As a child, Gary LeBlanc loved music. By the time he was 10, he taught himself how to play the guitar. At 13, he was in the kitchen playing the fiddle and mandolin, learning some of the old Acadian songs his mother loved to sing.
He always watched his mother cook traditional Acadian meals— potato pancakes, rapure (AKA rappie pie), chiard (a potato and pork casserole). He learned how to cook them at a young age.
LeBlanc, now 59 years old, first opened Café l’Acadie in Truro in 2012, six days after his mother died. “I opened in her honour, there’s no question about that,” he says. “She’s like the matriarch of Café l’Acadie.” He’s had a location on the Bedford Highway for just over three years. Traditional rapure and chicken fricot (a hearty stew) are some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
“I just thought it was kind of unusual that you could go to probably almost every second street corner in the city and get the cultural food from some culture around the world, except one that was born right here in this province,” says LeBlanc. He adds that he opened the restaurant to learn about and promote his Acadian culture and create a gathering place to share stories around food and music.
Before the restaurant, he worked for 27 years putting people with disabilities into the competitive work force. Through that work, he started his business in Truro.
He had three weeks to reassess a chef’s skills for his rehabilitation team after the man suffered a severe brain injury. He called almost every restaurant in Truro to see who would give him a chance. The owner of the Stonehouse Motel and Restaurant said yes.
After the reassessment, the owner of the Stonehouse presented LeBlanc with an offer that he couldn’t turn down: a fully equipped kitchen and an opportunity to harness his passion for Acadian food.
“I talked to some relatives of mine that were in the industry and they all said, ‘Gary, don’t do it man… if you don’t have two years of wages in your back pocket, don’t even consider it,” he recalls. He didn’t listen. “I had this nagging thing in my head about Acadian food. It was an incredible opportunity.”
Despite his family’s skepticism, LeBlanc went ahead with it. They’ve stood behind him ever since. He says his partner Roland has been a key supporter, and that he couldn’t have done it without him.
Since opening in Halifax in 2015, LeBlanc has enjoyed success in a notoriously tough business. On Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., the restaurant hosts traditional Acadian nights. “The biggest comment that I hear is from seniors, ‘we love it because it doesn’t interfere with our bedtime,’” laughed Gary.
Shelley Webber, a volunteer at Café l’Acadie, also shares some Acadian history and enjoys working at the Café. “They’re very good people to work for, they’re easy-going and nice, and it’s a very laid-back environment,” she says. “ [Gary] is a very humble man.”
LeBlanc said his favourite part about running the restaurant is being with the diners. “When I’m done cooking in the kitchen, I make a beeline for the dining room.” He loves telling stories and listening to others about their own personal histories. “I’ve made it my business to know a lot about my cultural history.”
The owner plans to demolish the building that currently houses Café l’Acadie in Bedford, but LeBlanc isn’t worried. “My understanding is that the main floor of the new building will be storefront retail and we’ll be offered dibs on space,” he says, noting that he hopes the owners will see it as an asset to have him there. “That’s pretty exciting for me because, I figure by the time that happens, there’s a good chance that I would have been at this site for five years.”
LeBlanc has ideas for the restaurant if the development happens. He assumes many of the neighbourhood’s new residents will be older. Many of the customers are already seniors, including lots of Acadians who retire to the area. “My plan would be to have part of the kitchen designated to preparing menus and weekly meals for residents of the building,” he says. “I’m excited about however this unfolds. I’ve got my eyes open and I’ve got my ears open and I’m just kind of watching closely how this is coming together for me.”