Tidings Picks the 2011 Maverick Chefs
I’m willing to bet that the last great meal you ate made you close your eyes in pure delight. No doubt it piqued your curiosity as well as your taste buds. You may have wondered what combination of ingredients the chef used to create such a dish. You might have even tried to replicate it at home despite knowing that it would never turn out exactly the same — not necessarily better or worse, just different. Cooking up such wonderful meals isn’t about graduating from culinary school. It’s about adding a pinch or two of one very special ingredient.
Whether it’s celebrating a unique heritage or running a restaurant according to a family philosophy, the chefs within these pages never stray far from their roots. Their feet may be firmly grounded in tradition, but their imaginations know no bounds. These maverick chefs are taking Canadian cuisine to new heights and attracting the interest of the world. For each one of them, growing up on meals made from scratch using products sourced most often from their own backyards has left an indelible mark. Life experience is the extra ingredient that flavours everything these chefs make.Victor Bongo (Raven Hotel, Yukon), Jesse Vergen (Saint John Ale House and Smoking Pig BBQ, New Brunswick), Martin Gagné (La Traite Restaurant, Quebec) and Scott Geiring (Carambola Café et Traiteur, Quebec) are independent spirits. From sourcing ingredients from around the world via a cruise liner, to foraging through unmapped areas of the backwoods, to continually experimenting with any kind of food combination, these chefs are fearless. Worried that their drive to test the limits of their experience might result in a strange kind of mish-mash scooped onto your plate? Well, don’t worry. We’re definitely the winners here. Everyday, they transform their individual talent and creativity into incredibly natural, flavourful food that goes far beyond sating your hunger. It nourishes your soul.
Executive Chef, Raven Hotel
Haines Junction, Yukon
The one thing in particular that strikes me about Victor Bongo is that he personifies passion and drive. This chef with an unfailingly positive attitude pushed the boundaries of tradition even as a young child in his mom’s kitchen in the Congo. Though the cultural preference then was to exclusively relegate food prep to women, he insisted on learning all he could about traditional ingredients and techniques. By age 11, he had moved with his family to Vancouver, and what may not have been possible for him in the Congo was within reach on Canadian soil.
Victor credits Chef Peter Brine, his high school cooking class teacher, as his greatest influence. The chef was so impressed with Victor’s quick mastery of complex dishes that he couldn’t help but tell him, “You’re born to cook!” Never content to miss an opportunity to learn, Victor took a job as chef on a cruise line. Traveling around the world, he picked up ingredients and preparation tips from the many countries he visited. Most recently, Victor was nominated to represent Yukon Territory at the 2010 Chef Congress. He has written a cookbook, The Excellence of Chef Victor Bongo, and is currently working on a second one. Victor has never forgotten his roots. He insists on changing his menu weekly, and showcasing fresh and local food. Go on, try the Muskox tartar piled onto garlic crostini, topped with sautéed spinach and quail eggs then drizzled with red beet syrup.
Where did you get your culinary education?
Vancouver Community College
How did you end up in the Yukon?
I was working in a high-end hotel in Vancouver, and I got bored because every day I did the same thing. One day a friend told me to check out this job ad in the Yukon. It was the perfect opportunity for me. It was a kitchen in a five-star restaurant where the menu changes weekly and the focus is on wild game, such as elk, venison, bison and caribou.
What’s your favourite country to eat in?
What was your first job in a professional kitchen?
Prep cook in a French kitchen in Vancouver. I wanted to work there so badly that I went knocking on the back alley door begging the chef for an opportunity. I saw grown men cry everyday at work. But, I gave it my best. I left after a year and was known to be the cook to have been there the longest.
What music do you like to play in the kitchen?
I love my hip hop and reggae, and once in a while some jazz.
Taylor Fladgate Port, and my favourite juice is orange Sunny Delight.
Name an overrated ingredient?
Cream. Every restaurant I go to, I find that most dishes are made with cream sauce. All soups are cream soups, and all desserts have cream. Whatever happened to having a nice vinaigrette on fish or a nice salsa?
What’s your favourite kitchen tool?
My pasta machine.
Have you done anything really embarrassing while cooking?
