Let’s explore Quebec City for a taste of European charm and luxury in North America. Learn about the historic past of the most photographed hotel in the world and activities in Quebec City. Andy and Todd sit down with Ken Hall, the General Manager of hotel Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, and Steve Barakatt, writer and performer, to give us a local’s perspective of this beautiful city as well as its historic past and how Quebec City buildings have stood the test of time. They take us into the great things to do and the places to be. Be transported to a beautiful place in a very different time as you take a stroll into historic Quebec City filled with music, romance, and more.
Andy McNeill and Todd Bludworth are travel and hospitality entrepreneurs and owners of the global meetings organization, American Meetings, Inc. From sourcing meetings in Quebec City, to corporate event management around the world, their team selects corporate event venues and meeting planners for a wide array of enterprise business clients, providing ideas for convention themes and strategies for running global meetings and events. Learn more at www.americanmeetings.com.
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Welcome everyone to the show. We are excited to have you here because we’re talking about one of my favorite cities in North America and one that a lot of people don’t know about because it is a little far out of the way. One that has a lot of history and a lot of beautiful spaces and it is Quebec City. We got back from our trip there. We’ve got all these great bucket-list ideas and destinations to see while you’re there. Todd, what was your overall thought about Quebec City when we were there?
I thought it was amazing. We had heard about it for so long from people that make the trip, but it’s not that far but you have to be in the right area. Coming from the Northeast, you got Quebec borders, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. If you’re up in that area near the border, it makes a lot of sense for you to take the drive and go check it out. It is such a European feel when you’re inside the walled city, which is the old part of Quebec City. It’s walkable and friendly. There are street performers. It was beautiful. We went in summer, August and September. It couldn’t have been nicer. The weather was perfect.
If you’re planning a trip to Montreal, it’s about a 2.5-hour trip to the Northeast from there. It’s an easy jump with a straight freeway from city to city. It has a strong French influence. Everything from the food to the culture, to the look and feel of the place. We’re going to talk about it but all the different movies that have been filmed in the Old City is because it looks like an old historic European city in many ways. It’s on a river. The city looks over a huge valley because it was made for fortification. There are all these great things that are very similar to it, but at the same time, it’s in Canada. It’s very different and easy to get to.
From that perspective, I highly recommend a trip there. I know we had so much fun, not only doing the Old City, but Quebec City as a whole, which is a modern town as well. It sprawls out from the city center. There’s much to do from arts to culture, to outdoor activities galore. One of the things that we did is took the family mountain climbing and they have a couple of great state parks right there that you can do that in. It’s a lot of fun.
We went mountain climbing and the kids were eight. It was a nail biter for me as an adult, but these kids were doing these amazing climbs and no fear. We also went a little further out and did some whale-watching, which was amazing. We saw many whales. The water was gorgeous. It was chilly, but the deck you out in these big outfits and you’re on these boats. It was amazing to see these. It was not one type of whale. It was quite a few different breeds.
At the mouth of the Saint Lawrence right there, it hits the Atlantic Ocean, it’s one of the largest breeding grounds for humpback whales. We saw dozens of whales over the course of an afternoon. It was fun. One thing that I’m excited about is to spend a lot of time talking about one of the most famous buildings in the world, but the most famous building in Quebec, which is the hotel Frontenac, which is a castle-looking building that was built for the railroads to bring tourists to that city and it stood the test of time. It’s a beautiful building.
We also got a couple of special guests. We’ve got Ken Hall who was the General Manager of that hotel, the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. We also have Steve Barakatt who is an amazing, writer and performer. I’m looking forward to listening to him and get his perspective. He is from Quebec City. As somebody who lives and grew up there, his perspective is going to be great to hear.
He’s one of the most famous musicians in the province of Quebec and has been around the world and has been viewed millions of millions of times in all kinds of media and wrote a special song for the hotel for his anniversary. I also have some great music that he’s been producing since he was a kid.
He’s got an anthem for fall in Quebec, as well as the anthem for the Château Frontenac which is a powerful piece. If you go online and you Google it, it’s the entire orchestra and you hear the strings and hear all of the different instruments and it’s a moving piece. I think you’ll enjoy it.
Quebec City is where we are and it’s a special place.
We are here with our next guest Ken Hall. He is the General Manager of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. Welcome. How are you, Ken?
I’m doing great. Thank you.
Thank you for joining us. This hotel is iconic on many levels, but before we get into the hotel specifically, tell us a little bit about your background in hospitality and hotels.
I started as a chef when I was a teenager and I fell in love with the industry. Growing up, I had the opportunity to travel with my family all over the world. I fell in love with the hotel industry and tourism in general. I’ve been with Fairmont and a core for many years at seven different properties.
What are some of those properties that you’ve been with?
I began out in the Canadian Rockies at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and I moved from there to the rural York in Toronto, from Toronto here to Quebec City for five years in the 2000s and then I moved to Bermuda. I worked at the Fairmont Southampton in Bermuda. I did a short stint in Japan at the Fujiya Hotel chain. It was a partner hotel in Fairmont. I also worked at Fairmont Tremblant, Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth in Montreal. I did four years in Chicago, which was a great experience as well.
Within the hotels, what are some of the roles that you’ve played? You are a general manager of, I don’t know if you would call this the flagship in Fairmont, but it is an amazing one. What were some of your roles inside the hotels?
I’ve worked at mostly in food and beverage. I did different room positions throughout, but mostly operations positions, food and beverage, working as a restaurant manager and then opening restaurants. I worked in conference services and catering. I managed large conventions, special events and a little bit in sales as well. I was able to experience as many departments as possible and get to know the different areas of the hotel, which helped me become a general manager.
Regarding this specific property, it’s quite big and the ballroom space. Is this one of the ballrooms that you’re sitting in right now?
I’m here in the Salon Rose and this is a very important meeting room in history or special events space. We do a lot of weddings in this room and we have a lot of high-level meetings. This is the room where Churchill and Roosevelt planned the battle back in 1943 and 1944.
