It’s a Monday afternoon in Toronto and three of Canada’s best chefs have come together to eat, drink, and, not surprisingly given what they all do for a living, make lunch.
They’re at Alo, a tasting-menu-only restaurant on the second floor of a forgotten downtown building, huddled around a table in anticipation of good food and good conversation. Jeremy Charles, a soft-spoken Newfoundlander with a scraggly fisherman’s beard, has flown in from St. John’s for the occasion. His restaurant, Raymonds, fuses traditional Newfoundland grub and foraged local ingredients with classic fine dining. It’s been called the best place to eat in the country. To his left is Lee Cooper, the baby-faced culinary star behind Vancouver’s acclaimed L’abbatoire. And beside him is Derek Dammann, the tattoo-covered Montreal chef responsible for Maison Publique and the fantastically quirky neo-Canadian cookbook True North. Given the importance dining has in our culture today, we had a few questions for the experts.
Canadian food culture can be hard to pin down. Are Canadian cities starting to form their own culinary identities?
Derek Dammann: What’s nice about Canada as a whole is it’s very multicultural. Everyone opening a new place or coming up with a new idea or starting out as an apprentice has a lot of inspiration to draw from. Vancouver has a large Asian population, so the food scene leans more towards that. Come to Montreal, we have more Lebanese, Eastern European…
Lee Cooper: Caisses croutes. That’s what I think of when I think of Montreal: hot dogs. But it’s good.
Jeremy Charles: In Newfoundland we’ve become more comfortable with the ingredients that are around us and we have more confidence in serving them. For many years we were sourcing ingredients from outside the province — if it wasn’t foie gras or caviar it wasn’t fine dining. But we’ve started to celebrate the ingredients around us.
DD: The handful of times I’ve been to Newfoundland, it’s such a special place. In a way they have an unfair advantage with all the wild game and the ingredients they have. Last time I was there you had three moose hanging in your fridge, partridge, and a guy comes to the backdoor with a brace of ptarmigan.
Seaweed is big out east, too. Is that making an appearance in more dishes?
DD: I just do it as a snack at the restaurant, but if you fry it, toss it with a bit of salt, sugar, and sesame, it tastes identical to black winter truffles. It’s not that much fun to harvest. You have to go when the tide’s out at a certain time and the rocks appear — that’s what my guy does, anyway. He gets upset when I ask him for it, because you can’t just pick it up off the beach. He’s a real critter, so he actually takes his clothes off and goes in the water to get it. I haven’t been lucky enough to see it happen — I’ve seen him though, so I can imagine.
JC: We’re surrounded by 20 or 30 different types of seaweeds and kelps. It’s something we’re exploring how to use. My uncle grew potatoes in seaweed. He’d wrap up the seed and the potatoes would actually grow in it. That’s a project we’re going to do this summer and see if they taste like the ocean.
There’s some debate these days about how to make cooking a more attractive long term career to the next generation — better pay, more reasonable hours. Is it hard to find good cooks?
DD: I’ve been lucky enough to have a low turn-over. Finding the right person is not really so much about cooking, it’s more about attitude and enthusiasm. I can show you how we do things and how we cook, but if you’ve got a bad attitude, I can’t change that.
JC: You can’t teach anybody that. I’d rather hire somebody on attitude than on skill any day.
LC: As long as they feel like they’re getting something out of it and they’re contributing. If you give them something to struggle for, a reason to do it, they’ll do it for you. You just have to make it a priority to make them feel like they’re not doing it for nothing.
JC: For me, there’s nothing better than having somebody working with you for a certain amount of time and seeing them go on and do something on their own. That’s half the reason I still cook is to give people whatever I know.
What about so-called vegetable-forward cooking?
JC: I was speaking with [Australian chef] Mark Best last week about this. His food is very vegetable-driven and he was talking a lot about his philosophy, that every ingredient should be treated equally whether it’s a turnip or a piece of foie gras. There’s something to be said for that.
LC: Every new place in Vancouver is all about that right now. You see it nonstop. It’s fine, but I like meat and fish… maybe I’m old school.
DD: With a skilled hand you’d be able to pull it off, but if you’re following a trend maybe not so much. Trends change all the time.
JC: It always comes back to simple, good food.
What’s your favourite city to eat in?
LC: Lyon, France is awesome. I’ve never been to Paris, but I’ve been to Lyon four times.
DD: London. One of my favourite restaurants, where I used to eat once a week, is [Fergus Henderson’s] St. John. It’s amazing. There’s no music, no art on the walls, just the food in front of you. It’s very difficult to pull that off.
JC: Honestly, I love Montreal. The feel of dining there… maybe it’s just the people I know, but it feels very comforting. It’s one of the best cities in the world, hands-down.