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St. John’s chef does whatever it takes to push food culture forward in Newfoundland

Locavores live for summer. From the first ramps of the season, to fiddleheads, asparagus, scapes and peas — each week brings forth a bounty of deliciousness that keeps the creative juices flowing in the kitchen. But what if you live in a land where the winters are so long and harsh, summer seems to pass like a fortnight and, worse, the growing season does, too? Well, like everyone else who resides in Newfoundland, you adapt.

That’s what Carolyn Power did when she returned to St. John’s from temperate Victoria in January 2001. A born-and-raised Newfoundlander, the 41-year-old chef and owner of Epicurean Kitchen attended culinary school at Malaspina College and worked under her mentor, Sean Brennan, at popular Café Brio, before leaving the fertile B.C. capital with an important mission in mind.

In 2000, Eat! Magazine interviewed her as an up-and-coming female chef in Victoria. When she read the published story, she realized she had commented on the fact that becoming a chef was never given to her as an option when she was growing up.

“I did well in school. I was an A student, and they pushed me toward university,” she recalls. After reading the article, something clicked inside her. “I wanted to come back home and make it an option for more people.”

Unfortunately, that was also the winter when St. John’s had 20 metres of snow. “I immediately rethought my decision,” she says with a sharp cackle that belies more than a hint of truth in the quip.

Mountains of snow notwithstanding, Power got a job at Nova Scotia Community College and completed a two-year term before heading back to St. John’s, where her brother urged her to open a restaurant with him. They found a workable location in March 2004, which is now the 30-seat Epicurean Kitchen. But, short growing season or not, she still believed the East Coast could have a thriving food scene of its own. “I wanted to enhance the joy of food here, and start some kind of grassroots local food movement.”

That’s easier said than done in St. John’s, especially when an all-local menu in January makes for some pretty mundane dishes. “When I started, I was naive about how it was going to work here, because we don’t get spring vegetables — at all,” Power exclaims. “If you’re going to try and lean on local alone, come November, all you have is root veg. I quickly learned I can use local product in the height of the growing season, but I also needed to be open to using things that weren’t local as well.”

Compromises aside, there are still many flavourful, high-quality local products to be had in Newfoundland. “There’s a town called Branch on the Avalon Peninsula where I live that has the tastiest lamb,” Power says. “It almost comes pre-salted, because the animals are raised on the cliffs, and there’s sea salt in the grass they’re eating. It’s amazing.”

There’s also plenty of fresh fish and seafood, though Power says she’s constantly frustrated by the export practices of the fishery. “It’s so insane here, because you can get cod fish, halibut, salmon and trout, but it’s all farmed. It’s very hard to get anything else. It gets caught and it’s immediately on a boat somewhere else.”

But while the challenges of serving seasonal, regional food caused her hardships, Power was sure she didn’t want to be a slave to her new restaurant, which is pretty much the opposite approach most chefs take when they open their own place. “Sometimes in this business you’re working six days a week, 16-hour days,” she says. “With my personality — knowing how I throw myself into things — I really wanted to try and have some balance in my life.”

Power realized that by diversifying her business model, she could reach more people in the community and do more to contribute to the burgeoning food scene. So she decided to only open her restaurant for private functions — except for one five-course theme dinner on the last weekend of each month — and make up the lost revenues in other ways. She does lots of catering — including a six-week stint last year where she supplied all the food to the cast and crew of the CBC show The Republic of Doyle — hosts regular cooking classes and even provides a meals-to-go service to families that ask for it. Sure, she’s not making as much money as she might if Epicurean Kitchen were open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner, “but I don’t think about my job in terms of profit,” she says. “I like the freedom I have.”

Thanks to Power and a number of other talented chefs in town, the overall dining experience in St. John’s today is better than it’s ever been. Jonathan Gushue, executive chef at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., is another St. John’s native, and his restaurant was just named one of the world’s 100 best, so there are some skillful chefs who have come out of Newfoundland as well. Gushue says his friends back home have always spoken highly of Power. “She has a passion for good food, and a desire to give people the best meal she possibly can, and she does it while staying as anonymous as possible,” he says. “She doesn’t want attention; she just wants to cook. I admire anyone with that kind of resolve.”

Apart from shunning the spotlight, what Power loves most about her job is, “creating an entire menu at the end each month, based on a cuisine I want to cook and expose St. John’s diners to.” The last theme dinner she did was a five-course Creole meal, featuring jambalaya — Power made and smoked the sausage herself and used duck confit in it — Louisiana-style crab cakes and salt-fish gumbo. She also cooked a Syrian-style meal a few months ago. (All theme dinners are five courses for $45/person, not including beverages, tax or gratuity.) “I don’t even think there’s a Middle Eastern restaurant in Newfoundland,” she says. “But one of my regular customers told me, ‘I can’t believe I’ve lived for 40 years, and I just found out that Syrian food is my favourite.’”

In fact, that’s a big reason why she moved back home. “My friends joke about it all the time; I don’t really take jobs I don’t want. But if I can convince someone to trust me, I know they’re going to have a better dining experience.”

Photography by Ned Pratt/klixpix

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