Volume 47, Number 2
Written By: Cynthia David
[dropcap size=big]R[/dropcap]eindeer moss and cèpe mushrooms, blackcurrants and rose petals, smoked and pickled quail’s egg — with these simple, local menu items and a handful more, exquisitely presented, chef René Redzepi has transformed Copenhagen’s Noma restaurant into a shrine for food lovers around the world, earning two Michelin stars and four “Best Restaurant in the World” designations for his reinvention and interpretation of Nordic cuisine.
Redzepi explains his mission in one simple, elegant sentence. “In an effort to shape our way of cooking,” he writes, “we look to our landscape and delve into our ingredients and culture, hoping to rediscover our history and shape our future.”Canadian chefs, too, look to the land, forest and sea for inspiration. And they should, as Technomic, a Chicago-based research firm, has found Canadians are drawn to local food because it tastes better (61 per cent), is higher quality (54 per cent) and less processed (46 per cent), among other reasons. In fact, consumers eat local food (63 per cent) more than natural (54 per cent) and sustainable (35 per cent) options.
It’s a win-win since chefs are excited by the changing seasons and by the strong relationships they’re forging with local growers, ranchers and fisherfolk who bring food to their kitchen door. Ask these creative toques to define Canadian cuisine, however, and prepare for a long, delicious pause.
Michael Wilson, executive chef at Oliver & Bonacini’s Luma restaurant, located in the heart of multicultural Toronto, confronted this question recently when asked to represent Canada at a food festival in Iceland. The Toronto-born chef craves Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern food on his day off, so it’s not surprising he sees Canadian cuisine as a cultural mosaic of flavours. “If you ask someone who grew up in Quebec City or Vancouver,” Wilson says, “their experiences of Canadian cuisine would be completely different.”
Like so many others across the country, Wilson’s Luma menu thrums with local, national and international flavours. B.C. black cod is simmered in a Goan-style curry with locally grown edamame, oven-dried greenhouse cherry tomatoes, spinach and potato ($36), while roasted St-Canut Farms piglet from Quebec is paired with Ontario apples and leeks and German-style spaetzle noodles flecked with Toronto-sourced Kozlik’s triple-crunch mustard ($28).
When it comes to his menu for the Icelandic event, however, Wilson’s flavours turn ruggedly Canadian in a True North compote of Prairie short ribs glazed with Ontario birch syrup — more viscous than maple syrup and a little bitter — garnished with a warm Alberta barley salad and pickled spruce tips from Northern forests. Another main features a tourtière of ground lamb served with the chili sauce his mother and grandmother used to make. Dessert is a maple extravaganza, with the local ingredient showing up in everything from the ice cream accompanying a spice cake to a maple-walnut streusel.
Just west of Toronto’s downtown, Michael Caballo, chef and co-owner of 32-seat Edulis, tweaks his menu (five-course, $65/seven-course, $85) daily as local ingredients ebb and flow. “Local food is a huge part of our food here, in terms of our daily inspiration,” says Caballo, who’s proud of his Spanish roots and fondly recalls dining in France and Spain with his wife and business partner, Tobey Nemeth. “I still use olive oil, and I love olives,” he says, “but, at its base, my inspiration comes from my relationships with local producers. They are our greatest collaborators.”
Caballo admits dark Canadian winters test the mettle of any locally driven chef. “We’re heavily into the root-pocalypse,” he joked in February, when he had just dipped into last summer’s preserves to create a Valentine’s Day mille-feuille layered with three varieties of Ontario cherries — a lightly dehydrated sour cherry, a less sour morello soaked in cherry gin and a classic sweet bing cherry. “It was pretty special to be able to offer that in the middle of winter,” he said.
Bright green fava beans, frozen in their shells last spring, also starred on winter menus at Edulis, but Caballo’s biggest thrill was the annual arrival of conical Wakefield heirloom cabbage — from Antony John’s Soiled Reputation organic farm near Strat-ford, Ont. — blanched white by the cold and the absence of light in storage. “Every time I taste it I can’t believe how sweet and delicious it is,” says the chef. “To me, it’s the best cabbage of the year, even better than when it’s pulled out of the ground.” He steams the leaves and tosses them at the last moment with melted butter or roasts wedges slowly in butter for 20 to 30 minutes and tops them with anchovies.
