“I was going to be a mapmaker,” recalls Craig Flinn, chef and proprietor of Halifax’s Chives Canadian Bistro. The revelation to shift focus came while the hobby chef — and unhappy geography student — was watching The Urban Peasant and talking to his brother. “He said: ‘Why don’t you become a chef; it’s what you love to do,’” recalls Flinn.
That “thunderbolt” moment marked a new beginning. “Within a week, I was at The Culinary Institute of Canada having a tour of the school, and I signed up and registered,” says Flinn, who moved to Charlottetown, eventually apprenticing with Michael Smith at The Inn At Bay Fortune, before travelling through Europe, Canada and the States.
Nova Scotia soon beckoned and the chef returned home. “Ironically, I left cooking and delivered pizzas for a year-and-a-half,” he says, explaining how he fed his business dreams in the day, while moonlighting for cash in the night. “[I] used that money as the first cash instalment to build a restaurant; I saved $14,000 in tips.”
On Dec. 4, 2001, Chives Canadian Bistro opened on a budget of $84,000. Money was so tight Flinn needed sales from the first night to buy alcohol and food for the next. “It’s certainly a David-versus- Goliath story that I’m very proud of — just the fact that we survived. And, that is really [my] biggest single accomplishment,” says the cookbook author and CBC radio contributor.
But success has been a long time coming. After nearly going belly-up at least four times in Chives’ first seven years, he is now serving an average of 85 to 100 people a night at the 68-seat establishment. “There’s a feeling of comfort for a lot of people who come to this restaurant — that it’s consistent and it’s friendly and it’s familiar, yet the food is always changing,” he says, attributing his success to loyal staff, including Darren Lewis, the chef de cuisine and part-owner.
Community outreach remains an integral part of Flinn’s business model. The Slow Food proponent hosted the biennial Canadian Chefs’ Congress in Grand Pré, N.S., in September and is involved in myriad fundraising events. He also practises what he preaches at the restaurant, where ingredients are approximately 96-per-cent locally sourced. Favourites on the evolving menu include braised lamb on a butter polenta with a summer succotash ($29), organic spinach salad with goat’s cheese, maple-spiced pecans and honey buttermilk dressing ($10) and black forest chocolate cake, with honey-vanilla ice cream ($9). The generous portions are served in a converted Bank of Nova Scotia building, complete with a vault-turned-wine cellar and private dining room. Outside, in the window-front, onlookers are entertained by a local art installation and a “moving menu” that captures the kitchen staff at work.
Evolution is part of the scene for the Nova Scotia native who’s penning his fourth book and hoping to open another restaurant next year. “I’m always looking at a new opportunity. I’m 11 years into this, I’m 41 years old, and I still have a fire in my belly,” he says.