With a slew of new restaurants, unique food festivals and gourmet experiences to offer, Newfoundland has been coming into its own recently as a culinary destination. St John’s local and Top Chef Canada Season 1 contender Todd Perrin talks with us about his favourite events and places to eat and drink, as well as his exciting new restaurant project for Summer 2013.
What’s behind the recent explosion in Newfoundland’s culinary scene?
There have been a bunch of younger chefs coming up in the past few years—guys who’ve been travelling in different parts of the world, who’ve then come home and been applying their talents to Newfoundland ingredients in new ways. And a general improvement in the local economy has meant everyone’s boat’s floating a bit higher, so chefs and restaurant owners can compete less and help each other out a bit more.
Who are the ones to watch?
Jeremy Charles down at Raymonds is leading the pack. Rory MacPherson at the Sheraton is a long-time advocate for Newfoundland food. Mike Barksy and Andrea Maunder at Bacalao [a St John’s restaurant serving “Nouvelle Newfoundland cuisine”] have been doing great things.
How have Newfoundland chefs been collaborating?
The festival we hold in Elliston, Roots, Rants and Roars, is one way; we’re in our third year. It was one of the first big food festivals that brought Newfoundland chefs together—and with national guys too.
And there’s a lot happening with smaller festivals too. There’s a brand new one called Songs, Stages and Seafood out in Bay Roberts. Trails, Tales and Tunes, in Gros Morne National Park, has been around for a few years, but they’ve added some food components.
Also we’ve been doing a bunch of different fundraising events for the Restaurant Association: Several of us did a pop-up deli in St John’s to raise money to support the local chef competing in the Gold Medal Plates competition this year past.
Tickets for Roots, Rants and Roars sold out within 30 hours of going on sale this year. To what do you attribute this success?
It took us about 25 days to sell the same number of tickets last year. It was crazy! Roots, Rants and Roars combines the three things in one weekend that Newfoundland does better than anyone: beautiful scenery, fantastic entertainment, and party food. There’s an amazing atmosphere.
Who’s coming in from across the country to participate?
This year we’ve got Chuck Hughes coming back, Connie de Sousa and John Jackson from CHARCUT in Calgary, Derek Dammann [Jamie Oliver’s business partner in Montreal], Jesse Vergen [executive chef of Saint John Alehouse, New Brunswick], and Anthony Walsh [corporate executive chef of Oliver Bonacini restaurants, Toronto].
What’s the main draw for them?
The atmosphere is so unique in this idyllic, rural place—you couldn’t get further from Toronto than Elliston, Newfoundland! And it’s a fun challenge for the chefs to cook when all they have is a charcoal grill and a propane burner—they have a great time. Chuck Hughes was here in 2012, and as he was leaving he said, “We’re coming back next year—make sure you call me.” This time he’ll be coming for a week. Newfoundland takes all the credit for that.
What other unique culinary experiences can you have in Newfoundland?
One of the coolest things in summer is the Lighthouse Picnics in Ferryland. You get a really lovely picnic lunch to take away in a basket, and you go sit on the coast and watch the whales as you’re eating.
And at my new restaurant, Mallard Cottage, you’ll also be able to grab your lunch and go around the East -Coast trails. You’ll get some kind of sandwich, our own charcuterie, some nice Newfoundland cheeses, like Five Brothers, and wine or your favourite beverage.
What are the must-try foods on a first visit to Newfoundland?
Cod is the big one. There’s nothing quite like fresh cod in Newfoundland. Wild game in fall; we can sell it in restaurants here, unlike most other parts of the country. You can try traditional things like moose, partridge and seal meat. Our farm-raised lamb is of fantastic quality too.
What should we wash that down with?
You can try iceberg vodka and obviously Screech—although it’s not made here, but associated with us. (I’m not going to say Screech is really good, but you should try it!) You can get iceberg gin as well, made by a company here called Rock Spirits.
And in my neighbourhood, Quidi Vidi Brewery makes great beer. They just launched their own British-style Indian Pale Ale, and in my opinion it’s the best beer ever brewed in Newfoundland. They also do iceberg beer [with pure water harvested from icebergs].
Where are your favourite places to eat in and around St John’s?
I’m a big fan of Raymonds. It’s on the finer end of things, great for when you want to put on a jacket and enjoy a quality meal. They have a very new and modern take on food, but the service is a throwback, almost, to what fine dining used to be. Amazing attention to details.
And Chinched bistro—the boys are doing some cool food there. They have a really good charcuterie plate and their crispy fried chicken livers are deadly.
Bonavista Social Club for sure. It’s an amazing place out on Upper Amherst Cove. To go see their pizza oven alone is worth it.
A lot of people make the trip when they’re out that way for Roots, Rants and Roars.
And your favourite watering hole?
Quidi Vidi Brewery. They do a Friday Happy Hour. The brew crew is their house band; they do sing-a-long favourites. and you can try all the Quidi Vidi beers. It feels like you’re on a boat at the brewery, because you can see the water and the whales. Mallard Cottage provides the bar snacks. We do the fish stew every Friday for their Happy Hour, and that’s where we end up too.
Mallard Cottage opens fully in the first week of July. What can people expect there?
We’re working on a different interpretation of Newfoundland ingredients, in a relaxed atmosphere, in a 200-year-old Irish cottage. The place has had its own life; it has a feeling about it. The restaurant will be like an extension of my own dining room. We’re trying to have good fun and a good meal at the same time.
For food, we’ll be going with whatever’s in season and available, and offering our daily menu chalkboard style. Local lamb will be highlighted, fresh seafood arrangements—whelks, capelin, herring, lobster, crab. We’ll be flying by the seat of our pants from day to day!