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Local heroes: Atlantic Canadian chefs we love

Atlantic Canada has much to offer an enterprising chef. (Photo Credit: James Ingram/Tourism PEI)

Atlantic Canada has much to offer an enterprising chef. (Photo Credit: James Ingram/Tourism PEI)

Lists. They’re everywhere in the media these days (‘top 10’ this, ‘top 10’ that), satiating a desperate need for information in a world that continues at a relentless pace. Those who love food, like us, might dub such lists as ‘McInformation’ – hollow cranial calories really, but not truly gratifying right down to the synapses, like a proper meal.

If you’re a subscriber to our newsletter, you’ll know that Rustik Magazine celebrates its one year anniversary this month. Since starting last April, we have had the honour and the pleasure of meeting lots of new and interesting people in the food, gardening and farming world, exploring all manner of new tastes and cuisines, and have come to genuinely appreciate the sparkle of brilliance we see when the torrential rains stops (or when the fog lifts, or when the blizzards turn to light snowfall).

So to usher in year two, Rustik reached out to both well-known and emerging chefs to talk about their inspiration and ethos. Want to know who they are?

See how we did that? That’s a list (and in no particular order, either!). But, that list is backed up with a veritable buffet of juicy information and scrumptious details from each of these pioneers.

The proverbial buffet table is a little longer than we normally set at Rustik, but given the talent assembled and some rather profound insights, we know you’ll enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed soliciting responses to our questions.

Thank you for your continued support Atlantic Canada. Bon Appétit!

mike_boydMike Boyd
The Reluctant Chef
281 Duckworth Street
St. John’s, Newfoundland
(709) 754-6011
Twitter: The Reluctant Chef
Twitter: Chef Mike Boyd
Facebook: The Reluctant Chef

Q. What sparked your passion for food and how does Newfoundland feed that passion?

I credit my childhood and specifically my dad for sparking my passion for food. My dad is a good cook, and would always try new things. My childhood in northern Ontario was filled with great ‘local food’ experiences. Every year we would pick wild blueberries, visit the maple sugar shack, go fishing… Newfoundland offers the same potential for these experiences and a lot more. With a growing culinary community and a rich heritage for wild foods, Newfoundland more than feeds my passion.

Q. The words ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ are used a lot these days. What do these terms mean to you?

To me ’local’ and ‘sustainable’ have developed to mean a lot of things. As my career progressed I became more demanding of quality ingredients and ingredients that promote good practices. I think if you take food seriously and maintain sincerity, it is a natural progression for any cook.

With this comes an appreciation for freshness, seasonality and regional identity. It is important to me that my work has a positive impact on the world and future generations. Exploring locality and sustainability drives me to realize this goal on a daily basis. It gives real meaning and true fulfillment to my work.

Striving to source locally has opened up a door to a community of amazing people, with different backgrounds, approaches and goals. But all are like-minded in their integrity and sincerity. I think community has been the driving force in the recent resurgence in local foods. It’s a place where producers, chefs and the general public can come together.

Q. How would you describe the current state of Atlantic Canadian food?

I am new to Atlantic Canada and coming from a flourishing local food scene in south western Ontario, I have to admit that initially I was a little disappointed in things in and around St. John’s. Also I came here in November and it definitely isn’t the best season to see the true state of things.

I have seen a lot of chefs cook out season here and, for me, that indicates a lack of dedication to local foods. It drives me nuts seeing asparagus on the menu in February. I do realize that cooking seasonally is challenging and being on an island has its limitations, but it is very doable.

I think the appreciation for local and quality foods is in a budding stage. The restaurant scene in St. John’s is erupting. I really believe that Newfoundland has huge potential to grow in the right direction towards a healthy food system by combining rich tradition and modern innovation. It’s an exciting time to be a chef in Newfoundland and I’m anxious to be a part of the growth.

Q. How can our region catch up to the explosion of local food movements across North America? And in what ways do you see our region becoming a leader (or setting an example, if you like) in eating locally?

There is a lot of money pumped in to marketing large chains and corporations in the food industry and that is a tough monster to battle. However, things are definitely changing. The demand for good food is currently outgrowing the supply.