In that room, they were laying a post-war blueprint for the world, essentially. That’s pretty dynamic. What are some of the other historic events that have happened in and around the property?
This city is such an incredible city. It’s a walled city. It’s one of the oldest cities in North America, if not the oldest. It’s over 412 years old. We do have a lot of global summits, government meetings because it’s protected. We do have a lot of meetings from all over Canada. We have a lot of corporate groups that come in for incentive programs from all over the world and especially, the United States.
It’s also very walkable. Once you go out of the hotel, you’re right there. You go out and you see street performers and there are bars and restaurants. Right next to it, I remember there was a field. They were doing a music festival when we were there. There was so much going on. Inside the hotel proper, you have a restaurant and it’s the Champlain restaurant and the chef there is Chef Stéphane Modat. Tell us a little bit about the restaurant and what guests can expect with the cuisine.
The Champlain is one of the best restaurants in Canada, if not North America. Chef Stéphane Modat is from the South of France. He’s been with us for many years. He won the award in 2019 for being the best chef in Quebec, in the province. Our mission is sustainable and local food. Stéphane has two cookbooks out. He enjoys the wild game, but we’re promoting fish. We’ve opened a private caviar room so guests can experience local caviar from Quebec. We are thrilled with the Champlain and Stéphane has a background with Michelin Star Restaurant. People will fly to New York, Boston to have dinner in the restaurant.
Tell us a little bit about this private rooftop garden that supplies honey to not only the restaurants but also to the bars?
We have a rooftop garden here at the hotel. We also have four different bee farms. We have 70,000 bees living on the roof. Every year, we are able to produce about 600 pounds of honey. Some of the honey was used in a local vodka. It’s called Pure Vodka. It won in San Francisco as the best vodka in the world. It’s a phenomenal vodka.
One of the most striking things about this hotel is when you’re driving up to it, it’s impossible to miss. It is such a magnificent piece of architecture. We did an interview with the editor in chief of National Geographic Magazine. We were talking about pictures and the importance of pictures. We did our little research and we said, “We’re going to find out the most photographed hotels.” At the top of the list is your property. In terms of managing the interior of the hotel, you’ve got another task. You’ve got to manage and take care of the exterior of the hotel because that’s the first impression. What kinds of challenges do you have with that?
It’s almost one million square feet. It’s a castle that’s been built over the last 125 years. It’s in beautiful condition. The owners have invested millions of dollars over the past many years, bringing it and restoring the buildings. The outside is in pristine condition. The outside of the property is fully illuminated in the evening. It’s spectacular. We have over 8,000 photos a week that are on the internet. It’s unbelievable. You see a lot of drones around the area, but inside the building, we have twelve kilometers and that’s about 7 or 8 miles of hallways. There is a lot of space, but it’s beautiful and it’s taken care of extremely well by our 700 colleagues.
[bctt tweet=”The Champlain is one of the best restaurants in Canada, if not North America.” via=”no”]
How many rooms are there?
We have 610 rooms and suites.
What is the premier suite and tell us a little bit about it? Our readers would love to know what the crème de la crème is.
We’ve got eight large suites, which are named after famous people. We’ve got the Churchill Suite, which is the most spectacular Suite, overlooking the citadel and the Plains of Abraham. We’ve also got the Roosevelt suite, which is in a private tower with its own private elevator. We’ve got fifteen rooms connected to the suite and then we have Celine Dion Suite. Celine Dion was discovered here in our ballroom. She was already producing albums and she was already famous in Quebec, but she performed here on the stage and the ballroom during a Sony Music Conference and signed her first deal here at the hotel.
Can I ask you a little bit about the activities? You’ve lived there for a while and when a group or a family comes in, what are some of the great extracurricular activities? I know you had the Saint Lawrence River running right near you, and once you leave Quebec City, there’s this vast, beautiful, natural beauty. What are some of the most exciting things that people who come and visit your hotel like to do outside the walls of it?
There are amazing cruises on the river that you can take from here. You can go to Charlevoix, which is about an hour from here. There’s whale watching. We have helicopter tours that take you over the Laurentian Mountains here. There are incredible golf courses, spas, museums and 200-plus restaurants in the Old City. It’s an unbelievable urban resort of everything you could imagine and it’s in pristine conditions. It’s a bucket list destination.
When people walk into the lobby, they will probably see a dog by the concierge. Can you tell us a little bit about Daphne and how she came to be?
In a lot of Fairmont hotels, we all have a hotel dog. Daphne has been here for many years and she’s a Bernese mountain dog and sits in our lobby. She was part of the Mira Program, which is a program that’s part of a foundation for seeing eye dogs. In fact, Daphne welcomes our guests when the guests arrive and guests can take Daphne for a walk. We’re right on Cape Diamond, which is called Cap Diamant. There are these beautiful outdoor terraces that you can walk Daphne up along and read along the cliffs here in old Quebec. She’s part of the family and ready for retirement.
Fairmont is a pet-friendly property, which was great because we were traveling with our dogs and they could not have been more comfortable. The staff was great just walking in and out of the lobby. They always had bags for us. Thank you for that service because we appreciated it. I want to talk also a little bit more about things to do outside and some of your favorite recommendations of things to do outside. When you’re not working, what do you do? I’m sure you’re working all the time, but what do you enjoy doing around the city?
With the family, we like to go biking because right down in the Old City here, there are these beautiful bike paths on Champlain Boulevard. Over the past few years, they have completely rebuilt the entire coastline here along the Saint Lawrence River. We love biking and walking around the Old City. It’s also a winter wonderland here. In the winter, you can go cross country skiing. There’s a 100-year-old slide right here beside the Chateau. We can come downtown and in the wintertime. The slide goes 60 kilometers an hour. The kids love it.
Is there a festival in the winter in Quebec City?
The Quebec Winter Carnival is the largest winter carnival in the world. It’s for two weeks every February. There are parades and an ice castle. The ice hotel here in Quebec City is something that is an incredible thing to see. They built also a huge snow fort right across from the Parliament Building and everything is walkable. From anywhere in the Old City, you can walk and you can do outdoor activities. They have a canoe race on the ice that goes from one side of the river to the other. There are over 60 teams that race in the ice water. They have a number of extreme sports and they have also great nightlife, restaurants and activities for families.
