of providing some of these things right here at home, and not having to travel to Brittany or Morocco.”
There is the salt collection, really where Côté began to build his reputation. Today, you can find such things as Cowboy salt (chili and pepper); French harvest (with porcini mushroom); Madras curry with fennel and poppy seed. There are over 480 options in all. Then there is the pepper collection, numbering over two dozen, and all clearly enunciated in terms of light sensitivity, grinding suitability, oiliness. There are mustards, vanillas, other spices, and of course, oils and vinegars. Many of the items are hand-packed, usually at $9 per bag, or $22 for three. All in all it is clearly a gourmand’s dream store.
Customers can order online, or find Maison Côté products at Granville Island and a few select farmers’ markets. There is no wholesale option, so no alternative retail outlets; Côté firmly prefers to keep his products strictly on a customer-direct basis.
Maison Côté produces 60 tons of seasoned sea salts per year, five tons of peppers, and many spices. The self-professed mandate is “to create new edibles every year to please your palate.” On that count, it is mission accomplished, and judging by the nearly boundless energy he displays, in a conversation ranging and careening into all kinds of interesting directions, almost all pertaining to his abiding passion for food and the exotic products he makes, to enhance almost any dish you care to cook, there is absolutely no stopping him. Not back then, in 1991, and certainly not now.
Photos by MONTECRISTO staff.
Granville Island Public Market, 2-1661 Duranleau St, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, V6H 3S3, (604) 666-6655.