I believe that inspiring, educating and involving youth is the key to changing the way the general public think and eat. The Slow Food organization has an incredible youth program. There isn’t very much activity with Slow Food in Newfoundland, and I think if somebody was willing to lead a group here on the island, a lot of us would get involved.

It’s important that protecting the rich resources that Newfoundland has always stays at the centre of any movement or progression. It would also be nice to see some government-subsidized initiatives for start up farms and developing innovative techniques for dealing with some of the limiting challenges facing agriculture on the island.

I think the best way Newfoundland could serve as a good example to the rest of the world, is by preserving and not ruining its rich natural food resources, in particular the resources from the sea!

Q. What are your thoughts on foraged food – what items in particular can people forage in this region and how can they use them best? What’s your favourite food to go out and forage?

Foraged foods are great – they connect you to the wild. Because they can be difficult to procure, you develop a good appreciation for them. Newfoundland has an amazing assortment of wild berries, mushrooms and vegetation and also, a growing interest in sea greens.

Wild mushrooms are amazing, and are probably my favorite foraged food to use. The varieties can be so unique from each other. They are definitely a treasure.

Q. What top things can home/amateur cooks do to make their food habits and practices more sustainable?

  • Always question the source of your food
  • Shop at farmers’ markets
  • Eat seasonally

Q. Is there a meal that you think perfectly epitomizes Atlantic Canadian cuisine? In Newfoundland it has got to be hearty root vegetables, salted beef, a stuffed bird, and pease pudding… A real ‘Jigs Dinner’!

diandraDiandra Phipps
En Vie – A Vegan Kitchen
5775 Charles Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
(902) 492-4077
Twitter: En Vie Halifax
Facebook: En Vie Halifax

Q. What sparked your passion for food and how does Nova Scotia feed that passion?

My journey into the kitchen started a bit differently than most chefs. I had a terrible ‘relationship’ with food in that I had little to no understanding of nutrition, or the effect that processed, fast food had on my body. My sister had gone vegan for health reasons and gave me a book to read before I moved to Germany. Up until that point, I was reluctant to ever consider a vegetarian or vegan diet – but something sparked my interest.

When I got to Germany, I immersed myself into the vegan way of life (in the land of sausage… how ironic!). My husband played professional hockey at the time, and one of his teammate’s wives had been a vegetarian for 20 years and decided to go vegan with me. She was an amazing chef, and my interest only grew as we spent most of the time in her kitchen, eating delicious vegan food and drinking wine.

I started experimenting in my own kitchen, most of the time failing miserably and trying to force something down that made bacon increasingly look like a better option. A year later, while we were living in a different city, I got a phone call from Tanja saying, ‘I’m opening a vegan restaurant, come back to Heilbronn’. We did, and I’m so happy we did. Something clicked, I had found my passion in the kitchen. It all came together as I continued to learn under Tanja and watch her business grow into something remarkable.

We could have really gone anywhere after Cory finished hockey, but we came back to Nova Scotia. At the time, it wasn’t a decision about the food, because I really knew little-to-nothing about the local food industry, but because Nova Scotia is home. We wanted to be with our families, and if we were going to start a restaurant, why wouldn’t we do it in a city that we knew so well?

Q. The words ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ are used a lot these days. What do these terms mean to you?

When I think of local, I think of my home in the [Annapolis] Valley. I think of beautiful apple trees, the farmer’s stands filled with goods that sit alone on the side of the road, working on a trust system – drop your money in a box and take your eggs and apples!

When I think of sustainable, I think of the importance of creating food security in Nova Scotia, and how we are continuing to learn as a business how to support and protect what we have created. I think of healthy crops, diverse foods, protecting our environment and making sure that no one goes hungry – and I feel inspired to have the chance to contribute to something so important.

Q. How would you describe the current state of Atlantic Canadian food?

I think that our global food security is at risk, therefore our local food security is at risk. There are so many variables to food security – can Nova Scotians simply keep itself fed? The effects of climate change are so daunting – and part of the story is the wasted resources that go along with it. Seventy per cent of drinkable water is being used for animal feed/livestock production, grain that could be fed to the hungry is instead being fed to livestock, and of course overconsumption – we treat food like a commodity and not as something that is meant to nourish us. A lot of us take food for granted, and we’ve lost the connection to the importance of our food systems. Canadians are increasingly becoming hungry and obese, and we are losing farmers, fishermen, and useable land at alarming rates.

