Michael Howell – Fab Chef of Nova Scotia
Michael Howell is in the vanguard of a new breed of fine chefs in Nova Scotia. His passion for wine and food manifested itself early. He is a Nova Scotia native who, in typical fashion, had to “go down the road” to earn his spurs. After graduating from Dalhousie University in 1983, he went on to become an honours graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago. Subsequently, Michael served his apprenticeship at the Everest Room in Chicago under renowned French Chef, Jean Joho. He remembers a real highlight of that period was cooking for the legendary Paul Bocuse, who is perhaps best known as the leading light of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement and widely acknowledged as one of the greatest chefs of the era. Howell went on to chef positions in New York City, Detroit, Toronto, and the Bahamas.
As he continued to advance his career, Michael nursed the desire to return to his native province. He became increasingly convinced that Nova Scotia was a fertile field ripe for the cultivation of world class gastronomy. He was encouraged in this belief by the development of the local wine culture. As the region’s wines began to win accolades in national and international competitions, Michael sensed that big things were starting to happen and he wanted to be in on the ground floor. Nova Scotia, with its abundance of fresh seafood, fresh produce and now a budding fine local wine culture, beckoned him home. He settled on Wolfville in the heart of the fertile Annapolis Valley, which is also home to a growing number of vineyards and wineries. Here, together with his wife, Mary Harwell, he established Tempest World Cuisine in April 2003. The Tempest philosophy is to marry the best of local foods with truly international cuisine. Howell’s maverick interpretation of this idea rapidly established the Tempest as one of the top restaurants in the Atlantic region.
Howell is excited about the vision of the future. “I am a firm believer,” he says, “that we are at the nascence of something really big in Nova Scotia.” He points to the growing understanding and support for the developing world class wine and culinary achievements taking place. He feels his greatest culinary achievement was the first James Beard Dinner, a celebration of Nova Scotia food and wine, that he was invited to put on in New York City in 2006 — the year he was honoured with the Tidings Maverick Chef’s Award. He remembers with pride the reaction of sophisticated New Yorkers in attendance who said, “We can’t believe that you are doing this sort of stuff up there.” After his notable success that year, Howell was invited back in 2008. This time, he chose to take along four other talented Nova Scotian chefs, Craig Flynn (Chives), Martin Ruiz Salvador (Fleur du Sel), Dennis Johnstone (Fid), and Ray Bear (Bear). He wanted to prove to an international audience, “that I was not just a one-off. I am so proud of what we are doing here, not just at my place but throughout Nova Scotia.”
Howell has an infectiously enthusiastic personality and great energy which underpins everything he does. Not only has he won numerous accolades for his imaginative and original cuisine, but he has also taken on important leadership roles in the gastronomic life of the province. He sits on the board of Taste of Nova Scotia, is a Vice President of the Restaurant Association and a member of the provincial government’s Tourism Partnership Council. Recently, he took on the leadership of Slow Food Nova Scotia. Howell sees the Maritimes as a prime environment in which to implement the Slow Food objectives of preserving and celebrating local and traditional foods and supporting small scale local production and processing. Since he took on the role, membership has expanded rapidly, nearly doubling in the last three months.
He is passionate about teaching local people to appreciate what they have in their own backyard. “I have customers from all parts of the world who recognize the excellence they find here,” he says. “When our own citizens understand this, it will be a triumph.”
My Favourite Canadian Wines
Benjamin Bridge Taurus Reserve 2005, Nova Scotia ($40)
Soooo silky, elusive, long lasting. Dried flowers on the nose, great red and black berry fruit in the mid palate, long and lovely (did I say silky?), terrific with roast duck or cured meats and hard cheeses. Hard to believe that it’s from Nova Scotia — a World Class wine.
Jost Eagle Tree Muscat 2007, Nova Scotia ($15)
Full blown nose (could be mistaken for an Alsatian or great Gruner Veltliner), floral, exotic, honeysuckle, peach. Great with Thai red curry mussels or Pad Thai.
Stratus White 2005, Niagara ($40)
The Canadian Conundrum but, to my mind, richer flavours. Peach, lychee, apples, violets all in harmonious balance. I would love to drink this with lobster, but with some smoked cheese or strong goat cheese and good sourdough bread it’s at its best.
Starling Lane Marechal Foch 2005, BC ($24)
Sinclair Philip of Sooke Harbor House sent me a bottle of this BC beauty — I loved it. Rich dark aromas, firm yet restrained oak, vanilla-liquorice flavours, long finish redolent of plums. I couldn’t believe this was from Vancouver Island.
Henry of Pelham Reserve Baco Noir 2005, Niagara ($25)
I have long loved the dark, inky, plumy character of Baco Noir from HoP. Actually visited there last week, had a superb tasting and meal and a lively chat with Daniel Speck. A good kick of pepper and tannin always lifts it out of the overly jammy. A definitive Canadian wine.