It was at a hotel banquet. I had just gotten promoted to Banquet Sous Chef and was left in charge of cooking 325 portions of venison tenderloin. I walked away from it for about five minutes. By the time the meat came out and got served it was well done, and the chef had wanted it medium rare. Everyone looked at me, like, “Wow, really? You are a new Sous Chef?”
Is there something you refuse to have in your kitchen?
Is there a food that you really don’t like?
I make poached fish on my menu because it’s healthy and lots of people like it, but I’m not a fan.
What skill does someone most need to work in your kitchen?
Good attitude, eager to learn, clean and able to work under pressure.
Do you have anything surprising in your home fridge?
Most people are surprised that a gourmet high-end chef has Kraft processed cheese in the fridge. I’m not going to lie. I like it.
Plans for the future?
To do a cooking show with young kids, and also a cooking summer camp to teach kids the importance of healthy eating and the value of food and where it comes from. I’d like to write a few more cookbooks. I also want to get more involved with junior chefs and direct them to be the best they can be.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
I would want to be a famous rapper. But, there would have been a two per cent chance of that because I can’t rap. I would be a youth counsellor because I like helping kids.
Name one challenge that you met on your way to becoming a chef.
Being the only student of colour, and being treated differently by the others was definitely a challenge. I overcame it by proving that it’s not about your skin colour or where you come from, but about your passion for food, and how hard you’re willing to work to become the best.
You have 24 hours left to live. What’s your last meal?
It would depend where I am. If I’m close to my mother’s house, I would have her African peanut goat stew. If not, then a nice double cheeseburger with no onions and small fries from McDonald’s and coconut ice cream from Mario Gelato.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I love spending it with family and friends. We are big into BBQ, with nice music.
seared scallops with parsnip purée, bacon with lentils and truffle demi sauce
demi truffle sauce
1 tbsp butter
1 medium shallot, minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme chopped
1/2 cup red wine
2 cups Demi glace (available at fine food stores)
1 tsp truffle oil
1 tsp truffle shaved
Melt butter in a sauce pan, add shallots and chopped thyme.
Sauté over medium heat briefly. Deglaze with red wine. Add Demi glace.
Bring to a boil than simmer and reduce to desired thickness. Add truffle oil and shaved truffle. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
6 medium parsnips, peeled and cubed
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
Boil the parsnips until tender, about 25 minutes. Place parsnips in a blender with butter and cream purée till smooth, light consistency. Season with salt and pepper.
lentils with bacon
1/3 cup bacon, small dice
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/4 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup carrots, diced
2 cups green lentils
8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
Place the bacon in a sauté pan over medium heat and sauté bacon till crispy.
Add the onions, celery, carrots, and cook until the vegetables are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the lentils and cook for 1 minute.
Add the stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to simmer cover and cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the lentils are tender.
Season with salt and pepper to taste. Before serving, stir in 1/2 cup Demi truffle sauce.
16 sea scallops, patted dry
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
Season the scallops with salt and pepper. Melt butter and oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the scallops and cook until brown, about 2 minutes per side.
4 cups red beet juice
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
Simmer the beet juice in a saucepan until it has reduced by three quarters, stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Continue to reduce until the desired consistency is achieved. Set aside.
With a spoon, sweep some parsnip purée across each of the plates. Spoon lentils in the middle of each plate. Arrange 4 scallops on each plate, and drizzle with Demi truffle sauce and beet reduction.
Enjoy this flavourful dish with a chilled glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
Saint John Ale House, Executive Chef
Smoking Pig BBQ, Owner/Executive Chef
Saint John, NB
Not content with one all-consuming career, Jesse Vergen has two. Rather than remain within the confines of the kitchen, he insists on pushing beyond the usual sourcing, cooking and plating that chefs do. Jesse is also an organic farmer. He and his wife, Kim, grow a lot of the food served in his restaurants on their farm in Quispamsis, on the outskirts of Saint John. But don’t be fooled into thinking that vegetables are his mainstay. Jesse has made good on his goal of taking an active part in every step of the food preparation cycle: he slaughters his own animals, too.
