MONTREAL - Celebrity chef Ricardo Larrivee has become a household name through an award-winning magazine, a Food Network Canada TV series and regular appearances on Canadian chat shows.
But the Quebec star says he's increasingly decided that the best way to reach bigger audiences is online.
He shuttered the English-language arm of his foodie magazine "Ricardo" this year and says he's realized the power and reach of his website RicardoCuisine.com demands more of his attention.
"We have over 6 million unique visitors a month," says Larrivee bulk of which come from Quebec, with substantial visitors also coming from France, the United States and Toronto, he said.
"It's really booming so we decided to do more videos, more stuff that will be there every month," said Larrivee, whose brand includes Quebec eateries, gourmet food products, and home and kitchen accessories.
In addition to also promoting his latest book, "Vegetables First," Larrivee spoke to The Canadian Press recently about taking business cues from online visitor data, ruling out Ricardo-endorsed cannabis products, and the reason he'll never be Canada's answer to British chef Gordon Ramsay.
CP: Some of your plans for the website sound like they would suit TV, why not do another food series?
Larrivee: When I do a video and I put it on my social media or on my platform, there's three times the amount of people that can see it.... Just on social media we have probably close to 600,000 people — French and English. We're now over 250 at the office to work on that same passion, talking to the Canadian families.... When they released the new Canadian food guide I was amazed, I said, it's funny because my book is exactly the new Canadian food guide.
CP: You knew something.
Larrivee: When people write to me, wherever they are in the country, this is exactly what they ask: "We don't want to be vegetarians but we want to have different options when it comes to protein," "We always have the same six, seven food recipes for vegetables, we'd like to have more ideas around that." So this is what I did with that book, playing with protein. My "chicken pot pie" without chicken uses chicken broth because the chicken broth has a certain depth and taste and I like it, but the rest of it is vegetarian.
CP: The magazine closed but it sounds like your output has remained.
Larrivee: Yes, but even the francophone version is moving toward digital platforms. The problem was that in Quebec it costs about 35 per cent (of revenues) to put the magazine in stores where in the rest of the country it was close to 70 per cent. I couldn't afford it. I was very sad but I was looking at the numbers — 1.2 million people in Canada that are on the English website every month and we sell 70,000 copies — which was great, it's the second largest magazine, the subscription was higher every month (but) I said, "We'll find other ways to reach Canadians."
CP: Is that a problem in Quebec, too?
Larrivee: It's just cheaper to put the magazine in stores. So maybe the magazine is going to be there another four, five, six years, I don't know.... But meanwhile, I want to be more specific, you know. I need to be closer to what everyone wants.
CP: And you can do that with the website? Does that mean you can track what your online readers want to cook and buy?
Larrivee: Exactly. I know where they are in Toronto or in Vancouver ... because of the postal codes. So I can say, I'll send my cooks to check what is in the grocery stores in that area and to see what are the trends for vegetables and dessert and fruit and whatever and make sure that on the website there's recipes that are talking to these groups of people.
CP: Are people even cooking at home? I thought meal kits are becoming more popular. People are busy.
Larrivee: People are busy, people are tired and people are on a budget. If I can create recipes that answer these three different things together, people will want to feed their family. In our survey, the vast majority of Canadians are still buying fresh produce, which is very different from many places in the world, starting in the States.
Then there's the change in the country where we realized 15 years ago that in Vancouver the new trend would be the really super-small kitchen, sometimes no dining room.... (Food trends) are not different because of language, it's different because of (location) — the amount of people who live there, or the size of the condo, or what is the easiest to find.
CP: What do you think about cannabis-infused foods?
Larrivee: My group said, "Maybe we should do something on it," and I said, "Yes, we'll hire a nutritionist that can actually talk about: Is it something good or bad for health? What's in there?" But at the same time ... my position is we'll never cook with it because we are family-oriented and we don't want to influence kids to cook with pot. It is never going to be part of what we do.
CP: How much of your audience is francophone versus anglophone?
Larrivee: My growth doesn't happen in French anymore, except if it's out of Europe. Eventually, if there's 30 million people from English Canada on my website, I'll say I have to get to the States. But there's a lot of promotion and things to be done here in Canada and people have asked me: "Why don't you want to go to the States?" It's not that I don't want to go, it's just that I'm super happy and there's a lot of work to be done right here in my own country.
I don't want to be an international or American food star.... and that's the big difference with Gordon Ramsay. He doesn't want to promote England, he wants to promote entertainment, where to me, health is more important for me. I want to leave this business to the next generation when I'll be gone and (promote) this way of seeing agriculture in Canada and our food politics in schools and how we cook at home, to encourage people to less obesity, less violence, less bullying if we have meals together.
— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. By Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto.