Why high-end dining in Newfoundland rocks more than ever

5 Oct 2011

Ivy Knight
Special to the Globe and Mail
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Todd Perrin, a Top Chef Canada contestant, forages for late season mushrooms in Logy Bay, NL
                                                                                                                                                (Paul Daly)

The award-winning dish featured a spoon of parsnip purée, a cod chicharron, a sautéed chiffonade of Brussels sprouts, a tiny ravioli stuffed with peas pudding, and a fried piece of fresh cod napped with a Pernod and sea urchin beurre blanc.

This is what’s coming out of Newfoundland these days?

Jeremy Charles, chef and co-owner of Raymonds in St. John’s, created it for the King of Cod competition this past Friday during the Roots, Rants & Roars culinary festival in Elliston, Nfld.

He’s part of a new generation of Newfoundland chefs who are refining traditional recipes and techniques and elevating them from their humble roots, creating a cuisine that is uniquely its own. Newfoundland’s traditional cuisine, shaped by poverty and non-perishable items, is now about far more than the stereotypical salt beef and cabbage. With its bakeapple bogs, wild rabbits and cod tongues, the nouveau cuisine of Newfoundland may be the most exciting thing to happen to our national palate since poutine.

Along with Mr. Charles, Roary MacPherson, executive chef of the Sheraton Hotel Newfoundland, and Todd Perrin, owner of the Chef’s Inn in St. John’s, are at the vanguard of the new culinary movement. “It isn’t difficult to put a new twist on our food because traditionally it’s so simple to begin with. It is a real blank canvas, very basic,” says Mr. Perrin. “Take salt cod for instance, that is a staple of our diet. We prepare it maybe four different ways, but in Spain they eat it thousands of different ways. We’re just beginning to explore the possibilities.”

Mr. Perrin helped to organize the Roots, Rants & Roars festival as a way to galvanize the province’s food community. Indeed, many gourmands drove more than four hours to sample cooking from Top Chef Canada contestants and Newfoundland’s own top chefs.

One event featured seven Top Chef Canada contestants scattered along a five-kilometre trail dishing up food using traditional ingredients. Chef Francois Gagnon, who has a new Montreal restaurant in the works, cured raw strips of moose meat with juniper berries and served them on bannock bread, and chef Rob Rossi prepared a squid ink orrechiette with a salt cod ragout and roasted capelin breadcrumb. Mr. Rossi was so pleased with the dish he plans to serve it at his new restaurant when it opens on College Street in Toronto this fall.

When times were tough after the cod fishery was closed in 1992, practically an entire generation moved away. Mr. Charles worked in restaurants in Chicago and Montreal, Mr. MacPherson worked in Banff, Mr. Perrin in Switzerland. Now they’ve all come home and brought those influences to their kitchens. Diners, too, are expecting more.

“Twenty years ago when I started in the industry it was very different here, people’s tastes were very basic. Our diners are a lot more adventurous now, but they still want some of the traditional ingredients.” Says Mr. MacPherson.

Many of the new, young chefs of Newfoundland prefer to use raw, natural ingredients, which often means they go out and pick, hunt, fish and forage for it themselves. Mr. Charles snares wild rabbit and goes out on a moose hunt every fall and he and Mr. Perrin regularly go out picking sea urchin and foraging for chanterelles.

Across the country, chefs are starting to get inspired by the ingredients from the Rock. “They have a growing season similar to Scandinavian countries so their cuisine is somewhat alike, it’s wild, natural and raw. They can serve wild game in their restaurants, in B.C. I can’t do that,” says Quang Dang, chef of West in Vancouver. “They can definitely bring the farm and the wild to the table a lot easier than we can.”

This month, Mr. McPherson, will be taking a team of seven chefs, including Mr. Charles, to cook a dinner that will feature cod tongues, snow crab and bay scallops, at the James Beard House in New York. “This is my fourth time cooking at the Beard House and the response is always fantastic, they are amazed by the unique ingredients and the quality of the food,” he says. “When you mention Newfoundland and Labrador, they’re totally lost, but they’re open and want to learn about it.”

As food writer James Chatto says, “The culinary traditions of the whole province are unique and strong. Newfoundland and Labrador is now a “have” province in terms of high-end gastronomy.”

Chefs across the country are using key Newfoundland ingredients in unexpected ways.

Labrador tea

“I have been using this wild shrub for years. I sometimes use it in pannacotta or in simple syrup for desserts, currently I’m using it in a maple and Screech-cured salmon gravlax dish. I simply steep the Labrador tea leaves and use the tea to infuse crème fraîche. The final plate has the salmon gravlax, Labrador tea cream, sea asparagus and maple-infused caviar.” –John Horne, Canoe, Toronto

Moose

“Everybody out here eats moose tongue, we have smoked moose tongue on our charcuterie board, but with moose season starting up, I want to put something on the menu using the fresh meat. I want to do something fun like spaghetti and meatballs, but made with ground moose meat and fresh pasta. My dad just got his moose license so we’ll be going hunting in October.” –Jeremy Charles, Raymonds, St.John’s

Cod cheeks

“One of my favourite ways to prepare cod cheeks is to bread them in panko and pan-fry them in clarified butter. I then sautée double-smoked bacon and make a classic tartar sauce, adding the bacon into the sauce at the end. It’s my take on fish and chips.” –Craig Flinn, Chives, Halifax

Bakeapples

Also known as cloudberries, they grow wild in bogs across the province.

“I love bakeapples. These tart, crunchy, delicious little berries are extremely challenging to pick, it can take an entire afternoon to fill one jar. We make a classic floating island dessert with vanilla poached meringue, spun sugar, crème anglaise and candied bakeapples.” –Lora Kirk, Ruby Watchco, Toronto