What is your favorite restaurant outside of the hotel?
We like to go down to the old port here in the Old City, and we like to go to a place called Taverne Louise. It’s a great relaxed environment.
A place to get a pint and have some good food.
You can stroll through the Old City here, and there are many great restaurants. You could have classic French onion soup or fondue or great Italian food, French cuisine. It’s an unstoppable culinary dream here.
I remember when we were there, we had a wonderful fondue dinner. It was in a classic little small restaurant, well done and the Quebecan certainly know their cheeses.
What season would you say is the best season to be there? We talked about winter and the fun things you could do in the winter. Summer, I’m sure that’s when everybody’s out and about. You’ve got such a narrow window sometimes up there to be outside. Do you have a favorite?
I loved the summer as well. Summer is spectacular here. All of the outdoor activities that you can do. It’s like an urban resort. You have an unlimited walkable city and because it’s walkable, it’s such a spectacular place to be. Even in the fall because of the fall colors, the trees are orange and red. It’s spectacular from September until November 1st.
Coming up, what are some interesting ideas and plans that you guys are doing for upcoming groups over the next few years?
We’re watching how can we use technology differently. How can we do a hybrid type events? Also, we have a huge number of incentive programs that come to Quebec City because of the resort type of atmosphere and the history. We’re looking at doing individual smaller programs that are much more high end and using between Quebec City and the Charlevoix Region. Guests can have two experiences on the river with boats and whale-watching. We’re working on many different things in groups that want to have more experiences in the destination than meetings. This city is perfect for that type of thing.
We’re going to ask you a couple of rapid-fire questions if you’re ready. Our first question is, have you ever completed anything off of your bucket list? If so, what was it?
One of the things would be in Hawaii doing the helicopter tour over the waterfalls on Oahu.
You’re in the field where they filmed King Kong and Jurassic Park. These cliffs on the sides, it was nerve-wracking, but it was beautiful.
He got a little too close to the top of the mountain for me. It was Paradise Valley.
If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?
Maybe in Singapore or somewhere in Asia where you could experience a completely new different culture and be able to travel in that region. That’s an area of the world that I haven’t spent enough time in.
If you could travel with someone famous or infamous, alive or dead, who would you like to have a trip with?
We meet many celebrities and famous people in hotels. I’ve got a list of hundreds of people that we’ve had the chance to meet. I would have to say my family because I love traveling with them.
When you’re packing for a trip, what is something that you pack that might surprise people?
I don’t know if it would surprise people, but I’m a tech guy. I have to have a watch for running, for golf and for going out. I have an iPad. I have a whole tech section.
You’re the one holding everybody up at TSA as you unload everything from your bags. This is one I like to ask people on the hotel side. What is it the oddest request that you’ve received from a hotel guest, and could you make it happen?
I had a famous celebrity once asked for an eyelash glue which I had to find in fifteen minutes because she was going on to a photoshoot, so I found it. Shoes for a president and things like that pop-up. Usually, you have ten minutes to turn it around. I’ve got a whole number of examples, but it’s a good challenge and we always find a solution.
It’s poor planning on your part, always as an emergency on my part. Within Quebec, what is your most memorable experience?
My most memorable experience here would be when we did the Summit of the Americas in the early 2000s, 2003. I went to meet 26 world leaders and being around that environment was a great experience. Working with the team here has been a pleasure over the years. We’ve got a phenomenal group and everyone’s dedicated and passionate. It’s a real pleasure working in the castle and this amazing destination.
Was it originally built as a castle?
It was originally built as a hotel. The Chateau has always been a hotel.
Ken, we want to thank you for your time. If people want to learn more about the property on social media, website, where should they go?
Ken, thank you for your time. Good luck with this magnificent property and we hope to get back up there soon and see you.
Thank you very much, Todd and Andy. It’s a pleasure talking to you and looks forward to seeing you next time here in Quebec City.
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I want to thank again Ken Hall for telling us a little bit more about the Chateau Frontenac. He did such a great job of describing it and the history it. You got to go check it out. If you haven’t seen pictures, now you’re going to notice them. You’ll notice the name and the photos because now that you have a little bit of information. It’s like when they say, you notice babies when you’re pregnant. Now you noticed the pictures of the Chateau. Let’s talk a little bit about some bucket list items in Quebec. There are many great things to do. You’ve got Quebec and Montreal, which is also in Quebec.
Let’s focus on Quebec City. There are lots of different things to do, but the first thing we’re going to talk about in terms of a bucket list item is in a Petit Champlain. That’s inside the walled city. You walk along cobblestone streets and you’re instantly transported into a European field, which is absolutely wonderful. The streets are lined. They’ve got the cobblestone, boutique shops, galleries and restaurants. In the winter, there’s something that they do that’s cool. You can visit a local artisan and indulge in maple syrup lollipop making. This is a great treat for the wintertime. What they do is these artisans pour hot maple syrup over a bed of snow and then guests roll a Popsicle stick into the mixture. Once it freezes, it becomes a great sweet treat. With all maple up in the area, this is another way to enjoy it. We recommend doing that.
If you’re willing to go for a little bit of a ride about 90 miles outside of town is a private garden called the Garden of the Four Winds in Port-au-Saumon, Quebec. It is done by a lifelong gardener who has built this amazing private garden of over 25 little rooms that are independent gardens. I saw a documentary on this and I’m like, “This has got to be on my bucket list.” It’s only opened up in the summertime for a few days. You had to get tickets ahead of time, but it’s the Gardens of The Four Winds. It’s spread out over twenty acres of rolling lawns and intricate boxwood hedges. It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful gardens on the planet. If you want a great afternoon and a day trip, make sure you go to the Garden of the Four Winds and Port-au-Saumon, Quebec. There’s a great documentary on it.
You can also explore the Citadelle De Quebec, which is a national historic site. It serves as an active military base. It’s one of Canada’s first heritage conservation projects. It was built by British troops in the 1800s. In the summer, there’s a daily changing of the guards much like our Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the United States, but it is a big history buffs goal. Go check this place out.
