With the pandemic threatening to bankrupt their restaurant, Ralph Alerte Desamours and Lee-Anne Millaire Lafleur needed to adapt, quickly. So they revolutionized takeout with a DIY barbecue picnic on a compostable grill.
Text — Mark Mann
Photos — Alexi Hobbs
Ralph Alerte Desamours and Lee-Anne Millaire Lafleur fell in love in 9th grade at a high school in downtown Montréal. Fifteen years later, they’re still together, with three kids and one of Montréal’s hottest Caribbean restaurants between them.
Ralph has been passionate about Caribbean cuisine since he was a child. “My mom is a great cook. She knows how to cook her Caribbean food to the fullest,” he told me during a recent visit to Palme, the restaurant they opened on St Catherine’s Street in Montréal three years ago.
“At a young age, I started trying to marinade and recreate my mom’s style of cooking.” Ralph’s parents came to Montréal from Haiti, and barbecues were always at the centre of their family gatherings every Sunday.
Keeping up the tradition, he went to culinary school and became the head chef at a popular Caribbean restaurant when he was only 21, while Lee-Anne started managing hotels and operating bars.
Early on, they began nurturing the dream of opening a restaurant. After a stint working in the Cayman Islands, they’d saved enough to open their own spot, with Ralph in the kitchen and Lee-Anne running front-of-house. They picked a location in Montréal’s Gay Village, a neighbourhood they chose for its inclusiveness, and named it after Ralph’s unique vision of Caribbean fusion: “I’m trying to reach everywhere you can find a palm tree. I want to bring all that influence under Caribbean style.”
Then a novel coronavirus bloomed across the globe, and within a few weeks of it first appearing in the news, everyone in Montréal was staying home. “The minute that COVID started, I thought, ‘I gotta make something out of this. I can’t sit at home and wait for something to happen’,” Ralph said. He and Lee-Anne stepped up their takeout offerings, but it wasn’t enough. They needed to do something innovative, and Lee-Anne had an inspiration: DIY barbecue picnics on a disposable grill.
“We had the idea that it would be really cool to be able to give a whole package to people for a barbecue,” she told me. “Then we realized that there are a lot of people in Montréal who don’t have a barbecue or space for one. We figured that if we could find something sustainable, people could do a little barbecue in the park or close to their house, or even on their balcony.”
Enter the CasusGrill, an eco-friendly barbecue that grills like a dream and then composts in six weeks, like nothing ever happened. Single-use barbecues are easy to find, but they are generally made from aluminum, which means creating waste that will take at least 200 years to decompose. The CasusGrill, on the other hand, is made from four natural materials: charcoal, cardboard, lava stone, and bamboo. The naturally-occurring lava stone looks like foam and acts like insulation, preventing the cardboard frame from catching fire. When you’re done, you can throw the whole thing in the trash, toss it in the campfire, or even bury it in the ground, without guilt or regret.
Ralph and Lee-Anne started selling picnic baskets for four, with the compostable barbecue, matches and tongs all included. They were an immediate hit. True to Ralph’s devotion to Caribbean cooking, customers must order 24 hours in advance, to give the meat and veggies enough time to properly soak up the marinade. For Montréalers, Restaurant Palme is only a 10-minute walk from Parc Lafontaine, and not much farther to Parc Jean Drapeau, so whether you head north or south, you can enjoy your barbecue with a waterfront view and a canopy of trees overhead.
For everyone else, Ralph showed us how to make a gorgeous marinade in true Caribbean style, perfect for at-home grilling, barbecuing in the wild, or using a CasusGrill in the park.
Spicy Caribbean Marinade for Meat and Veggies
3 scotch bonnets
A bundle of coriander
2 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of salt
2 cups of coconut milk
2 good squirts of sriracha
1 splash of oil
1 large tenderloin steak, cut into chunks
An assortment of veggies (mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, etc)
- Chop the tomatoes and onions into chunks and drop them into a container that will accommodate a hand blender, or just do it in a regular blender.
- Slice the tops off the scotch bonnets, keeping the seeds, and scissor off the coriander stems, then toss it all into the mix.
- Pour in the coconut milk and lime juice. Add the salt and sugar and a long squeeze of sriracha. Blend it all together until it makes a thick soup. Finish with one glug of olive oil and mix it up.
- Cut the cauliflower into thick steaks and build your kebabs with the chunks of beef and mixed veggies.
- Place them in large, reusable ziplock bags or Tupperware containers, then pour in your marinade to coat. Leave it all to soak for at least four hours, but preferably 24 for maximum juiciness and flavour.
- When you’re ready to pack up your barbecue picnic, cut the pineapple into bite-sized chunks, rub on some sriracha, and slide them onto skewers. Dessert!
- Get your barbecue at high heat. If you’re working from a park grill or the CasusGrill, be mesmerized by the coals as they slowly acquire an amber glow, and open a bottle of wine while you wait.
- Place your kebabs on the grill. It should only take a few minutes on each side.
- The cauliflower steaks can be laid directly on the grill and will cook at the same rate as the meat. (Hopefully you didn’t forget tongs.)
- To finish, grill a few slices of spicy pineapple.
Serve and enjoy!