Farming comes naturally to this Maritimer. As a child, he read Mother Earth News and organic gardening books when visiting his grandparents. Jesse’s stepfather, Tom, was raised on a dairy farm in Vermont, and farming was something they both had in common. Asked whether his customers appreciate his efforts, Jesse is philosophical. “Saint John is a very tough market where we have to do tightrope walking when attempting to push the limits of what’s going on people’s plates.” If his patrons have anything to say about it, they would agree he’s met the challenge successfully. Follow him on Twitter (@JesseVergen) to “see some food porn as it happens.”
How has your family influenced your decision to become a farmer?
My biggest influence in organic cultivation was my wife Kim. She’s the real green thumb. I was having some beers with some friends and telling them my dream of someday having a little restaurant on a farm and growing my own produce and whatnot, and one of the girls with us said, “Holy crap, you need to meet my sister. That’s her dream too!” And years down the road here we stand, living our dream with three wonderful kids!
What makes Saint John Ale House stand apart from the others?
Fun. Hospitality should be fun, relaxed and tasty.
Who has influenced your cooking the most?
My kitchen team. They are the ones that affect me because I work with them on a daily basis. I learn constantly from them and have to constantly be learning to answer their questions. The team that’s with you day-to-day and your customers are the real influences on a chef.
What’s on offer at Smoking Pig BBQ?
We do a real pit BBQ with New Brunswick pork and veggies from my farm.
Why is yours one of the last standing farms in Quispamsis?
It’s just modern development. It takes a hay field a long, long time to make the profit that selling one 1/4 acre lot can. My plan is to keep it as a working sustainable farm. I like to be challenged, and this is a big one. I’m not sure if I’m winning or losing, but I like the fight.
What made you decide you wanted to become a chef?
My parents have said to me that even when I was just a kid, I was into cooking. They even made me cook things I hunted down in the back woods with my BB gun, like squirrels or frogs. They told me if I was going to shoot something, I was going to eat it, and I did.
Do you have a “guilty” secret ingredient?
Crystal hot sauce.
What’s your favourite country or region to eat in?
Quebec — great independent food culture.
What was your favourite meal as a child?
The potato pancakes my mother used to make. She would grind them in this old meat grinder with a fine purée attachment. Then she would mix in stale bread and some eggs. She’d fry them in butter with some salt. Then you would melt butter on them afterwards.
What’s your favourite kitchen tool or gadget?
Vac seal machine … so versatile!
What are you fanatical about?
Duck hunting! Boom, boom, boom!
What’s your favourite drink?
Beer. It’s the “new” wine, especially when it’s malty, bottle-conditioned farmhouse ale.
Name an underrated ingredient.
I’m all about our local Bay of Fundy cold water shrimp. I don’t think they get the respect they deserve … maybe if they had a cooler name.
Is there a food that you really don’t like?
Green peppers … Fruit of the devil!
Where do you shop for ingredients?
I grow, raise, or shoot ’em.
What rule of conduct matters more than any other in your kitchen?
Showing up on time. You only get one “get out of jail free” card.
Which cookbook changed everything for you?
Back to Basics by Readers Digest. It’s not a cookbook, but has all sorts of methods of butchery, preserving, and a pretty cool recipe selection.
What’s your favourite meal to cook at home?
Ramen noodles with random goodies from our kitchen garden!
Do you have anything surprising in your home fridge?
Wild Eiders and Mergansers in the freezer, also known as sea ducks.
1 large rabbit (farmed or wild)
Pot of canola oil (support GMO-free canola!)
Favourite vinegar-based hot sauce (Crystal, Valentina, Frank’s Red Hot)
250 ml cold butter, cubed
100 g Gai Bleu Cheese (NB raw milk blue cheese)
What-a-rabbit-likes-to-eat garnishes (carrots, radish, little baby greens)
Break the rabbit into “wing” size pieces using a sharp Chinese cleaver. A strong wrist will help with this.
Heat oil to 350°F. Heat hot sauce to a simmer, and emulsify butter into it.
Fry rabbit pieces for 6 1/2 minutes. Arrange on a plate, drizzle with sauce and top with crumbled blue cheese and garnishes.
Eat it with your hands and pair with a hoppy IPA.