It’s right down the hill from the Chateau Frontenac. It’s easily walking distance and it’s something you can do in 1 or 2 hours. It’s right there on the Saint Lawrence. Another thing that we did while we’re there is we rock climbed and there’s lots of rock climbing. There’s indoor gym rock climbing when the weather is not great. There’s also ice climbing in the winter if you’re brave enough. In the summertime, there’s rock climbing in a short drive right outside of Quebec City in state parks and also, on private land. Make sure that you look up some of these popular rock climbing sites and it’s for all ages. It can be for kids. Our kids were eight years old at that time and were completely fearless. Todd wasn’t as fearless. There’s one called Montmorency Falls Park that you can look up, which is a lot of fun.
That was a little nerve-wracking, to tell you the truth. It tested me. It pushed me to my limits in terms of my comfort zone. If you know something about Canada as a whole, they totally take advantage of the summer months. The next recommendation we have is it’s the largest outdoor music festival in Downtown Quebec City. The Festival d’été de Québec takes place every July in Downtown, and it’s got multiple stages. It’s set up all over town. The main stage is located in the Plains of Abraham, which is a big open space right next to the Frontenac, which is a wonderful, huge space. They’ve had great headliners. They’ve had The Weeknd, Chainsmokers, Dave Matthews Band and the list goes on and on. It is a well-known music festival, but it does happen in July of every year. If you’re in town, go check it out.
Somebody is speaking about something that happens every year is the Quebec Winter Carnival, which happens in Quebec City. This is something not to be missed. It does get cold that time of year in this area in Canada. You want to make sure you’re dressed for it, but the event itself is a testament to the passion and love for the winter months. They create beautiful ice palaces and they take ice wines from the region and showcase those and then the hot chocolate for the kids. It’s a celebration of winter. It’s an incredible event. We highly recommend it. The Quebec Winter Carnival and stay at the Chateau Frontenac when you’re there because you’ll be right in the middle of everything.
There’s a venue that we want to touch base on. If you’re looking for a great venue for a large-scale event, there is the Voltigeurs de Québec Armoury and it’s a French and sprier neo-gothic military building and it’s perfect for weddings, banquets and business meetings. If you want that elegant, old Quebec feel, go check out the space. It’s gorgeous. There’s another one. Experience a country getaway on Île d’Orléans. It’s on the Northside of the city. It’s a rural landscape. It’s got villages, ancestral homes, artesian kiosks, but must-stops are the Vineyard Ste-Petronille, the chocolate factory and a strawberry plantation. Check it out. If you want to get out and do something a little different and unique, go do it.
I know this one has been on our bucket list for years and we’ve never done it. I know for a fact now that we can do it because it’s in Quebec City, which is not far at all. It’s to stay in an ice hotel. A lot of people travel all the way over to Finland, Sweden and Norway to do this, but who knew that there was an ice hotel twenty minutes North of Quebec City. It’s the Hotel De Glace, which I believe is a glacier. It’s built with 500 tons of ice and 40,000 tons of snow. You can stay at the hotel, but if that’s too cold for you, you can also get a guided tour of how the hotels are built and also, construct your own glass of ice. How much fun is that?
French is a very hard language to learn. We spent a month in France trying to pick up some French and I failed miserably. I’ve got to try again. That sounds like an amazing thing to me, the ice hotel, and I didn’t know there was one in North America. I always assumed most of them were in Europe. You can also visit a traditional sugar shack in spring or if you’re in the Northeast, they call them sugar houses. That is the time of year that the sugar water from the maple tree starts to run. It’s typically after the first thaw. Once things thaw out, the sugar starts to run from the maple trees and then they are collected in these sugar shacks.
You can go around. There’s plenty of them all over Quebec, but many of them are open to the public, so you can go there not only watch the process if you want to, where they boil it and turn it into maple sugar, but you could go and many of them also sell treats. They’ll sell the maple syrup, you’ll see maple candies, maple creams. If you could make it out of maple, you go there and you could bind it. It’s a little bit of everything. Fresh maple syrup, there’s nothing like it. If you taste it, it tastes like a dessert and it’s good, but it’s also fresh. When you look at something you might find in a store, you’re like, “Why am I buying this when I can get this?” There’s a cost difference, but it’s amazing. Go check it out at a traditional sugar shack.
The last one is a view of landscapes via train and they have the Charlevoix Train that takes you between the Saint Lawrence River and the mountains. It runs right along there. The excursion is great for businesses. If you have a sales meeting or a business meeting, you can charter up to 380 people on this train, hire a guy to cater and a musician and having a great afternoon. It explores the entire region of Quebec and Charlevoix and it’s majestic, rural, beautiful landscapes of both mountains, valleys and the river. Definitely, put that on your bucket list to do the Charlevoix Train.
Train rides to me have always been a bucket list. I believe there’s one that goes across the whole of Canada, which is something that is on my bucket list. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do where you’re in those classic cars and you’ve got the side views of the countryside and the mountains, but this particular train ride sounds amazing. These are a couple of things you could do. You can add to your bucket list. Do a little research on each of these items or tell us about your own, but we think there’s so much to do. It’s such a great place and it’s got so much to offer a visitor.
Our next guest, we’re going to have an award-winning, composer and pianist. Steve Barakatt, who is going to talk about living in the walled city of Quebec City and all the great things that he and his family love to do.
We are here with a very special guest. He is an award-winning composer, pianist, music producer, and creative director. He’s also a spokesperson for UNICEF Canada and he wrote the Fairmont Frontenac anthem. We have Steve Barakatt with us. Welcome.
It’s nice to be with you.
You’re also a local of Quebec City.
[bctt tweet=”Summer in Quebec is spectacular. With all of the outdoor activities that you can do, it’s like an urban resort.” via=”no”]
I’m a proud Quebec City citizen, too.
We’ve spoken to the Fairmont Frontenac and we talked about it being one of the most photographed hotels in the world and you have views of it out your window and you get to see it every day, which is wonderful.
