Wild about food: Chefs and food filmmaker share passion for local food, foraging and sustainability

Newfoundland chef Jeremy Charles at NAIT from March 9 to 13

When Jeremy Charles left Newfoundland for the big city in 1995, he was, like so many of his generation, in search of a better future amid “dark times” for his native province.

The cod fishery collapse of two years earlier turned entire communities into “ghost towns,” he says, and fundamentally changed traditional ways of life. Once Charles started culinary school and later cooking in professional kitchens – first in Montreal and then in Chicago at a time when Charlie Trotter’s and Grant Achatz’s Alinea were turning fine dining on its head with an emphasis on seasonal, ingredient-driven menus – he never saw a future back home, let alone as a chef.

L-R Blair Lebsack, Jeremy Charles and Kevin KossawanAnd yet this year marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Raymonds, Charles’ acclaimed St. John’s restaurant known for its use of local seafood, wild game and foraged ingredients. Charles has become the poster boy for modern Newfoundland and Labrador cuisine, and a food philosophy that takes cues from a near-endless bounty of ingredients that don’t just change with the season, they differ week to week.

“It’s a place where we celebrate Newfoundland culture, Newfoundland ingredients and really give people a true taste of the landscape and true taste of terroir,” says Charles.

It’s that sense of place and purpose that’s made the soft-spoken Newfoundlander one of Canada’s top chefs and a respected voice for local, sustainable food. He brought that perspective to NAIT as the 2020 Hokanson Chef in Residence, where for an entire week he’s introducing a generation of largely Prairie-raised Culinary Arts students to ingredients he brought specially from Newfoundland, including whelks (sea snails), snow crab and capelin.

A highlight among the week’s teaching moments was a two-hour Q&A attended by about 400 Culinary Arts students. Charles was part of a panel that included some likeminded, homegrown culinary talent – Blair Lebsack (Cook ’98), owner-chef of RGE RD in Edmonton, and food writer-filmmaker-foraging expert Kevin Kossowan, creator of the James Beard Award-nominated wild food series From the Wild. The wide-ranging discussion touched on emerging trends from food sustainability to finding culinary inspiration to how to get started foraging here in Edmonton.


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Q: Why did you agree to come here to NAIT to see us?

Jeremy Charles: Any time I have the chance to come and talk about Newfoundland and showcase Newfoundland food is always an honour, but also I really enjoy working with students. I’m hoping we can show some of the inspiration [behind our food] and let people know our story and that, you know, you can discover your own backyard and celebrate all the wonderful things around here.

Q: What’s your main source of information for what’s edible and what’s not when it comes to foraging?

Kevin Kossowan: I started off with all the books in the library, everything I could get, but now I learn basically from the elders – the people who have that knowledge already in our community. When I spend time with them in the field, I learn at warp speed.

JC: Just being out in the woods and being hands on. There’s no better way to educate yourself. That goes with a lot of things in the kitchen world, being hands on, real life, real drama.

Q: What advice do you have about getting started with urban foraging?

KK: We live in an extremely biodiverse ecosystem. Living in a downtown apartment is not an excuse not to connect with wild food or local food. It’s a bit of a myth that needs to be debunked. Cities are still in nature. It still has water, it still has soil.

Blair Leback: Walking in the river valley, we’re finding everything from saskatoon berries, sea buckthorn, hazelnuts, even wild asparagus. You can go for a 10-minute walk and find all kinds of things.

KK: If you want food that’s delicious and free, Operation Fruit Rescue is your friend. You can get sour cherries, raspberries, apples, pears. … The city has it and it’s just going to waste. I highly highly encourage you to tap into the things that are delicious and free.

Q: There’s a real movement to embrace sustainable food sources and farming. How is that going to affect the culinary scene in the future?

BL: We can easily get away from factory farms and have better products and still have enough for everyone to eat. Once you see how much waste there is with food, you see that we don’t have to produce as much as we think we do. We’re better at utilizing [whole animals], which is one of the reasons why we do whole butchery at the restaurant. We just buy the whole animal and let the farmer be the person that says, “I’m going to raise this, I’m going to steward my land and I’m going to make the best possible product.” We’ll take care of the rest.

KK: I can’t think of a better way [to improve sustainability] than to localize food supply and connect people deeply to that food supply. … That is the way to build a sustainable food system.

JC: [Newfoundland is] in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately these days we rely on boats coming and going. If the boat doesn’t come in, Costco is empty, Dominions is empty. We had a really big snow storm this year and I know it really made everybody think about how they’re choosing their food and how, years ago, we’d be having our root cellars and the food would be available. I want people to get back to their gardens and grow food, stay local and support farmers.

“I would say inspiration comes from isolation.”

Q: (to Charles) How are you able to create such complex and flavourful dishes with so few ingredients?

JC: Newfoundland is an isolated place with a harsh climate … and I would say inspiration comes from isolation. It’s kind of amazing what can be done when sometimes you have so little. Everything in [my cookbook] is ingredients we’ve been sourcing for years. For me, it’s about using the whole animal and making sure every rock is turned over. It helps with the creative aspect of it.

Q: What do you do when there’s a shortage of wild ingredients like moose?

[Note: Newfoundland is the only province in Canada that allows restaurants to serve wild game; it features prominently in Charles’ menus]

JC: After 10 years, we have a game plan in place. This year, I hunted for 10 days and didn’t get a moose. Fortunately, we were able to buy moose from other hunters. Sometimes we have four to five moose hanging, other times we’ve had none. We’re always adapting to the situation. … It’s constant change on the menu.

KK: During foraging season, there will be one mushroom available during a weekend and then the next week we’ll go for a walk in the same spot and there’s another [variety] that’s up. I’ve really found in the last decade or so that every week or two what’s on offer outside evolves, it changes. If you’re connected to what’s seasonal and what’s under your nose, there’s always something fresh that you can get access to.

Q: When you were in our shoes as students what was your inspiration?

BL: When I was in culinary school, I remember seeing ingredients and thinking, how did that start? Where did that come from? Butter is a super simple ingredient that can taste amazing on its own or it can be the most bland thing ever. You realize that everything can have a lot of flavour. It just depends on where you get your ingredients and how you can manipulate that.

“I always say you’re only as good as your ingredients.”

JC: I think back to culinary school in Montreal, I was reading a lot of cookbooks and I found Charlie Trotter very inspiring. But when I think about it, my inspiration just comes from the landscape in Newfoundland and the ingredients. I always say you’re only as good as your ingredients. When you have beautiful things, life is easier.

Q: There’s been huge growth in plant-based food and diets. How will this affect the industry and educating customers about eating local meat and seafood?

JC: In the last few years we’ve been focused more and more on vegetables. I find that exciting and I find myself eating less meat.

BL: We’re trying to be as ethical and sustainable as possible [with our meat and butchery] and we’re always trying to get better. For the most part, I look at it as a nice cycle to see that more vegetarian-focused diets pushing us to work with vegetables more. And I also think that, once people eat Beyond Meat, they’ll be back to us in a second!

KK: The meat obsession – and I love meat and I hunt – and focusing so much on meat preparation to me is off balance. There’s so many things to talk about in the plant and fungus world that we’re not talking about. … As soon as we expand that food process the better off our food culture will be.

Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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