Chef David Wong grew up harvesting fresh produce from the family’s huge garden and digging clams and wild watercress with his Chinese-born parents and grandmother in Nanaimo, B.C. Now product development chef in the Vancouver test kitchen of 64-unit (and counting) Earls restaurant chain, Wong has his own thoughts on Canadian cuisine.
Unlike Redzepi’s Denmark, where even the queen can trace her lineage back 1,000 years to the Viking kings, making the repertoire of national dishes extensive and rock-solid, Wong believes Canada’s youthful culinary identity is still in flux. “Because we don’t have as many national dishes as countries that are much older than ours, we have to define our identity by the ingredients we use,” he says.
That leaves Wong free to pursue the best Canadian and global ingredients, without feeling the need to put a token poutine or sugar pie on the menu. “We’re very proud of the beef we’re sourcing from Spring Creek Ranch in Alberta,” he says, “and we recently began using incredible Lois Lake steelhead trout, which we roast with baby new potatoes, marinated fennel, grilled corn and jalapeño cilantro purée ($25).” The fact that most Earls restaurants have house-made bread and buns — from Canadian wheat, bien sûr — is impressive for such a large company, he adds.
As for local, the sheer volume of ingredients that flow through Earls’ kitchens makes it difficult to work with tiny artisanal producers. “I don’t know if it matters that the honey comes from the restaurant’s rooftop,” Wong says. “It’s more important to people that a restaurant knows their purveyors, and they’re really diligent about sourcing quality products. That’s something we do,” he adds. “We have specialists in the areas of meat, produce and staples who do research and visit all the areas.”
Calgary’s Paul Rogalski also loves the cultural mosaic approach to Canadian cuisine, because it celebrates our ethnic diversity and gives the owner and culinary director of Rouge and Bistro Rouge more to work with outside his region’s painfully short growing season. Though he prefers to buy local, he’s not averse to reaching into California’s salad bowl, which is closer than Ontario. Catch him on a day in August, however, with the abundant garden behind Rouge at its peak, and the chef will rhapsodize about the truly local meal you’re about to enjoy. “The kitchen staff will be out picking ingredients for a colourful salad concocted by our executive chef Jamie Harling, with fresh, sun-warmed tomatoes, nasturtium leaves, fresh herbs and homemade sourdough crostini ($12 to $14),” Rogalski says. “Follow that up with Driview Farms’ grain-fed lamb loin with lamb-neck perogy and fresh chanterelles and potatoes from Rosemary’s farm ($44). For dessert, a pin cherry tart (tastes like sour cherries) with licorice-flavoured hyssop ice cream ($12).”
Rogalski has watched the local movement transform Calgary from a city where the most successful restaurants celebrated Italian or French fare to one with more Canadian-oriented menus. “With more people interested in buying local, more people are growing
The ease with which Prairie chefs can access local food has also changed. “Our biggest challenges are behind us,” he says. “It was hard out of the gate to find growers, ranchers and producers willing to work directly with restaurants — it’s a lot of extra work for them. Now suppliers understand the restaurant industry a little more and the restaurants understand what it’s like for farmers.”
As Rogalski knows well from working his own garden, the biggest challenge for chefs driven by local ingredients is the fragility of supply when Mother Nature intervenes.
“Even though you ordered it and it’s Friday, things change,” affirms Caballo. “The ground froze, or it rained, and the arugula is crap, or somebody brings cheese that’s not good. It forces you to change on a dime, but it’s a worthwhile challenge in terms of supporting those people. If every time they didn’t have something or something wasn’t right, you said, ‘I can’t deal with you anymore,’ that’s not a relationship; that’s not good for anybody. Maybe you have to buy a few wheels of crappy cheese before it gets great.” It’s a problem that even superstar chef Redzepi surely knows well.