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Atlantic Canada’s up-and-coming chefs

 

Veteran celebrity chefs like Michael Smith in Prince Edward Island and Michael Howell in Nova Scotia have raised the bar on creative Atlantic Canadian cuisine. Outstanding seafood has long been this region’s hallmark — now it’s also become a reliable destination for fresh, innovative, and high-quality dining.

A key reason for this resurgence and recognition is a group of talented and creative young chefs that make their home in the Atlantic provinces. They’re receiving national recognition as future stars on the culinary scene. Diners in this region will be superbly served.

 

NEW BRUNSWICK

Saint John — with its British, French, and Irish roots, joined in recent years by sizable Asian and Middle East populations — is now New Brunswick’s culinary capital.

With 13 microbreweries, cideries, and distilleries in the city, plus cuisine ranging from elevated pub food to high-end Italian and Thai, former Top Chef and Wall of Chefs judge Jesse Vergen says the culinary revolution started about 15 years ago. His harbourside Saint John Ale House launched the career of Hampton, N.B., native Keith Broome, the owner and executive chef of VEGolution, Tripadvisor’s top restaurant recommendation in Saint John and in all New Brunswick.

VEGolution is entirely vegetarian and vegan. Broome took the leap of faith to open his restaurant five years ago.

“I’ve wanted to be a chef since I was 16 years old,” he says. “We did polling on social media and discovered that a vegetarian menu could work here. Jesse Vergen encouraged me but said the food had to taste great and look great as well.” 

It did. The Germain Street restaurant now has 4,000 followers on Facebook and dozens of enthusiastic local patrons who show up weekly. COVID-19 was tough on business but customers still came and Broome and his staff produced DIY food packages for home delivery.


The interior of The Table Culinary Studio.

As part of his former sous-chef duties at the Saint John Ale House, Broome prepared meat dishes but he knew it was a steppingstone to his vegan dream. “I just disassociated when I was doing it,” he recalls. Now, at VEGolution, he makes everything from scratch in-house. In the spring and summer, he forages for mushrooms and berries.

As omnivores, we were skeptical about eating at a vegan restaurant but the meal was a surprise. The Korean Sticky Soy Bits were superb, beautifully presented, and tasted just like pork in a sweet sauce. Chef Broome’s Revolution Cheeseburger (patty made from brown rice, mushrooms, and walnuts) and vegan donair (made with onion, tomato, lettuce, cashew sauce, and house-made roti) are among his most popular offerings. The wine comes from Nova Scotia and the beer is all brewed in Saint John.

Thanks to the success of VEGolution, many restaurants in Saint John now offer more vegetarian dishes. But Broome, a creative chef with unlimited potential for growth, still runs the only game in town for the authentic, all-vegetarian/vegan product.

 

NOVA SCOTIA

Halifax has been known for its fine dining for many years, but the Eastern Shore has lacked a restaurant that offered imaginative, creative dishes from local sources. That’s changed with Chef Kim MacPherson running the kitchen at Lupin Dining and Pantry. This rural restaurant, a 40-minute drive from Halifax near Musquodoboit Harbour, is the culmination of MacPherson’s dream to open her own farm-to-table eatery.

MacPherson attended culinary school in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and has worked in restaurants across Canada. When she and her husband visited Nova Scotia on a road trip she fell in love with the Eastern Shore and found a 16-hectare property on West Petpeswick Road with a house and lots of room for gardens. The farm-to-table dream became a reality and Lupin was born.

MacPherson loves French and Italian cooking but describes her technique as “classic dishes with local influence and modern techniques.” She has a small, continually changing menu, 80 per cent coming from her own garden. “We’re trying to showcase the best that Nova Scotia has to offer,” she says.

In addition to her own vegetables, fruits, and herbs, she has strong connections with local farmers, fishers, and butchers, offering a five-course chef’s tasting menu each evening, in addition to the à la carte items.

The tasting menu includes creative dishes like smoked mackerel dip, mushroom wellington, beef canneloni, and poached pear.  A favourite main course is a halibut and smoked salmon combo.

MacPherson gambled by opening a restaurant in an area under-served by fine dining establishments. But it’s paid off with strong bookings and happy customers. The future looks bright.

 

Prince Edward Island

A decommissioned church in rural New London is the seasonal home of one of the most extraordinary dining experiences on P.E.I. The Table Culinary Studio is unique with its creative, single-sitting, seven-course menu each evening.

Hunter Guindon, a 2015 graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, is executive chef. He and owner Derrick Hoar are proud that all ingredients come from within a 15-minute drive of the restaurant. (The only exception is black pepper. Instead of lemons and limes, he adds zing with rhubarb juice). Every week, he offers a new menu.

Guindon got his start as sous chef at Michael Smith’s iconic Inn at Bay Fortune. He then worked in British Columbia and Ontario before returning to P.E.I. in pursuit of “real, local, sustainable cooking,” he says. “We write our menus backwards. We scour the local area for the best ingredients, lay them out, and write the menu based on what we find. My goal is to never cook the same dish twice.”

Freshness is vital. The oysters for are harvested in a nearby bay within an hour of preparation.

The Table holds a maximum of 24 guests each evening. When we visited, we enjoyed creative dishes like Kentucky-fried oysters, braised beef shoulder with ox tail jus, and a remarkable scallop raviolo covered with smoked pork and lobster roe cream.

The dishes highlight Guindon’s talent and passion. “My duty is to show our guests why the hard work of our farmers, fishers, (and) culinary artisans … is so incredibly special,” he says on the restaurant’s website.

 

NEWFOUNDLAND and LABRADOR

Last year, Celesta Mah —named by Canada’s 100 Best magazine as Canada’s Best Pastry Chef in 2019 — and her husband Ross Larkin, a Top Chef winner in 2018, opened a new restaurant called Portage on the ground floor of Luxus, a boutique hotel in downtown St. John’s.

Mah grew up in Vancouver, the granddaughter of a chef in Chinatown. Her mother was an inspired home cook and instilled a love of cuisine. She went to culinary school in British Columbia and worked as a pastry chef in some of Vancouver’s top restaurants. There, she met and married Ross, a Newfoundlander keen to return to the East Coast. They eventually both got jobs at Raymonds in St. John’s, considered the finest restaurant in the province.

When Raymonds closed in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mah decided to fulfill her lifelong dream to open her own restaurant. She and Larkin acquired a former lounge/café, turned it into a casual upscale restaurant, and put her food philosophy into practice.

Portage is now a 70-seat, open-kitchen restaurant, championing Asian culture and family-style eating. Every dish on the menu serves two to four people with sharing encouraged. Mah focuses on Newfoundland vegetables: beets, carrots, rutabaga, parsnips, and cabbage.

“We want people to know there’s a great variety of vegetables grown here,” she says. A farm, less than a 15-minute drive away, provides all her needs. Without a walk-in freezer, she uses fresh meat and seafood for protein dishes.

Mah emphasizes creativity with simplicity. Technique, textures, and temperature are key. 

Also important is a healthy lifestyle for her hard-working cooks and cleanup crew. Portage is open five days a week, but the three fulltime cooks (plus one half-time) only work four days each. “It’s very important to us that people who work for us and guests who come to the restaurant feel they’re being cared for,” she says. “You’ll never know everything and you’re always learning. Every day we know we can get better. And we’re doing that.”

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