Oh Canada! Spotlight on East Coast Cuisine

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It’s odd to consider that cod have cheeks, let alone that they might be delicious. But pop one of these tender morsels into your mouth and the strangest thing about it is how addictively tasty they are. Traditionally, East-Coast fishermen kept the cheeks for themselves, thinking they’d be unappealing to the masses but today, people snack on cod jowls and tongues — typically battered and fried — in restaurants all over the region (and across Canada). It’s just one of countless customary dishes with deep roots on our Eastern shores.

The coves and open waters of the Atlantic Ocean have been providing leagues of culinary inspiration to home cooks and chefs alike for generations, from the first Indigenous people to inhabit the lands, to Samuel de Champlain’s Order of Good Cheer in 17th century Nova Scotia, to today’s finest establishments and casual joints. Bountiful seafood is a crucial part of down-east living. Think: lobster, shrimp, fish, scallops, oysters, dulse and other sea grasses, in abundance. But there’s much more to the East Coast culinary scene than the catch of the day. In fact, just about everything is grown, raised or produced locally and chefs in the know are making a beautiful meal of it.

Food Network Canada host and cookbook author chef Michael Smith is a champion of all things local in his hometown of Fortune, P.E.I., where he’s the proprietor of The Inn at Bay Fortune, along with his wife, Chastity. Smith gained international fame as head chef at the property in the 1990s and the couple bought it two years ago with a vision to reinvent the idyllic inn and its restaurant. Today, they grow more than 200 fruits and vegetables on the property’s eight-acre organic farm and serve a nightly banquet-style feast during the open season. Smith’s onsite restaurant, called the FireWorks, is named after its 25-foot, brick-lined fire kitchen that includes a smokehouse, grill, open hearth, rotisserie and wood oven — no switches, dials or power. The former kitchen (aka The Gasworks) has been stripped down and recreated as an oyster bar, where patrons start their evening slurping bi-valves plucked from the bay in view. The experience rolls into a four-course, family-style meal that ends with a marshmallow concierge serving house-made lavender-, citrus- and caramel-flavoured puffs around a campfire.

“Local isn’t trendy, it’s just how we do things,” Smith says. “If you look at European cuisine, or South East Asian cuisine, all of them are founded on going into the chef’s backyard, finding what’s best and honouring it. For far too long we were too focused on trying to be like Europe or some other place. We are Canada and we are awesome and we have everything we need right here to make world-class cuisine.” Last fall, Smith made his own P.E.I. ham, using local pigs brined in sea water, sweetened with molasses and smoked with local wood. “We’ve seen a growing number of craft food and beverage producers and our culture respects that now. We’re foraging for beautiful sea vegetables and all kinds of mushrooms. I want simplicity, and as a mature chef, I know it’s the most difficult technique to master because there’s nowhere to hide,” he says.

While keeping it simple reigns in Smith’s kitchen, he’s keen to point out that advancements in education and aquaculture, such as Nova Scotia’s land-based Sustainable Blue fishery, are an important part of creating a responsive, forward-moving industry. “We need to think responsibly about how we’re going to feed the planet,” he says. “The East Coast is often seen as a few steps behind or lacking in resources, but we’re just as innovative as the rest of the world.” P.E.I. is home to The Culinary Institute of Canada at Holland College, with a renowned program that draws students from all over the world, as well as the East Coast. Pastry chef Michelle LeBlanc and her husband, chef Shaun Hussey, both studied at the Institute and then worked in the U.S. and on Fogo Island, Nfld., before opening their own restaurant seven years ago in St. John’s. It’s called Chinched Bistro, named after Newfoundlander lingo for ‘feeling stuffed,’ and customers are more than happy to get their fill of locally sourced, seasonal eats at this popular spot. “We focus on creative comfort food with a variety of flavour profiles to keep it interesting. Our menu changes about eight times throughout the year because some things have such a short season,” says LeBlanc, who grew up in a French community on Cape Breton Island, N.S. Chinched was recently awarded Best Integration and Promotion of Local Agriculture by the Newfoundland and Labrador Department of Forestry and Agriculture. When stinging nettle is in season, the menu might include chorizo verde, chimmichurri, pesto, soup and even ice cream made with the hard-to-handle prickly plant that offers an earthy, green flavour — somewhere between spinach and broccoli. Parsnips, rhubarb, sunchokes, berries and wild mushrooms are other favourites. “We’ve got so much raw product available to us and it’s a huge part of the traditional culture here. Salt-fish and salt-meat and bottling and preserving were about survival through the winter and you’ll see all of those things on restaurant menus now,” LeBlanc says.

Newfoundland restaurateurs can get permits to purchase wild game from hunters, so it’s not unusual to find bear, caribou, rabbit, moose or ptarmigan — a game bird in the grouse family — on offer. At Chinched, moose might appear as a prime-cut steak, stew, pasta ragu, sausage or salami. “The culinary scene has blown up since we opened and restaurants are more focused on doing the local thing. We used to have to seek out wild mushrooms, for example, and now people come to us selling them. There’s more demand, so farmers are more inclined to create relationships with restaurants,” she says, noting that about 30 new spots have opened in St. John’s since Chinched debuted.

