Johane Despins Journalist and TV Host-L'épicerie; Insightful Reporting on Food, Facts and Fun for Radio-Canada Montréal

Posted By: Eric Smith In: Gastronomy On: Friday, December 1, 2023

Johane has dedicated her career to improving the lives of those in her community as a media arts professional, explaining how this came to be through radio and TV.

I see we share some things in common.  I understand that you are a writer.
A writer? No.

It says in your bio that you are a journalist.  Is that not true?
I am a journaliste, yes.

It also says that you are a director.
Well, not a director per se.  At my work at Radio-Canada in Montréal, I am a journalist but we work all together on the TV show L'épicerie. I work with the director, producer, editor, and the A/V team to bring everything together.  I work with all of the production team and we contribute to receive the same status and are at the same level in terms of professional recognition.  Our opinions are what’s important whether coming from me or other members of the production.

For example, on-site when I am interviewing, if the editor has a question that may add to the conversation or the report, we will use it.  It’s very a democratic system where I work.

How did you get started?
It began with my studies over 40 years ago in Journalism in Quebec.  After my studies, I moved to Trois-Rivières about 200 miles north of Montreal as a journalist there for the news.  After 4 years of doing news there, I moved to Montréal and worked for CKAC, at that time one of the biggest news broadcasters in Quebec.  After that I worked at TVA for 4 years on a TV show as a cultural journalist and critic for entertainment, covering dance, music, and theatre.  And after this, I came over to Radio Canada in public television and it's been 29 years here since.

My career at Radio Canada started as a critic in arts journalism, and for the last 17 years, I've been a host of L'épicerie our food show.

You have had a very impressive career.
Well, I don't know...I've had a long career.

Did you always know you wanted this type of career in media arts?
Not exactly.  When I was young I had ambitions of being a war reporter, focusing on conflicts-that was my dream.  I thought it would be interesting to travel to places like that, under those conditions, and report on what was going on.  However, when that news career actually began, I realized quickly that that type of reporting was not for me.  I didn't like the negative things. And when I worked for the news we always tried to find the negative things, never the positive things.  And that was too hard, it was not in my personality. And to this day, I don't do that type of negative reporting because it's not for me.

I have a passion for the arts and that's why I decided to pursue arts journalism.

It is interesting you mentioned that your preference for reporting is on the arts.  When I see people in the role of reporting hard news-I always think that it has to be very difficult to cover those topics day after day after day because of how it can affect your emotions and well-being.
I like to do journalisms to ask questions to have the right answer.  To ask questions for people to benefit.  That's the part of my job that I like.  I like to know the truth.  I like to know what it is you are supposed to do as part of the fabric of society.  I like to know what the governments and the companies are supposed to do to contribute to society.  But if I don't have a solution even after that, that's what I don't like.  I want to be able to propose solutions in my reporting whatever the problem needs to be solved.

Can you speak a bit about the show De bouche à oreille?
Yes, this was an arts show.  In this one, we talked about movies, dance, literature, and other artistic disciplines.  I was the host of this show where we featured different specialties as they were presented in original form-whether that was at the movies or reading excerpts from a book and then we would have a discussion around that each week.

Was this program your idea?
That's an interesting question because at the beginning I was supposed to be just a movie critic on that show.  But when the head of production viewed the original pilot in 2000, he was very specific in wanting me to host that show.  And as host, I stayed in that role for three years.

Did you go straight from hosting De bouche à oreille to hosting L'épicerie?
No, I began hosting L'épicerie in 2008.

In between, I hosted a radio show on the arts for five years after De bouche à oreille.  Then for the years following with Radio-Canada, I hosted different art shows, two on radio and two on television.

We tried in Quebec to develop our version of the show in the states called "The View".  I was one of the hosts for this Canadian version of "The View" and did this for two years-which led to my role as host with L'épicerie.

What makes L'épicerie unique when compared with other programming?
L'épicerie is not an epicurean show.  L'épicerie is a pubic affairs food show.  We do real journalistic work about food. We analyze food, we visit laboratories to discover how foods are produced and handled.  We report on price.  We report on the rules of regulation and inspections imposed by the government (Canadian Food Inspection Agency-CFIA) which the producers have to follow to sell in Canada.  So we focus on very important topics like that.

Johane Despins Animatrice-Journaliste Chez Radio-Canada-L'épicerie

It looks like a very fun show to do. You do interviews with chefs and visit restaurants. I've seen broadcasts from the malls and food outlets with taste tests and product comparisons. How do you feel about the show's impact on people's careers in food? Is this also part of the goal, of improving people's lives and businesses?

It's a beautiful part of my job. We buy everything we try.  And because we are public affairs, and my boss is one of the biggest broadcasters of news throughout Canada as a public broadcast producer don't have commercial sponsors, so we pay for everything and can say everything in our opinions from a clear point of view without financial bias.  We are very free to say everything that we know and we help people to choose which one is better-which one is better for the taste and which one is better for health.

The show has been in existence for the past 22 years and has a lot of influence on new rules, regulations, and laws in Canada for food.  We have now featured broadcasts on TV5Monde which is also shown in the United States.  On our weekly show, we want to explain the minute details of the products, with the list of ingredients-including natural and artificial sugars, flavors, and/or preservatives.

We know our goal is to help people so we interview food chemists, doctors, and lawyers who are involved in food production and regulation.  And the best part, is we want to know and present new products, the culture and community these products serve-to understand how these are prepared and cooked. So there is a lot of focus on the people within these communities.

And for the productions, we can go everywhere.  We can visit people's private homes in their communities whether that be Jewish, Muslim, or Catholic without concern or restriction.  With my job, I can go into a house and relate on a personal level and get a lot of fantastic insight and information on how things are done.

So the show is more than entertainment and promotion, it's educational.
Yes, that's exactly the objective of the show.

You mentioned public affairs. Can you explain a bit more about this and why it is important?
We can have sponsors and a lot of things if we want.  But if we do have a sponsor it would be more difficult to speak the truth, in our opinion on a product we like or not, in particular if we don't pay for these products ourselves.  It's like when some Gastronomy influencers on social media, may say they like a restaurant when they go but don't pay for anything as part of the visit-that's paid promotion.

When we visit a place and pay for it at our expense we can voice the truth about how we feel about it.  We can say if it is good or not with the reasons.  With Radio-Canada we are bound by journalistic code to not bend to outside influence and bias. 

We have to produce under the most restrictive codes in journalism when doing our job.  This journalistic code applies to all areas of broadcast including others like the arts, sports, and economics.  That's why we are proud to do this show.  It is not just a recipe show or an entertainment show we are a news show about food operating under these same rules of conduct.

How the show is produced is fun and engaging.  It doesn't look like it is produced under tight journalistic restrictions with the seriousness that is involved.
We don't want to produce a serious show.  We want serious information but not a hard show to watch.  We want to have fun.  We want to like the food. We want to like to eat.  We want to have fun with friends who are chefs and food producers.  And we want to have a natural approach to food.  Even if the food is not so good for your health, or very expensive,  or not so good for the environment-after trying it we will say that.  Our goal is to help people by giving them solutions.

The show is produced in three parts.  The first is the information about the product, exactly what it is and where it's from.  After that, we want to explain the chemistry behind the food or product,  then help choose the better toaster or blender or other kitchen appliance to prepare a meal.  Then the last part is just the fun in the discovery of a new recipe, new product, or a new food community-we want to finish the show with the happiness that food brings because we want people to have fun when watching.

Can you explain what is unique about Gastronomy in Montréal?
In Montreal, we are in the French part of Quebec Canada, and North America.  We have just 8 million people who speak French in this region.  In our character, we are a people who have a particular identity in being creative.  Because we can't look for help from the rest of the continent or Europe, we always try to find something fun, something new from within and do so with not a lot of money.

Each restaurant in Montréal serves a particular community to survive.  We are just about two million population in the city of Montréal and yet have one of the highest per capita numbers of restaurants when compared to other cities.  We have one of the biggest choices of restaurants in the world per person. We have a lot of restaurants, which have a lot of diversity-including Italian, Portuguese, and African, and within this offer the same diversity in products to sustain this range of menus. 

Within this diaspora of Chefs, everyone works together to define the personality of Montréal food.  We have a lot of creativity in our hearts, in our economy, and in our gastronomy.  Everybody who comes here says, "Oh my god it's not expensive and it's very can you do that?" And we can do this because we are alone and have to create that within what we have.  We Chefs who visit,  to come experience what we do and how we do it for inspiration.

As for native gastronomy, we were colonized by France and England and had some traditional foods-not globally recognized gastronomy.  However, over the decades we have maintained those traditional foods, but now have a lot of international influences which now make up our entire gastronomic identity.

Avenue-Du-Mont-Royal © Latrompette Studio

Is it important for the local regional community to be self-sufficient?
We want to produce our unique products and want to produce everything here, but we also want to produce exotic foods with help from everywhere around the globe.  And because of this, we have one of the largest range of food choices here in Montreal.

If someone had a weekend or week to visit when would be a good time?
One week is not enough.  I hope they can come for two weeks if it's possible.  We have a lot of small restaurants where you can sample menus from all around the world, in the same neighborhood, and at different price points.  In one week it's ok, but if I had to say give yourself at least 10 days!  You need 10 days.

And lastly, can you recommend a neighborhood to try for first-time visitors?
Yes, you can stay in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal.  It's located in a nearby city center area, where it's good to walk and you can take public transportation.  It's near the old part of Montreal, with a big concentration of restaurants, where you can easily make your way by foot, subway, or bus with no problem.