With my breakfast, I have this view and I enjoy it every day.
You live in the Old City then? The Old Town?
I live in the Old City. It’s been many years. I was born in Quebec City. I was born in the suburbs and many years ago, I moved to the Old Quebec and my life changed. Even though I traveled a lot, I felt like living in Old Quebec is like traveling. It’s like being a tourist because the city has something special and we live in a different era and it’s like traveling in time. It’s like traveling to a new dimension and I enjoy every day. My house used to be one of the bunkers of Champlain, the founder of Quebec. The view on the river. It could use the house and the view to look at the river and watch the traffic because Quebec means a narrow river, so they could control the traffic on the river.
How old is your home there in the Old Town?
It’s more than 250 years.
The first time I ever went to Quebec City, it feels like you’re in a European old city, even though it’s 400 years old, the town itself. It’s an incredible thing to do if you aren’t able to get over to Europe and you want to experience that feeling of an old European town.
Steve, I want to talk first a little bit about you, specifically, and then I want to go into Quebec City and your experiences within the city. A little bit about you is you are a concert pianist with more than 500 live performances on five continents. You’ve been featured in hundreds of TV programs and series, sports events, including the FIFA World Cup. You’ve sold over five million albums, which is amazing. If you go to your YouTube, you have over 100 million views. How does a pianist get this much notoriety and when did you start loving the piano?
I started at the age of five years old, surrounded by a family that was all music lovers. I’m the only one who did a career as a composer and pianist on a professional level. I’m of Lebanese origin, born in Canada. At an early age, every time we’ve met for Christmas or at any moment, we were playing together. I had the piano at home and it started very naturally and I was also out playing ice hockey as all Canadians, but I was also very passionate about music at an early age. I grew up in very rich environment in terms of music. I started reading music before reading the alphabet. For me, music was my first language and it’s still my first language. It’s a dream of a little boy. Step-by-step, I started to compose at the age of 13 and 14. I recorded my first album and then slow by slow, I had more and more dreams and I worked hard but also been very fortunate to be supported at an early age.
You were a child savant. You started that early and you started producing at that young of an age. You started writing your own music at the age of thirteen.
I was exposed very early. I won some contests in music. It’s very interesting because we accumulate so many archives and I can say that I don’t remember my life without music. All my life I’ve been a musician. It’s a passionate love story.
Are you self-taught the piano or did your parents know how to read music? Did they know how to play the piano? How did you pick it up?
I had a very strong academic background. I started with classical music for more than twelve years, then I switched to jazz music. I had a few teachers and masters in jazz and then composing. A big part of it is self-taught as well. I explored a lot of music genres and it’s a mix of everything. Traveling became part of my life at the age of 21 or 22. I remember my first big trip was to Los Angeles at the NAMM Show in California back in 1992. I was invited by a Roland Corporation from Japan. At an early age, I traveled and I can say that traveling became probably one of my most important inspiration.
You are the male pianist version of Celine Dion, who also is from Quebec, who started young and it’s amazing.
Do you know how many countries you’ve been to around the world?
Maybe 75 or something. I never calculated but I traveled quite a lot. I’ve been fortunate to discover countries that are very different because sometimes we’ve traveled a lot in the western world. I’ve been very fortunate to know the Far East world very early including Japan, Korea, Uzbekistan, Russia and the Eastern European countries. I always said that when you travel and it’s too similar. It’s not as interesting as when you travel to a very special place like India, for example, where I performed a few times. I’m a traveler. I think it’s the second passion after music and cooking as well, but this is my French-Lebanese roots.
I didn’t know about you, but I did find out that in 2006, you got married to Elena Grosheva who is an Olympic silver medal winner from the 1996 Olympics for gymnastics for Russia.
She’s still there because of the Americans.
For somebody who travels as much as you do, how did you meet your wife?
The Canadian link we have used to be a star of Cirque du Soleil. It’s a Canadian company. After her Olympic journey, she became a star of a Cirque du Soleil show called Alegria. She had to come to Montreal because it’s a Montreal based company. We’ve met because she had to link with Montreal and she was visiting Montreal on a regular basis. Our story started with Cirque du Soleil when we were dating. In the beginning, she had a lot of costumes. I was not sure at the beginning if I could recognize her when I was meeting with her, but it was okay. We ended up well.
You started composing four years old. I want to talk about your connections to Quebec and we’re going to talk about the anthem for the Frontenac, but how do you transpose your life expressions into the music? When you’re doing the anthem for Frontenac and it is Autumn in Quebec (The Landscape) is one, but you also have another one for Frontenac. It’s the official anthem?
It’s the official anthem of Château Frontenac. The Château Frontenac became the first heritage building in the world to have its own anthem. It was a historical moment not only for the Frontenac, but for a heritage building world.
If you’re building an anthem for a structure, how do you do that? What’s going through your mind?
It’s mostly the anthem of the stories of Château Frontenac because you have the architecture. When you look at it, it’s the first thing we see. It’s interesting because when I started the process of writing the anthem, I wanted to know what happened in Château Frontenac because it is way more than a building. It has a lot of history. It’s where they’ve made a lot of visitors for the second World War when President Roosevelt met here with Winston Churchill and Mackenzie King, the former Prime Minister of Canada.
It’s one of the examples. Also, Charlie Chaplin was coming to Château Frontenac and a lot of stories. When you start digging, I was interested mostly in the human stories and this is what inspired me. Also, the story of Quebec, because Château Frontenac played a big role in Quebec City. It’s still one of the most iconic buildings in Canada. When you listen to the anthem, you feel that even the first nation at the beginning, and then it’s an evolution. Quebec is such a beautiful place that everybody wanted it. It’s why we had a lot of wars in Quebec because it played a very important role. Quebec City, we could even say it was the capital of North America at a certain time.
It is one of the most beautiful settings for an old city right there overlooking. For a defense position, it was built to protect the river and to control the river. The view from it is stunning.
When you’re thinking about it in your head, is it a timeline? Are you starting from as far back as you can trace with Frontenac and then working into now? How do you do that?
I first start with the spirit. What is the spirit of Frontenac? One of the most important aspects of Frontenac was it has been built by a railroad company. It was built because it was a destination. The goal was to make people travel. They said, “If we want an incentive, we need a destination.” It was mostly a project motivated by the fact that the railroad company won’t allow people to move and to have a reason to move. Now we look at it as an iconic building, but at the end of the day, first of all, it was mostly to encourage people in Canada to travel. It was a resort.
It was a tourist destination aimed to stimulate the economy of transportation, especially at that time, it was by train. It was the best way to travel across the country. When the anthem starts, you feel this kind of a train starting. I wanted to link with the movement of a train who goes and goes and this is the main feeling that I wanted. When you listen to it, you feel it’s a movement. It’s not something that is in one place. You feel you start a journey and then it moves and you can feel this. As a composer, my goal was to make the listener feel that there is a movement from beginning to end. The castle is romance. It’s a mix of explorers we try to conquer because that was the goal also of Quebec City and Château Frontenac to conquer in a way, and also the romantic of the castle. It’s a balance of romantic explorers. This is the essence of the Château Frontenac.
Let’s talk about Autumn in Quebec. What was your inspiration for that? Autumn is a beautiful time in the Northeast United States and Canada. What got you going with it?
Autumn in Quebec is a piano solo music. It’s very personal and because of this proximity between the anthem as 150 musicians. The Autumn in Quebec is a piano solo and it has this melancholic approach and the music video I wanted that you feel that I play from my backyard, and I play like something I offered to the world in a very simplistic way. It’s why I decided, “Let’s put the piano on Dufferin Terrace and let’s film like if I would play in my own environment because it’s connected to me.” I’m from there. It’s not as if I visit the country and I try to present the country. It’s my hometown. It’s where I grew up. It’s where I still live.
I wanted to reach this moment of autumn that is very melancholic and very personal. It’s why I did the video that there’s an artificial aspect to it. It’s the beauty of the landscape. It speaks by itself when you are sitting there on the Dufferin Terrace. You see its peaks. We wanted to explore the view from the drone and to go with the beauty of the castle, Château and rivers. Sometimes, you don’t need to put too much, you do it. This is what was behind it.
It is stunning and beautiful. You did a beautiful job. Speaking of being a local and living in the Old City, tell us what it’s like to live in a 230-year-old home with cobblestone streets outside. Tell us a little bit about some of your favorite spots in the Old City of Quebec.
The Old City is a place you can live without a car, which is extremely rare in North America where our model is more based on driving your car and some shopping malls. We have in Quebec that side of North America, which we like and we enjoy, but living in Old Quebec is you don’t need a car. I have one, but sometimes, I lose it. I don’t know where my car is. We can go and walk. We have the best hotels around. We have a lot of good places and restaurants. You can walk and you can go to grocery stores, restaurants. It’s like living in a beautiful European city without having the downside because it’s still a small city, it’s still easy to access.
When you live in New York or in a big American city, you can feel like, “Let’s go for one weekend.” You come here, people speak French around you. It already created something very different. Let’s say, exotic or you hear some people like me having an accent, which is also exotic. This is what makes Quebec different. It’s the fact that you don’t need a car when you arrive in the Old Quebec. The people are living with a glass of wine in the afternoon, having this laid back spirit. For an artist, it’s very inspiring. It’s a very perfect scenario to compose and write. The four seasons are very different, including winter, that is extreme in a way, but it’s rare a place where you have four distinctive seasons.
In summer, it can be extremely hot. It’s a real summer. We have the most amazing music festival, one of the best in North America. We also have this beautiful, colorful autumn and spring. Spring is very intense because we have a contrast. Spring is in between the hottest day and the coldest day. It’s a lovely place to live. I had the choice to live in other places in the world. I still come back to Quebec City because it’s by choice. It’s not because it’s an obligation for me because I could live in other places.
When people want to go see the composition Autumn in Quebec, where can they go see that video that you were describing with the scenery?
You do any search engine and it’s going to show Autumn in Quebec by Steve Barakatt. It’s available worldwide.
Everyone, go visit that and see it. It is incredible.
Do you have a favorite restaurant that you’d like to go to?
I have a few. We call it the terroir. It’s a big influence on the local products because we have a lot of good quality veggies from Orlean Island. It is very inspiring and very rich with local products. It’s only fifteen minutes by car. It’s a farm, you can see the most beautiful scenery around. I like to go around my place. We have tremendous, very good restaurants. If you need a few, I can mention a few.
I love recommendations. I think it’s wonderful. I like getting somebody else’s perspective.
There is a classic restaurant that Anthony Bourdain visited when he came to Quebec City. It is the Le Continental. It is the most classical restaurant. If you want French steak tartare and the service is quite old fashioned and people dress in white jackets and it’s like the most traditional restaurant you can see. In North America, it’s one of the most classic. They come to your table and they do the flambe with the fire. Most of the cuisine is cooked in front of you. Le Continental is a good pick if you want a traditional must-see restaurant. The steak tartare is one of the best I had in my life.
If you go to Quebec City, steak tartare is something that is a must-have. Is there any other local delicacy that people should always have if they’re going to visit Quebec City?
You have the lamb of Charlevoix. The lamb is well done and well prepared. We are fortunate to have access to the local farmers because we are living in a small ecosystem, the province of Quebec. We have a lot of producers of vegetables from Charlevoix, a very nice region. We have also some specialized junk food like poutine. Everybody knows it and it comes from the province of Quebec. Now it’s called the Canadian meal. It’s famous. I have a friend of mine who was the first entrepreneur to make the poutine more like on the large scale. It’s called Ashton Poutine. He is still around and still the owner of Ashton. He has 26 restaurants. He’s the only one who could compete with the biggest chain, as we know, like the biggest fast food in the world. They’re still one of the strongest here in Quebec
For the readers that don’t know what poutine is, it’s gravy and cheese curds over French fries. We definitely recommend it, but it is a meal. It is something you don’t want to get as aside.