Carambola Café et Traiteur, Owner/Executive Chef
Scott Geiring is nothing if not fearless. Here is a chef who relishes devising recipes for almost everything, including rattlesnake and scorpion fish. Witness, for instance, this imaginative combo: Chinese snowfungus with passion fruit and milk chocolate mousse. I asked him how he manages to dream up these diverse pairings. “Life experiences and the people surrounding me,” he says. “I love to learn new things!” I suspect that wielding his favourite Global 12-inch knife must also add to the fun. There is, however, one thing in particular that underlies his creativity — the pursuit of customer satisfaction. Pleasing his restaurant patrons is not just a by-product of his culinary talent. Though, if stellar customer reviews are anything to go by, he’s cornered the market on that. Rather, it’s a concept that informs every decision he makes. “I must respect the economy, the environment and my customers,” he tells me more than once. Scott has succeeded in putting the city of Hudson on the culinary world map because of it.
So, where does that drive come from? “As a teenager, I enjoyed entertaining at home. However, it became costly to entertain groups of young teens every weekend. So I found a more cost effective way of filling all the stomachs of my friends.” And his first restaurant, Le Cantaloup, was born. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite stand the test of time. But, no matter. One taste of restaurant ownership and Scott knew exactly what he needed to do next. From the remains of a cantaloupe grew another yummy fruit. “The names are kind of an inside joke. Since my first restaurant was called Le Cantaloup and went under, I figured I could give it another shot with another fruit.” Carambola is a starfruit.
Scott envisions a future focused on discovering new ways of creating the best experiences possible for his customers. Given that he loves to sing, I couldn’t help wondering if serenading diners is included in that plan. “I enjoy singing everything,” he says, “especially Christmas songs, [though I don’t know] any of the true lyrics, much to the dismay of my customers, staff and my wife.” All right, maybe warbling tunes should just remain a hobby. Despite his questionable vocal talent, what really impresses me about him is his humility. Scott takes every opportunity to mention the valuable and ongoing support of his family, friends and customers. “One of my greatest accomplishments,” he admits, “was simply learning to appreciate what I already have.”
La Traite Restaurant, Executive Chef
Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations
When I lived on the University of Quebec’s Trois-Rivières campus, Marie-Antoinette, one of the province’s chain restaurants, was the only place within easy walking distance we students could frequent for amazing French toast when the university’s cafeteria was closed. Marie-Antoinette was also where Martin Gagné got his start as a chef on the breakfast shift. I knew there was a reason I liked him. Flipping pancakes couldn’t hold him for long, though. Martin is a chef who refuses to settle with the ordinary when the extraordinary is in sight. His family’s ancestral Algonquian roots were calling him, so off he went in pursuit.
Martin says he has always appreciated the flavours of the natural environment. Growing up in Sherbrooke, in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, this was the kind of food his parents prepared every day. Dishes featuring game, fish and plenty of fresh herbs enticed his palate and his imagination. Who else could conceive of a mouthwatering entrée of dried deer with Chicoutai blackberry liqueur, or this trilogy — beaver ribs marinated in molasses; beaver sautéed with nuts and apricots; and grilled fillet mignon of beaver?
As a child, farms dotted the countryside around his home; not so anymore. Restaurants featuring the region’s traditional fare are scarce at best. But Martin was not satisfied to let those roots whither. He set out on a mission. He was not going to simply replicate the dishes he remembered. He would strive instead to update First Nations cuisine with an eye to making it healthier and more accessible. By 2007, Martin was creating elevated First Nations fare not seen anywhere else. He was single-handedly turning a lost cuisine into a modern and sought-after delicacy.
I asked Martin how he had thought up such an interesting combination as roast seal with onion jam and dried tomatoes. He cited a chance meeting with two influential chefs — Susur Lee and Marc de Canck. Although neither of those chefs typically cook with the kind of ingredients that now fill Martin’s fridge and pantry, Susur’s interpretation of French and Asian fusion cuisine wowed Martin, and Marc inspired him with his technique and talent. With that kind of expertise at play, it was only a matter of time before Grand Chief Max Gros-Louis, who dedicated his time to promoting First Nations culture, would come calling. While Martin was running a workshop at a local Harvest Festival, Max’s wife handed him a pamphlet advertising Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations that, at the time, was still under construction. Martin took some time to think about leading the kitchen team before accepting. Four years later, Martin is comfortably installed at La Traite restaurant, at least for now. His future plans include teaching more workshops promoting the “products of the forest.” Meanwhile, the menu Martin has designed entices visitors from all around the world.