Q. How can our region catch up to the explosion of local food movements across North America? And in what ways do you see our region becoming a leader (or setting an example, if you like) in eating locally?

So many actions are being taken across Canada, and in Nova Scotia, to change our food security – but the actions need to be formed into policies. We need to start by changing the basic thought process of our consumers – making sure that they are well educated and are able to make the important choices at the point of sale. I believe that when we know better, we do better – so education is key. Providing education at an early age for our youth is as important as teaching their parents, so everyone can make healthy food choices. Our youth having access to healthy food options is also key – school meal programs and school gardens are great ways to educate, and have fun with food. Ensuring the public is included in food policy decisions – especially the ones that are affected the most – is also important.

We also need big players to make efforts to source food domestically as much as possible (schools, food retailers, restaurants, etc.). We need to start feeling responsible for the decisions we make, and know that in the masses we can impact huge change. As a new business, I admit I’ve experienced the challenge of creating a 100 per cent local menu – there are many factors to consider when approaching these issues – but we need to put support systems in place so people can have the opportunity to be part of the solution.

Q. What are your thoughts on foraged food – what items in particular can people forage in this region and how can they use them best? What’s your favourite food to go out and forage?

There are plenty of foods that can be foraged in Nova Scotia, but let’s stick with the vegan varieties! Blueberries, apples, wild mushrooms, and fiddleheads are some of my favourites.

Blueberries have a special meaning to a lot of people in Nova Scotia. I can still remember picking them straight from the bush (twigs and all!). We use them in our blueberry ‘cheesecakes’ (rich, dairy free, and made with cashews), smoothies and more. A close second favourite is chanterelle mushrooms – nothing tastes better than crisp, sauteed chanterelles on top of our creamy Tempeh Alfredo.

Q. What top things can home/amateur cooks do to make their food habits and practices more sustainable?

Most household food waste is due to over-purchasing, food spoilage and plate waste. I encourage people to keep track of their food waste, as it’s something that most of us don’t think about. Ten per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from rotting food waste in landfills, which emit methane gas.

Start by planning meals and making shopping lists (leftovers always become lunch in our house!) Try to use your freezer as much as possible, so your produce or leftovers don’t go bad. Also, pay attention to ‘sell by’ and ‘best before’ dates [but don’t be ruled by them] – if it doesn’t smell or taste funky, it probably isn’t!

There are countless apps that can also help take random ingredients in your fridge and pantry and make them into a wonderful meal. Get creative – use your vegetable scraps for stock, kale stems and all! Compost, recycle, and of course switch to as many plant-based, whole food meals as you can. Just going meat and dairy free a few days a week can have a huge impact on our wasted resources, and, just as I found out, you’ll feel a heck of a lot better because of it!

Lastly, donate any food that may go bad. There are plenty of services in Halifax (and Nova Scotia) that will come pick up non-perishable food items (and unspoiled perishable items) for free! And you’ll be feeding those that need it the most.

Q. Is there a meal that you think perfectly epitomizes Atlantic Canadian cuisine?

I’m sure this is the place for a lobster plug, but, in keeping with our vegan outlook I think any plate consisting of Nova Scotian produce is one deserving of that title. One of my favourites, which we serve in our restaurant, is wild mushroom risotto, with king mushrooms cut to mimic scallops. (Nova Scotians love their scallops, right?)

Another favourite is our poutine. I’ve had a bit of an obsession lately with mastering vegan cheese, and we currently have three varieties, sharp cheddar, sundried tomato and basil nut spread, plus a ‘cheese curd’ which tops our potato wedges, smothered in charred leek and black pepper gravy.

michaelMichael Smith
The Inn at Bay Fortune
Bay Fortune, Prince Edward Island
(902) 687-3745
Facebook: Chef Michael Smith
Twitter: Chef Michael Smith

Q. What sparked your passion for Prince Edward Island and its food?

There are many things to love about PEI and its food. Perhaps the best is how close we are to the people that produce our food, and how easy it is for us to get to know them and their stories.

Q. The words ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ are used a lot these days. What do these terms mean to you?

Local means your supporting the economy in your area, sustainable means your supporting the environment.