It is a big meal, and there are all types of poutine. If you can imagine it, there’s a poutine. That’s what’s great about it. You go into different restaurants and they have their own take on it. We’ve enjoyed over the years trying some creative ones from poutine with duck, with blue cheese, with hamburger. It goes on and on.
We have this festival of poutine every year. Every restaurant, even though they were high-class restaurant does its own poutine, because poutine is mostly like a day-to-day food that we have late nights sometimes after going out.
It was great after drink food.
Even though they are a five-star or high-class restaurant, they still do the poutine festival, but they of course do it with foie gras and they put a lot of high-quality products inside. I have also a recommendation for La Buche. It means the log. It’s right beside the Fairmont Frontenac. It specializes in the typical Quebec food and also with maple syrup, and because we know we have this maple syrup. Quebec is inspired by the first nation cuisine. It’s the first nation who created the maple syrup. They have amazing food like typical Quebec food with lots of stuff.
In terms of an activity, for someone who doesn’t know Quebec, what would you say, “When you come to visit Quebec City, you have to do this?”
If you want to do hiking, play golf, explore many sites like the mountains, rivers and rafting, we have this because we are surrounded by nature. What makes it special is you can spend three days in the urban Old Quebec and in twenty minutes, you take your car and you’re suddenly in the middle of a valley and you are in Chateauguay Valley. You can feel its amazing sceneries with the mountains, rafting and hiking. If you want to spend a few days doing nothing. Let’s say, you can do this in Quebec. Doing nothing is nice. Sometimes just sitting on a terrace, drinking beautiful wine, having a nice environment around you. It’s a very safe place. I love Quebec because you can do many things if you want for 3 or 4 or 5 days, but you can also chill and enjoy. It’s like being in a movie. The Catch Me If You Can movie was shot right beside my house on the Place Royale. I don’t know if you remember the last scene of it. When he got caught supposedly in France, but it was shot right beside my house.
Are there are a lot of movies shot where you live?
We have a lot, but that Catch Me If You Can probably been the most recognized or the most famous movie. We had the very big series, extremely popular in Asia, especially, in South Korea that was shot here in Quebec City. For the last few years, we had a lot of Koreans coming to see the scenes of the movie.
Steve, you’ve lived all over the world and we have our rapid-fire questions for people that are guests of ours and those are to give our readers ideas from expert travelers like you about where to go, what to see and things that you’ve experienced. The first one is, have you ever completed anything on your personal bucket list? If so, what was it?
I had to change the list on many occasions because I started early that my first dream was to play the piano, then to play with an orchestra. I accomplished so much of my dreams that my challenge now is to find new dreams, but I have a new dream now. It has to do with travel and wine. I joined forces with the oldest winery producer in Lebanon because I’m originally from Lebanon. We got to create a new wine called Motherland. This is one of the projects that I dream one day to present to the world a very nice, beautiful wine. I spent five months in Lebanon during the events. For all the spring, I spent five months. It wasn’t a plan. I could travel around Lebanon and I fell in love with the wine of Lebanon. They have 300 days of sun per year. It’s a very sunny country and they produce tremendous wine. I fell in love with one of the wines. I went and have met the owner and said, “Let’s create the most amazing wine.” This is on my new bucket list and I’m doing it.
We will be on the lookout for it.
[bctt tweet=”Quebec is such a beautiful place that everybody wanted it. ” via=”no”]
What type of wine?
It’s a Cabernet and Shiraz. It’s 50/50. We have the red one, the grand reserve. That is the one you can keep for ten years and it’s for the Connoisseur. We have a nice white rose and white. We’re going to have to complete the collection.
When can our readers look for that?
We’re going to let you know and maybe we should do something special about Lebanon. There’s so much to share. One of the most beautiful countries.
We will take you up on that. Maybe we can get over there and even go to the winery. That’d be nice.
I’ll be your host. You’re welcome at the vineyard with big pleasure.
If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?
Lebanon, because the five months there has been the most surprising time of my life. I don’t say it because my roots are from there. I was impressed. We don’t hear a lot about Lebanon. It’s such a place we’re like Italy in many countries. Having traveled so much, I could not express the beauty of it. It’s an amazing place. It has beautiful cuisine. The weather is exceptional. You can ski in one day and go to the sea and swim in 45 minutes.
I don’t think a lot of people know that.
What we hear about Lebanon sometimes, we know it’s a country where a lot of chaos in the last decade, but when you look at it as it is, as a beauty and the hospitality of the people, for me, it’s the most amazing country.
If you could travel with somewhat infamous or famous dead or alive, who would it be?
My daughter. We traveled a lot already, but she goes to school. Most of the travels with her, she was still too young, I believe, to understand what’s going on. We did a national tour in China while I was in China. She was following and enjoying, but she was not understanding every detail like now. I wish more and more to travel with my daughter because it’s amazing when you can share these amazing moments.
The next question, when packing for a trip, what is something you pack that might surprise our readers?
When I travel, you’ll think I’m James Bond. I have all the devices. If I lose my phone, I have three backups. I don’t know how many devices I have, but I have a lot of electronics. I’m afraid that something would happen, like losing connections. I have backups on the cloud and everything is backed up. I always have a B plan if something happens. The amount of technology is quite impressive. When I go to the customs, sometimes at the security they say, “Are you normal?” I travel with a lot of stuff. I used to travel very light when I go for meetings, but the number of electronics is a high ratio of what I bring.
Do you have a favorite piece of electronic that you bring besides your phone?
Chargers with batteries, a lot of backups, a lot of hard drives because when I do music, I bring my files. I travel heavy because I need high definition files. I carry them with me because sometimes I start to production. Let’s say I visit 5 or 6 or 7 countries because I record the music, let’s say, in Prague and then I do the percussion in the Middle East, and I do the string section somewhere else. I need to bring these devices too for my work. I bring a lot of gigabytes.
Our last question for you, what is your most memorable experience in Quebec City?
