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Foraging for a Feast

Original Article by Amy Watkins for Vancouver Sun

Canada doesn't taste so different coast to coast

“East or west coast cod cheeks?” shouts one of the chefs in the kitchen of Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog restaurant on a busy Saturday night.

Tonight the usually locally focused menu features a choice of Newfoundland cod cheek escabeche with fennel, basil and red onion or Tofitian cod cheek corn-crusted and served with sweet corn, chili oil and pickled onion. There’s not one but two bearded head chefs working, as Wolf’s Nick Nutting is joined by Todd Perrin from Newfoundland’s Mallard Cottage for an East Meets West dinner.

Two of Canada’s most extreme geographical locations have produced some of the country’s most talented chefs and, in addition to a mutual love of facial hair, Nutting and Perrin share a deep passion for their local ingredients that makes it hard to imagine their restaurants existing anywhere else. 

Canada doesn’t go any farther west than the surf town of Tofino on the edge of Vancouver Island and it doesn’t go any farther east than the island of Newfoundland, where Chef Todd Perrin opened Mallard Cottage in November 2013.

Both chefs were nominated for Air Canada enRoute Magazine’s Best New Restaurant in Canada award in 2014, with Wolf winning the title, and Perrin named in the top five. The collaboration comes at a time when both chefs are reflecting on things they are thankful for, and appreciating the freedom of cooking in the more remote corners of the country.

“Tofino is really similar to where we’re from,” says Perrin, gesturing at the ocean. “We’re on the opposite coast, but you look out of the window of this restaurant and it’s not that different from looking out the window of my restaurant. It’s really cool to come this far but almost feel like you’re in your own backyard.

“We’re a really fortunate bunch of cooks at our spot as we got to build our dream restaurant exactly like we wanted it and we run the thing exactly like we want,” he says. “It’s like Wolf in the Fog; this space has a feeling. Mallard has that too but for different reasons because of the age and style of the building. We never take it for granted, we go into the restaurant every day and we’re so fortunate to do what we do, where we get to do it.”

Perrin was born in Conception Bay South near Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital St John’s, and spent two decades working as a chef across Canada before making his way home to take time out and raise his daughter. A stint on Top Chef Canada brought him back into the business, and in 2011 he bought Mallard Cottage and undertook a two-year renovation of the old 18th century wooden thatched structure in the nearby fishing hamlet of Quidi Vidi, which at around 230 years old is the oldest Irish vernacular style cottage in North America.

“I was on the way out and got reeled back in,” says Perrin. “The last five years have basically been a blur.”

The two years since Wolf in the Fog opened have also been a blur for Nutting.

“It was the biggest risk that I’ve ever taken, but everything is going well and we’re thankful for that,” he says. “All my sous chefs have been here since the beginning: the fact we started it together and we’re still together is pretty incredible. I’m thankful that we’re able to do this in this town. We’re able to cook things on our own terms and not have anybody judge or compare us to what’s going on in the city. We’re making food that’s relevant to our own community, and people enjoy it.”  

Another Tofino chef who understands the draw of the extreme east and west coasts is Warren Barr at The Pointe Restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn, which celebrates 20 years of championing Tofino’s local food scene this year.
Barr began his career in Vancouver’s fine dining French restaurants Le Crocodile and Bistro Pastis before making a move to The Inn at Fortune Bay on Prince Edward Island. There he discovered a love for local food that would eventually see him working as Nutting’s sous chef at The Pointe after working with him at Montreal’s Garcon. 

“In P.E.I. I could see that radish isn’t just this thing in the ground. There’s the tops and the seed pods are delicious; all those other wonderful things that come along with watching a plant grow and flower,” Barr says.

“I worked with a lot with farmers. You see how much hard work goes into it. Potatoes are taken for granted, but there’s a lot of work that goes into the most non-glorious vegetable in the world.”

Thanksgiving in Tofino means a bountiful local harvest, and for Barr one of the most exciting ingredients coming through the kitchen door is cynamoka berry.

“It’s growing all over here,” says Barr indicating the sweeping vista of North Chesterman Beach and the dense rainforest behind.

“They’re also known as evergreen huckleberries, and they are the golden berry around here. They’re super dark black and seedy — when you pop one in your mouth it’s not too sweet or sour.”

Barr is using the berries for a jus to accompany a venison dish that also features spruce salt and spruce oil. “It’s a feeling on a plate — it’s like a pile of the forest on your plate.” 

Tofino’s rainforest also hides some of the region’s best spots for mushroom foraging. Nutting and the team at Wolf in the Fog work with Alexander McNaughton, who is also known as Alex the Forager, to collect them from the wild.
“I’ve never seen as many types of wild mushrooms as we have right now,” says Nutting. “We always get great mushrooms every year, but this is the best we’ve ever seen. We have six different types of wild mushrooms from Tofino. We’ve never really had a ton of porcinis up here before, but we have porcinis, chanterelles, pines, lobster, hedgehogs and blue chanterelles. Basically every type of mushroom you can think of is coming from the earth right now.”

In Newfoundland Perrin also works with local farms and foragers but berry picking (bilberry, blueberry, cranberry, black currant, cloudberry, bear berry) is the focal part of fall for everyone in the community.

“We have local buddies who pick berries for fun and sell to us,” explains Perrin. “Berry picking is a pastime in Newfoundland. People don’t consider themselves to be foragers but picking berries in Newfoundland is like going for a bike ride in B.C. It’s what people do; it’s a big cultural thing.”

Another traditional cultural event is Sunday dinner with the family.

“Thanksgiving dinner at home is really just our tradition of Sunday dinner when families get together and eat roast turkey or beef, with dressing (stuffing) and gravy. Food in Newfoundland and Labrador is mainly about conviviality — getting together with friends, telling lies, having a few stories and having fun. It’s really just about getting people together, sharing something delicious and enjoying each other’s company.”

Nutting’s memories of a West Coast Thanksgiving are happy ones of a traditional turkey dinner at his grandparents’ house.

“My grandfather had a nice garden and my grandmother was a good baker so he’d grow the apples and she’d bake a nice pie,” remembers Nutting. “These days when it comes to Thanksgiving cooking we’re more likely to choose Tofino fish, so it’ll probably be halibut and cod not turkey on the menu.”

Nutting sees no need to chose a traditional turkey.

“It’s the time of year when you’re thankful for the harvest. We’ve still got the beautiful threshold at the end of summer and beginning of fall. Nobody has to jump into the winter season too early. (If you are cooking) don’t pick anything that’s going to stress you out … and drink lots of wine,” he says. 

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