Q. How would you describe the current state of Atlantic Canadian food?

Our food… has progressed in many ways and regressed in others. While our local food options remain strong and were seeing more and more farmers markets and regionally focused restaurants and respect for what’s around us, too many of us are still making poor processed food choices.

Q. How can our region catch up to the explosion of local food movements across North America? And in what ways do you see our region becoming a leader (or setting an example, if you like) in eating locally?

[We] are not behind the rest of the world… Food production remains a strong part of our economy and more local food connections are made every day. Our strength is in our size. For instance, it would be relatively easy for PEI to become Canada’s first organic province – imagine the effect that would have on tourism!

Q. What are your thoughts on foraged food – what items in particular can people forage in this region and how can they use them best? What’s your favourite food to go out and forage?

There are many foods that can be found in the wilds of Atlantic Canada. They’re all tasty and nutritious, but the best reason to forage them is because you can do it yourself. Some of my favourites include: the golden treasure hunt for chanterelle mushrooms, digging for clams on an exposed tidal flat and pulling cattail hearts in the spring.

Q. What things can home/amateur cooks do to make their food habits and practices more sustainable?

If you are looking for one powerful choice to make about your food it should be dropping processed food – the factory produced, nutritionally vacant, so-called food that is making us sick and ruining our healthcare system.

Q. Is there a meal that you think perfectly epitomizes Atlantic Canadian cuisine?

Nothing epitomizes Atlantic Canadian cooking more than a bowl of chowder brimming with local fish and a basket full of just-baked biscuits.

jesseJesse Vergen
Executive Chef, Saint John Ale House; Chef/Owner, Smoking Pig BBQ
1 Market Square
Saint John, NB
506-657-2337
Twitter: Jesse Vergen
Facebook: Jesse Vergen

Q. What sparked your passion for food and how does New Brunswick feed that passion?

My passion was sparked from my upbringing. We lived on an organic farm, we went hunting, we went fishing… My family always enjoyed good food. I believe that the access we had to this beautiful province was the force that shaped my career.

Q. The words ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’ are used a lot these days. What do these terms mean to you?

Local for us is our region – be it our backyard or the north of the province. We have been supporting the ‘local’ movement in Saint John for more then 10 years and one of the things we have always looked at was how this is not just about a set amount of kilometres but of an overlaying mindset of supporting farmers, fisherman and artisans within our region.

Q. How would you describe the current state of Atlantic Canadian food?

I believe it’s coming into its own identity, broken into regional areas each with their own distinct flavours and stories. It’s still growing as we have many hurtles to overcome, but it’s heading in an amazing direction. There are a lot of talented people here who are proud to live here and I think we are going to see them doing amazing stuff!

Q. How can our region catch up to the explosion of local food movements across North America? And in what ways do you see our region becoming a leader (or setting an example, if you like) in eating locally?

I think we are less removed from our food sources than the big metro centres. We have these food traditions that are less removed because it’s so easy for us to connect with our producers. Look at Vermont, a state that has an amazing community of local food advocates – and it’s probably one of the smallest states… I think our size is our advantage!

Q. What are your thoughts on foraged food – what items in particular can people forage in this region and how can they use them best? What’s your favourite food to go out and forage?

I’ve loved foraging for food since I was a kid – filling the canoe with fiddleheads that we picked from the banks of a small stream that ran into the lake near where we lived. Depending on your knowledge the Maritime region is a bounty of wild mushrooms, sea shore greens (goose tongue greens, samphire grass, beach peas), ramps, fiddleheads, wild bay, berries, etc. My favourite is hunting down chanterelles or yellow foot mushrooms … my kids like to help out!

Q. What top three things can home/amateur cooks do to make their food habits and practices more sustainable?

Eat less chicken… or at least make sure its local. There was a time when eating a chicken was a once-a-week treat. Now people are buying kilos of pumped frozen breast and eating it five to seven times a week.

Eat with the seasons. When there are tons of vegetables in season – eat ‘em… when it’s lobster season – splurge! This will push you as a cook to learn what to do with a single ingredient, forcing you to be creative.

Q. Is there a meal that you think perfectly epitomizes Atlantic Canadian cuisine?

I think the broad range of cultures, traditions, regions, and even languages makes it very difficult to just have one dish. So, in saying that, I would pick hodge podge!

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