Christie Peters of The Hollows in Saskatoon, SK: Mav Chefs 2016
Chef Christie Peters redefines green thumb. Her vegetable-focused menu uses ingredients she literally grows in the backyard. In 2011, after working in San Francisco, Amsterdam and Spain, Peters opened her own restaurant with her partner and husband, Kyle Michael. Her menu includes contemporary food that focuses on natural, seasonal products. When her garden lies dormant for the winter, she serves up a range of delicious fermented dishes made by her and her staff throughout the growing season. What’s really intriguing, though, is that her menu changes as she evolves as a chef — she’s constantly experimenting with new ways to bring out the flavour of her garden in unique Saskatchewan cuisine.
Why open your own restaurant?
I feel that it was always something that I just knew I was going to do, even before I started cooking. My decision to start cooking was actually spurred by my early desire to have my own restaurant. Watching other restaurant owners, I realized that you don’t have a lot of power or say in a restaurant unless you are the one cooking the food.
When you planned your restaurant, what was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome?
Getting capital to start The Hollows with no investors was more difficult than anticipated. Bankers informed me that restaurants are too high risk. But if I wanted to open a Tim Hortons, maybe they would reconsider (very Canadian of them). I had to apply for a small personal loan and lie about how I was going to use it.
How do your experiences in Amsterdam and San Francisco influence the menus you create?
In Amsterdam, I worked at De Kas, a restaurant inside a greenhouse. It was the first restaurant that I had worked at that had its own garden on site, and their own farm growing produce specifically for them. I was inspired by the quality of the ingredients and the connection to the land, with cooks actually going out and harvesting. Even the lack of packaging was impressive: farmers would bring in vegetables in big baskets, still covered in dirt.
In San Francisco, I was inspired by Chef Daniel Patterson’s foraging around the city, creating an authentic cuisine, local to San Francisco. He was discovering new ingredients and giving those ingredients value. This is what we try to do every day with the cuisine of Saskatchewan, because there is so much here that is undiscovered.
How important are vegetables when you’re planning your menu?
Vegetables and wild plants are everything to us. They are the stars of each dish, with meat playing a supporting role. They are the true indicators of the seasons.
Why did you decide to grow your own vegetables?
Gardening is a major passion of mine. It is an important and difficult skill that takes years to master. Each year is different, so you really need to be in tune with nature. Being able to grow your own food is a skill that goes hand in hand with cooking. We have been able to be self-sufficient above and beyond other restaurants that are ordering from large suppliers. They have no control over the market, and often not the quality. Growing our own produce, the quality and freshness are unparalleled. Also our gardens inspire the way I cook: seeing the work that goes into growing the food makes me appreciate the true value of each ingredient and to find new and creative ways to use all parts of the vegetable. A chef friend of mine recently tweeted “chefs gardening is the new chefs foraging.” I laughed at the trend but I will continue to do both.
Using ingredients from your own garden and locally sourced ingredients, is there a risk that you’ll run out before a night is through?
Quite the opposite! Running out of ingredients is not an issue. In Saskatchewan, the growing season is brief and intense. We have to grow enough food in the summer months to sustain us throughout the rest of the year. We are constantly experimenting with new preservation methods in order to stretch the bounty of the summer harvest through the dead of winter.
How do you manage running two successful restaurants and a thriving garden?
I couldn’t do any of this without my business partner and husband, Kyle Michael. We have a great team that is always willing to help out with any of my crazy endeavours, from stealing alley rhubarb to brushing out freshly tanned hides. Our servers are always willing to pitch in, whether with kitchen prep, processing the harvest or blending wild-foraged teas. Our restaurants are very close in proximity, which allows me to go back and forth between them countless times in a day. We also have a professional horticulturist on staff who oversees our gardens, and we work together very closely. Around here, we are never bored — on a slow night you may find us testing new recipes, experimenting with new cocktails, or “researching” new rosés. The way that we run our restaurants keeps everyone engaged.
What is the one thing you absolutely can’t stand about the restaurant industry that you have tried to fix/correct in your restaurant?
The waste. We have tried to rectify this in our restaurants in every way possible. We compost all of our food waste. We do only whole animal butchery, using every part of the animal, including tanning the hides and making soap from the excess animal fat. All broken glass is donated to a local glass artist. Both restaurants share one dumpster that is picked up once a month, and is rarely ever full.
What do you love about cooking?
I love that it is hands on, practical and puts you in the moment. To be able to feed yourself and those around you is one of the most important life skills a person can have.
What is your most memorable/favourite food moment to date?
After my first stage at Boneta, I sat at the bar and Chef Jérémie Bastien cooked for me. The first course was a slice of firm, fresh ahi tuna that he had just hand-selected from the fishmonger that afternoon. His expert preparation was so simple and pure that it is still one the most memorable food experiences. Now, as a Chef, I know that the most simple preparations require the most skill, and can have the most dramatic impact. It’s all about quality and subtlety, and the ingredient itself.
Beet Stem Conserve
1 lb beet stems, minced against the grain
1 large onion, diced
1 bulb garlic, thinly sliced
2 tbsp salt
250 ml extra virgin olive oil
10 garden tomatoes, skin removed and crushed (roma tomatoes preferred)
Sauté beet stems, onions, garlic and salt in olive oil in a large pot over medium heat until tender.
Add crushed tomatoes to increase acidity; bring to a boil.
Ladle into hot, sterilized canning jars. Tighten lids. Wait for jars to seal (listen for that satisfying “pop”). Can be eaten immediately, or cellared until later.
Delicious on pasta, with polenta, or as a flavour addition to soups and sauces.