Last month, we had the opportunity to attend the first Great Canadian Cheese Festival in Picton, Ont. In addition to being able to learn about and taste cheeses from all over Canada in a setting that is quickly becoming one of Ontario’s greatest culinary tourism escapes, I loved that the festival pulled together chefs from all over Canada and gave festival-goers the chance to chat with them.
Jenny and I spoke only briefly with Michael Howell, chef of Tempest Restaurant in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. But in those few minutes, we really got a sense of the passion chef Howell, a Nova Scotia native who’s lived and cooked all over the world, has for both his trade and his home province.
July 30 is Food Day Canada, an initiative started nine years ago by Canadian food writer Anita Stewart to celebrate Canada’s food bounty and culinary skill. Chefs, restaurants and ordinary citizens all over the country will mark the occasion in their own special ways. In advance of Food Day Canada, we’re going to be chatting with some of the chefs whose restaurants will celebrate Canadian food on July 30 to gauge their thoughts on our country’s food scene and traditions.
First up, we talk to chef Michael Howell.
What do you love about cooking in Nova Scotia?
I am blessed to be living in the heartland of Nova Scotia’s agricultural bounty. My restaurant is 500 metres from the Wolfville Farmers Market, less than five kilometres from five wineries, and most of my fresh product comes from within 20 kilometres of my business. ALL of my suppliers are primary producers – I do not have to use ANY distributors.
Nova Scotia is a nascent destination for culinary tourism and yet there is a breadth and depth to the chefs cooking here that is equal to many far more cosmopolitan destinations. We choose to live here because of the quality of life as well as the quality of porduct available at our beck and call.
How have local factors such as geography, economics and demographics influenced your cooking style?
Seasonality is a mantra that many chefs espouse nowadays, and in some cases, rather exemporaneously. I truly try to cook seasonally with respect for local ingredients. I can get local tomatoes (from a greenhouse) 10 months of the year. I have another greens supplier that keeps me in exotica (radish sprouts, micro mix, etc) 12 months of the year.
Seafood is ALWAYS available so I am only restricted by green veg and fruit availability. For several seasons, I have cooked an all Italian menu for the winter that reflects seasonality but also brings in the locals in the dead of winter – think squash and quark ravioli with sage butter or locally farmed (land-based farming) branzino with winter veg ragu. My cuisine is simpler as I get older – less complicated, more about purity of ingredients and flavours – but I try to stay au courant so that I am not thought of as anachronistic by critics and so my young cooks don’t get bored by simplicity…
How has the local food scene in your region evolved over the years?
I, and several other chefs (Martin Ruiz, Craig Flinn, Dennis Johnston, Ray Bear) are driving a culinary rennaissance here in Nova Scotia. We bring experience from all over the world to our little corner of heaven. We continue to travel and experience great cuisines and make an effort to stay relevant when we come home to our businesses. Our cuisine is distinctly steeped in seafood – that is inescapeable, of course. But we aren’t just about Digby scallops and lobster either. Many of us are beginning to grapple with the issues of sustainable seafood when it comes to procurement, so hopefully we are driving a new thinking when seafood suppliers think about the methods of harvesting and the species they are delivering to us, so that they respect an increasingly passionate scrunity of the products we are serving at our restaurants by customers concerned with sustainability and the health of our oceans.
What are your thoughts on the idea that there is a “Canadian cuisine”?
Canadian cuisine is indefinable. We are motivated by our ethnicity, by our regionality, by our urbanism. Anthony Walsh’s interpretation of Canadian cuisine is one pole (bringing the best to Toronto from all corners of Canada), Martin Picard’s is another (celebrating distinctly Quebecois cuisine steeped in French tradition). Our cuisine is interpreting our local ingredients wherever we are. Increasingly, like Italian cuisine, we are regionalized. Tuscan cuisine is completely unlike Pugliese cuisine, yet they share a common thread of pasta, and primi, secondi and dolce as a method of dining. I cook scallops, lobster, halibut, haddock and mussels as regional celebrations yet I still cook Berkshire pork, great rib eyes to make the steak lover salivate, and cool vegetarian dishes to satisfty the increasing number of non-protein eaters that are a part of the culinary landscape. There will never be a definable Canadian cuisine, unless the definition is melting pot influenced by regional ingredients.
How is Tempest celebrating Food Day Canada?
We are cooking a hugely celebratory multi-course dinner that reveres local ingredients:
Dulse crusted Roasted Elmridge Farm Fingerlings with Farmers Sour Cream and Acadian Sturgeon Caviar
Domaine de Grand Pre Champlain Brut
Arctic Char Tartare:
Sustainable blue Arctic char, Back Door chives, opal basil oil, horseradish espuma, crispy Lakewood Market garden zucchini blossoms
L’Acadie Vineyards Sparkling Rose
Trio of Taproot Farms Sun Gold Tomatoes:
Panzanella with Fox Hill Cheese House mozzarella, Boulangerie la Vendeenne sourdough
Tomato water and ShanDaph oyster shooter
Stinging nettle and Fox Hill quark ravioli with tomato confit
Annapolis Highlands Vineyards Geisenheim Riesling 2010
Applewood smoked leg of Gaspereau Valley lamb with Chef’s Garden pirri pirri sauce, minted tabbouleh, our own ajvar, lemon verbena foam
Luckett Vineyards 2009 Triumphe
Noggins Corner peach tart, Ran-Cher Acres goat cheese and Cosman & Whidden Honey gelato
Domaine de Grand Pre Pomme D’Or