St. John’s isn’t the only place on the East Coast where the culinary scene is hot. Across the Cabot Strait and down the southern shore of Nova Scotia, Lunenberg is a top foodie destination — home of the historic Bluenose schooner and the acclaimed restaurant Fleur de Sel. Opened in 2004 by chef Martin Ruiz Salvador and his wife, Sylvie, the fine-dining establishment melds Ruiz Salvador’s classical French training with his Nova Scotia roots. He grew up eating a lot of local food with a strong German influence in a rural town near Lunenburg. “Refined food comes from what people have enjoyed eating in life. Local cuisine that we see evolving — like cod tongues and cheeks, sausages, fermentations and beans — are foods that people have been making here for more than 100 years. There’s a resurgence of traditional local dishes. Demographics have changed and people have a real interest in knowing that their food has a local history. That’s part of the draw,” he says. Ruiz Salvador looks to local purveyors of the South Shore and Annapolis Valley for everything from berries and vegetables to scallops, fish, lobster and seaweed. “We’re trying to put out the most interesting, creative food with a small precise menu, and serving it simply. We’re using old techniques, like gently poaching fish in sea water. It’s not about having something for everyone. Over the 14 years we’ve been open, we realized that we can’t please everybody and we’re okay with that,” he says. With the success of Fleur de Sel, the couple has gone on to open two other local hits, The Salt Shaker Deli — a year-round operation serving thin-crust pizzas, sandwiches and salads — and the South Shore Fish Shack, a seasonal and bustling locale overlooking the harbour. The menu is simple: scallops, clams, fish, fish sandwich, fries and poutine, plus an oyster bar. “We’re very fortunate to have incredible local ingredients in such abundance,” he says.

Seafood is fundamental to Maritime cuisine, but, as in other parts of Canada and around the globe, the move towards vegetarian and vegan meals is gaining popularity. Cory Urquhart is the co-owner of enVie A Vegan Kitchen, in Halifax’s North End neighbourhood. Being vegan himself, Urquhart noticed a lack of plant-based eating options in the city, which sparked him to open enVie in 2013. “We were scared at first, because [a vegan restaurant] was such a foreign idea to this city,” he says. “It was tricky to appeal to both hardcore vegetarians and vegans, as well as to omnivores, but we knew there was no way we could survive if only vegan or vegetarian people came to our place. We needed things like burgers and big heavy pastas that people could relate to, and then we took risks and pushed the boundaries with beautiful vegan dishes that really showcase what is possible with vegetables. Today, 75 per cent of our customers don’t follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.”

enVie strives to use as much local produce as possible, but the realities of geography make it difficult to find fresh veggies nearby year-round. They’ve found a local organic tofu supplier, though, and a mushroom farmer who makes vegan Buffalo wings come true: breaded king oyster mushrooms, tossed in house-made spicy sauce, served with cashew-based blue-cheese dip. Urquhart credits enVie’s head chef, Todd Bright, for the restaurant’s success. “Todd’s creativity amazes me every day. He is the reason people love our food so much. We’re trying to establish ourselves as not only a great vegan restaurant, but one of the top restaurants in this part of the country,” he says. “The Halifax food scene is a really tight-knit community. We’re starting to see more new ideas and people taking risks and doing what they love.”

There’s no shortage of passion for good food on the East Coast, and New Brunswick’s chef Jesse Vergen embodies it with pure joie de vivre. He grew up on a small farm in the province’s Fundy hills and today he not only cooks, but hunts, forages, cultivates and raises his own food. His restaurants include the St. John Ale House, serving progressive pub cuisine with a focus on local flavours, Smoking Pig Real Pit BBQ, Toro Taco and Barred Rock, a farm-fresh fried-chicken joint. “St. John Ale House has been the standard bearer of local food in St. John. Our business model has always been to keep money in the community and support artisans and market farmers and fishermen and unique fisheries,” says Vergen, who currently appears on Top Chef Canada: All Stars on Food Network Canada. Vergen’s locavore approach means traditional eats, such as sardines, periwinkles, bar clams, shad, goose tongue greens, sapphire grass and wild ramps, make appearances on his menus, to his customers’ great delight. “There was a time when someone would have been embarrassed to be known as a sardine eater, but Oprah says it’s a superfood and suddenly everyone wants it. The roll-up sardine can was actually invented in New Brunswick. We celebrate traditional food,” he says. “Periwinkles were considered poor people’s food — but we put it on the menu and customers have memories of picking them at the beach when the sea floor opens up and they love it.” Vergen also plates baked shad with wild fiddleheads and has a serious crush on meaty bar clams: “Have them bottled in their own juices and eat it with bread and butter. It’s a sensual experience,” he says. He’s noticed massive changes in the business during the past 10 years. “We’re doing things now that people would have laughed at a decade ago. We want to do our food the way we do it – make it tasty and sexy and have fun with it. Diners don’t want white tablecloths, they want adventures and memories and a taste of the place where they are.”

Volume 50, Number 3
Written by Lindsay Forsey 

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