Resilience in the Face of Reality
There is an emerging sense of positivity growing. Much like the first signs of Spring that signal hope and rebirth, there are hopeful and meaningful things happening in restaurants, akin to seeing the first signs of new green shoots pushing up from the soil.
While restrictions and lockdowns are still our reality, there are many restaurateurs who are growing and adding new identities to their former selves. The desire to connect and bring joy to the guest is the fuel, and these incredibly hard working individuals are using it to create new identities, new ways for us to experience the delight of food and wine. While these initiatives may have been born from necessity for survival, perhaps there is some further good that can come from these efforts, and lead to long term opportunities to connect in new ways. I applaud them for their passion and leadership.
Nick Oliveiro from Peter Pan, Toronto Ontario
Adapting during the Pandemic isn’t just about business decisions, sometimes it’s about mental health and motivation.
“In January, after two months of lockdown, I felt that 2021 would look and feel very much like 2020. To raise my spirits and be proactive, I hosted my first virtual wine tasting for about 30 people. In two short months, that one virtual tasting completely changed my mental health, outlook and engagement with my community. Each week I host ‘Wine Coach at Home’ a virtual wine tasting co-hosted by fellow wine professionals to give our audience an entertaining snapshot into different wine regions, grape varietals and other topics. With an average of around 60 people per session, this idea went from a side project to beat the winter blues, to a sustainable part of our business, which has led us to branch into hosting private tastings, wine dinners and given us a platform to promote our wine shop.”
Nick’s wine picks
Irrewarra Chardonnay, 2016, Geelong Australia
This wine is from my hometown in Australia and made by the Australian Winemaker of the Year 2020, Nick Farr. You may not expect to go to Australia for quality Chardonnay, but once in the glass, this wine effortlessly demonstrates the heights Chardonnay can obtain. It is rich, layered and distinctly Australian. I am super proud to showcase a wine from my hometown, especially one so utterly delicious. Peter Pantry $130
Julia Bertram Handwerk Spatburgunder, 2017, Germany
No one was really looking to Germany for world-class Pinot Noir (aka Spatburgunder) but the effect of global warming has seen this region heat up, literally and figuratively. Julia, a young, dedicated winemaker, is fast becoming the champion of this grape in Germany. Her wines are mineral and complex, but with a charming freshness and unique expression. It is Burgundy-level quality at half the price. Peter Pantry $49
Jikon Ginjo Senbon Nishiki Sake, 2019, Mie Japan. My dedication to improving my sake knowledge is relatively recent and the positive response to its addition to the shop has been amazing. FYI, sake is delicious and my advice is to push whatever is holding you back and add it to your repertoire in 2021. Jikon is a cult producer in Japan, who makes sake that brings the same level of delight I feel for a great glass of wine. It is nothing you expect and will convert you to sake drinker, instantly. Peter Pantry $90 (720mL)
Eric Robertson from Pearle Morissette Restaurant, Niagara, Ontario
Having just past the anniversary of the initial Covid-19 lockdown there’s a lot to reflect on. “It has been a tough year for everyone worldwide and ultimately a very difficult year for our ever fragile industry. At Restaurant Pearl Morissette the past twelve months have seen a few very different versions of our business and ourselves. At first we were scared, confused and frustrated. When the lockdown was announced; we had just come back to the restaurant two weeks prior from our annual shutdown, put a large investment into a greenhouse on the property and were getting ready to hit the ground running to the start of spring. Once the dust settled from those first days, we got the staff together to dig garden beds (distanced of course) as we knew we would still need vegetables from our garden, and what a perfect time to clear the mind outside.
After that we opened our Country Market, it was our responsibility to continue to offer our community pasture raised meats, bread and the first organic vegetables of the year as we had access to these products at a time when some were simply unable to make it out to the grocery store. This was much more of a challenge than initially expected; between driving deliveries, creating new market items, butchering whole animals whilst essentially opening a new business in the most precarious of times. With our heads down we were able to bring back some staff, support the farmers that we’ve worked with over years and further strengthen our relationship with our local community and guests to the restaurant. Through the demand for the market we curated new relationships with farms that under the restaurant’s time restraints we wouldn’t have been able to.
Our garden team sold seedling boxes for the home gardeners, seasoned and new. We also delivered vegetables and greens to local restaurants. This was a great way to connect with the Niagara and Hamilton restaurants and also just trade stories with the chefs and staff. After a few months of the Country Market, we began to get the creative itch again. Shortly after we launched our RPM-to-go meals which were finished-at-home tasting menus using ingredients from our farm and a great chance to experiment with new dishes and bring a new excitement into our restaurant.
I think it was during week one of RPM-to-go that it was announced that the province would allow outdoor dining. With our dining room being on the second floor of a barn, this wouldn’t be as easy as seating people on our patio. Luckily, we are situated on a large property with vineyards, gardens and pastures. The next week our management team was in full restaurant opening mode with a plan in place to launch a restaurant under a tent that we would later title Le Pré.
This, like any opening, required staff, new infrastructure and equipment. Collectively we were able to have everything in place in about two weeks. It was an absolute whirlwind. I’ll always remember the feeling of seeing all of the staff back in the kitchen prepping for the opening. It felt like a mirage after the previous months. Once we opened the tent, it was a success. We were fully booked, safe and able to provide an escape for so many people. With all its challenges there was always an amazing energy amongst the team here, maybe a little disbelief that we were actually pulling it off, day in day out. In the tent, we battled rain, wind, snow and adapted our workplace to continue to meet the health and safety standards. We only took down the tent on December 22nd, once there was news of the province-wide lockdown. At the time of shutting down the tent, we had 30 staff members. At the initial shutdown we had 14. This experience has allowed us to bring on so many talented new people to our team.
In December, with collaboration from the winery, we put together a subscription based takeaway package that brought guests into the restaurant experience where they were also able to taste through back vintages of Pearl Morissette wines that were otherwise unavailable to the public. We named it the “Discovery Package”. This bi-monthly package had its own logistic challenges as well as the task of creating a completely new menu each week. We had great support from our friends at Durand Coffee in Hamilton and Archive wine bar in Toronto who let us use their space for our guests to access their pickups.
This year, albeit one of the hardest years of our careers, has had many highlights and things that once seemed impossible become possible. 2020 has been a catalyst that has brought about so much change, growth and reflection to us here at Restaurant Pearl Morissette that from the initial fears, we now look to future challenges with excitement.