The Anthem of Chateau Frontenac, the day we released it, the night was a magical night because it was the 125th anniversary. We had the Quebec Symphony Orchestra in the ballroom and to play an anthem in the location where it presents the Chateau and you see the people there, you feel that Symphony Orchestra. The Quebec Symphony Orchestra is the oldest symphony orchestra in Canada. They used to perform in the ballroom because we didn’t have a concert hall. They were quite an old orchestra. When they started the orchestra, we didn’t have a concert hall. They were using the Frontenac to perform for their regular concerts.
We were there standing and we were playing the anthem in the exact location where so much stories happened and the music was related to the own location. We had amazing lighting, presentation on the walls of all the legends that were part of the history. We started with a poem by Charlie Chaplin which was one of his favorite poems. It was very meaningful for the Quebec City people, for the people of Chateau Frontenac and for me as well.
Steve, thank you for your time and for sharing your experiences and history of Quebec City with us. I can’t think of a better guest here, especially someone that lives in a 230-year-old home. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
Where can people find you? What social media do you use? Are you on Instagram?
All of them. The official website is SteveBarakatt.com. This is one of the places, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Google search. I will be more than happy to be your host in Lebanon. I can connect you with the best of the best.
We’ll be calling you for sure. Thank you, Steve.
Have a great day.
Steve was fantastic. In addition to being a world-renowned talent, he is a super nice guy and I could have talked to him all day. I love that he lives in the walled city and the walls in his house are over 230 years old. I bet it gets cold there but they have fires going all the time.
I kept thinking that we probably walked by his house while we were there and we just didn’t realize it but next time, I’ll be listening for the piano coming out of the windows.
Quebec City is one of the four-season cities that we talked about so often. You can do something each time of the year and go there anytime and have a great time. I want to go to the Winter Carnival. I think it’s one of those bucket list items. You are staying at the Château Frontenac and you can walk out to this beautiful carnival that has all these great activities to do and beautiful white scenery and view. It would be incredible. That is something that I want to put on my bucket list and make sure that we catch it. We went in the summertime and we did all the summer things but the winter is a great time to be there.
I take it like this Winter Wonderland total fairytale setting. You got the castle in the background. One thing I’d like to find out is if they do Christmas markets there like they do in Europe and many of the European cities. I think it would be a great trip. One thing that’s in my head and I can’t get it out of are those train rides. Every time I’ve been on a train or nature and trees and mountains, it is so memorable. I think that one from Quebec and Charlevoix around the region would be amazing.
The last thing for me is I want to go see these gardens. It’s the Gardens of the Four Winds. It’s 25 little individual gardens that almost have rooms in there. There is a Chinese garden. There is a traditional English garden and it’s done in over twenty acres. It’s supposed to be pretty impactful and life-changing when you see it. It’s only open one weekend a year so you have to plan for it. Look up the Garden of the Four Winds which is about 90 miles outside of Quebec City.
I’ll take the last one and then take us out but since we got there and I saw all the staging setup for this music festival and we were on the backend of it so we’ve missed it. We saw the fun that they had because it was all over the place. The Festival d’été de Québec that is in July, I would love to go to that sometime and have a great time.
It sounds like we need to get back there. There is so much to do.
That’s it. Quebec, we will see you again soon. We look forward to it. We would like to thank you for reading this episode. We’d also like to thank the members of our team. We have Chris Jordan, who is our copywriter. Guy, our content developer. Annie Fernandez, our creative direction and the amazing Laura Campbell who is our podcast producer. Make sure you subscribe, rate and review the show on your preferred podcast app or by going to www.Destination-Everywhere.com. We look forward to taking you to our next destination next time.
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About Steve Barakatt
For more than three decades, award-winning composer, pianist, music producer and creative director Steve Barakatt has collaborated with leading artists, record labels, studios, brands, and organizations on hundreds of projects around the globe. As a concert pianist, he has presented more than 500 live performances on five continents. His music has been featured on hundreds of TV programs & series as well as on major sports event TV broadcasts such as the FIFA World Cup and the F1 Grand Prix. As a recording artist, he has sold over five million albums worldwide and his music catalogue reached 100,000,000 views on YouTube.
He had artistic collaborations with Orchestre philharmonique de Radio France, Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Choir, NHK Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre symphonique de Québec, Yaroslavl philharmonic Orchestra, Lahti Sinfonia, Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Auckland Symphony Orchestra, Orchestre métropolitain, Radio Nacional de Espana, Bilkent Symphony Orchestra, El Sistema, Angelique Kidjo, Natasha St-Pier, Nana Mouskouri, Maxim Vengerov, The Alexandrov Choir, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Nic Raine, Yoav Talmi, Christian Vásquez, Yiruma, Richard O’Neill, Shirley Bassey, Leon Lai, Alan Tam, Kelly Chen, Daniel Chan, Agnes Chan, Sincere, Yoko Oginome, Miri Ben-Ari, Noriko Sakai, Audrey De Montigny, Sun Min, Wheesung, John Park, Shayne, Chen of EXO, Lee Dong Woo, Yesung of Superjunior, Sunny of Girls’ Generation, Luna of fx, Wendy & Seulgi of Red Velvet, Taeil & Doyoung of NCT127, Universal Music Publishing, Sony Music Entertainment, SM Entertainment, Yamaha, Roland Corp, Japan Central Music and many more…
The world’s most recognized composer of official anthems, Barakatt is the man behind “Lullaby, The UNICEF Anthem”, the Saemangeum MegaCity anthem “One More Heart, One More Dream”, “Motherland” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Lebanon, anthems for Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and the world’s 66 Royal Golf Clubs, and compositions for numerous other prestigious organizations and events.
Watch Steve Barakatt’s latest music video “Autumn in Quebec (The Landscape)”
About Ken Hall
Ken Hall has been with Fairmont Hotels for 26 Years at 7 different properties within Canada, Japan, United States and Bermuda. After Hotel school, he started as a chef and moved up through the ranks mostly in Food and Beverage. Ken also attended Cornell University’s General Manager Program and recently the Real Estate and Asset management program. He really enjoys travelling and learning about different cultures and his secret hobby is that I am a drummer and have played in all types of large orchestras to Rock Bands.
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