A Life's Story
October 01, 2022
Family, food and faith
St. Boniface culinary matriarch’s presence, smile and devotion are much missed
By: Eva Wasney
Irène Kirouac’s smile was as iconic as her restaurants.
For decades, customers at the Red Lantern and Resto Gare were greeted with a wide grin and a kind word from the matriarch of three generations (and counting) of local restaurateurs. Her geniality remained a fixture in the family businesses long after retirement.
“Every time she would come in, people would stop her to talk — they knew her as Madame Kirouac,” says daughter Linda Love, who now runs Resto Gare with her son. “Her presence was always there.”
Irène — who died in February at the age of 90 — approached business the same way she approached life: with grace, kindness and empathy. Whether they were buying the most expensive bottle of wine or a cup of coffee, everyone who walked in the door was doted upon equally.
“She was just radiant, people would fall in love with her,” says son Fern Kirouac Jr., proprietor of InFerno’s Bistro and Dug & Betty’s Ice Creamery. “She had that personality, very caring, very giving.”
Family was everything; and with so many children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren involved in the small St. Boniface restaurant empire started by her late husband, hospitality also became Irène’s world.
The eldest of six siblings, she was born and raised in a small Acadian community in New Brunswick. Her father was a fisherman and the family lived on a subsistence farm with an apple orchard, livestock and a vegetable garden. Lobster, an undesirable catch in those days, was often on the dinner table.
Irène’s childhood was spent taking care of her younger siblings, exploring the nearby river in a rowboat and helping out with the less glamorous farm chores — less squeamish than her brothers, she was usually tasked with culling the chickens.
“She wasn’t afraid of much of anything,” Linda says, recounting the time her mother killed a snake in the backyard of their family home.
As a teenager, Irène dropped out of school and moved to Toronto for a job in a hotel. Shortly after, she relocated to Bermuda and waitressed in the restaurant of a high-end resort. It was there that she met her husband, Fernand Sr., who had just finished culinary school and was apprenticing in the hotel kitchen.
Irène, a reserved and deeply religious woman, wasn’t sure what to think of the charming young chef who partied too much and rode a motorbike. A classic case of opposites attracting, Fern persisted and the pair married in Bermuda with a huge reception full of co-workers from the island.
The couple moved to Quebec, where they welcomed Fern Jr. and Linda into the world. Irène stayed home with the kids while her husband bounced around the east coast cooking in lodges and small towns. The family reunited when he landed a more profitable executive chef job at the Regal Constellation Hotel in Toronto.
The Kirouacs had dreams of a big family with lots of kids, but pregnancy complications after their first and second were born threw a kink into their plans. They adopted their son Paul in 1966 and their daughter, Christine, after moving to Winnipeg the following year.
Fern Sr. was offered a head chef job at the International Inn and the family moved into a cosy duplex on Waverley Street. Their stint in River Heights marked the beginning of Irène’s involvement with Saint John Brebeuf Church, where she was a parishioner and active member until her death — dedicating much of her time to elderly churchgoers.
“She’d always say, ‘I’m going to go and visit my seniors today,’” Linda says. “She picked people up to take them to church and (brought) them communion if they were in hospital or bedridden at home.”
Irène’s faith is what helped her get through the difficult and sudden deaths of her son, Paul, in 1989 and husband a year later.
Fern Sr. purchased The Red Lantern, a fine-dining steakhouse on Hamel Avenue, in 1980 and La Vieille Gare, a former train station, several years later. Running two restaurants required a full-family effort. Irène helped out with the cooking, baking and hosted on the weekends. The younger Fern worked in the kitchen and Linda cut her teeth waiting tables.
When Fern Sr. died, the trio kept both places afloat until it became too much. The Red Lantern closed and the family focused attention on La Vieille Gare (later renamed Resto Gare) — an occasionally difficult arrangement due to competing visions for the future. Still, Irène was an important sounding board when Fern Jr. left to start his own restaurant.
“All my business endeavours, I ran past her,” he says.
With her family’s legacy well-in-hand, Irène stepped away to focus on her own interests. Namely, volunteering with church groups, gardening, long phone conversations with family abroad and spending time with her beloved pets. She also had a soft spot for a good glass of red wine, so much so that she started making her own at home.
“It was not too bad,” Linda says with a laugh.
Right up until the end, Sundays were spent sharing a bottle and cooking a meal together as a family.
“She was always proud of her tourtiere and her pickles,” Fern says. “I finally got the dough down, it just took me half my life. She wouldn’t measure, but her pie dough was so flaky and firm.”
But meals were never about the food. Not really.
“It’s the act of cooking together,” Linda adds. “Family was terribly important.”
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