Chef Jesse Vergen mixes pub grub with his own farm-grown ingredients
Don’t let the odd bit of deep-fried Tex-Mex on the St. John Ale House menu fool you; chef Jesse Vergen is about as local farm-to-fork as a chef can get.
“I grew up in a little log cabin in the woods. It was the 1970s and my folks were back to the land-ers.” That’s where chef Vergen’s love affair — we might even go so far as to call it obsession — with the freshest of fresh ingredients, began.
“At home we always ate well. We hunted, foraged, gardened, kept chickens. When I was nine, I shot a couple of squirrels with a BB gun. That day my mother taught me a lesson: she said if I was going to kill something, I had to eat it. So, I skinned and gutted them, then roasted them on the grill. I think I brushed them with Kraft barbecue sauce. It was really good!”
Vergen continued his wild cooking experiments with birds, rabbits, frogs and deer. It was in the small wooded town in the Fundy Hills that he developed not only a taste for game, but also a deep respect for the lives of animals. He’s not sentimental — he can’t afford to be — he’s a chef, a carnivore, and farmer. But he firmly believes happy livestock is tastier meat, and it’s the right thing to do.
Today, at 31, as well as running a 350-seat restaurant with a culinary team of 20, Vergen is a savvy businessman-farmer. He and his wife, Kim, operate Harmony Growers and Farmers’ Hill, and, together, they raise meats and produce they sell to the restaurant.
But, don’t think the whole menu at the Ale House in St. John, N.B., is just as Vergen would have it; all home-grown and virtuous. It’s still a pub after all, with patrons who sometimes just want really good pub grub — wings, burgers, onion rings and fries. “I tried to take the deep-fried dill pickles off the menu, but we got emails, letters and phone calls.”
The pickles came back.
“As a chef and as a person, I’m always seeking balance. Sure, I’ve got some frozen, deep-fried stuff on the menu, but I’ve also got my 50-mile burger. These are the compromises we have to make. Show me a chef who doesn’t compromise, and I’ll show you a chef who’s unemployed.”
Where Vergen doesn’t compromise is in his commitment to good food and great flavours. “I had a high-school teacher, Mrs. Rowe, who was a real foodie. She’d bring in copies of Gourmet magazine and teach us the recipes. We’d play restaurant, setting up workstations and playing servers, cooks and customers.”
It was right after high school that the budding chef’s eyes were really opened up — while studying culinary arts at The Art Institute — in Vancouver. “All of a sudden, there I was, a young guy from New Brunswick, and there were all these Asian shops and everyone was so into food.”
And, of course, there were stages in Europe, and chefs who impressed, but Vergen’s inspiration is local and sustainable. It’s at home in New Brunswick, with his wife, their three kids, 17 acres and a farm full of sheep, chickens, turkeys, hogs, gardens and fruit orchards.
Photography by Matthew Thompson