Todd Perrin of Mallard Cottage in St. John’s: Maverick Chefs 2018
Each year, Quench sets out in search of Canada’s culinary visionaries – The Mavericks – those chefs who are leading the charge of what’s fresh and exciting from coast to coast. This year’s Maverick Chefs are four innovators focused on incorporating sustainability into everything they do – from planning to creating to planting to cooking. Last week, we met Mav Chef Mitchell Bates; this week, Amanda Siddall speaks with Todd Perrin.
Todd Perrin could see the cottage from the front door of his home, and had a budding image in his mind of its potential. The warmth and charm of the centuries’ old private residence of the Mallard family (a long line of “fisherfolk”) would make the perfect setting for a restaurant spotlighting Newfoundland cuisine as more than just fish and chips. Perrin, who went to cooking school in Prince Edward Island nearly 20 years earlier, had crisscrossed the country learning new techniques and trends, and discovering his identity as a chef over the years. He even became a local celebrity when he appeared on Top Chef Canada, for the same reason he does most things: he thought it’d be a great time — and it was.
Ten years ago, Perrin decided to focus his efforts on good-for-you, homegrown fare and put down roots in his home of Newfoundland. When the cottage finally came up for sale, Perrin (alongside Kim Doyle and Stephen Lee) jumped at the opportunity to purchase it. The trio restored the village treasure, turning it into a National Historic Site of Canada. In 2013, Mallard Cottage welcomed its first guests into its home-away-from-home to dine on local wild game and seafood, garden-fresh produce and quality, sustainable cuisine.
Why is sustainable cooking so important to you?
It sounds like a cheeky answer, but it’s really important for all of us that we have access to quality products for as long as we can and to treat things properly in a sustainable way. Frankly, it’s good for the planet and makes better food if you have things that are sourced in a proper way, that’s ethically treated, and is sustainable in the long term. It’s partly the way that we want to see the world and partly because it makes the restaurant better. It’s a good business decision as much as it is a social one.
What’s the biggest challenge associated with sustainable cooking?
It’s challenging every day. There’s a lot of talk about sustainability and a lot of movement in that culture. At the same time, there’s still a growing fast-food and quick-serve culture. It’s like a wave hitting the beach: it seems like it’s going in a positive direction, it retreats for a little while, and then it comes back again. Suppliers come and go, and you do your best to support the ones that are doing things well.
What do you think will be the next big trend in Canadian cuisine?
I wouldn’t say it’s the next trend, but a continuation of what we are seeing now. It’s farm-driven, or local-ingredient-driven restaurants. It’s chefs that are becoming more knowledgeable about how food is grown. Chefs are now starting small farms and starting to grow their own food. The expansion of this locavore movement is what we are seeing more and more, certainly in Newfoundland and Labrador, and hopefully across the country.
We have a herb garden at the Mallard, which we are expanding. The thing about growing food is it can take longer to grow it than it does to serve it in a restaurant. It can eat up a lot of time. We have expanded what we grow each year and are working on a few ideas of what else to grow. We are looking at some greenhouse technology and greenhouses in the area too. Over the next couple of years, we’ll see a much bigger footprint of what we grow for the Mallard. I wouldn’t say we’re focused on it, but it’s definitely part of a mid-term to long-term plan.
Favourite local ingredient to work with?
For me, when you’re in Newfoundland and Labrador, cod fish is really the reason we’re all here. A good fresh piece of cod is a beautiful thing. When you do get your hands on it, it’s a real special thing. But you know, anything you can grow in the backyard is what I like to work with.
It’s even hard for us to get that and we’re a stone’s throw from the ocean. When cod fishing season is underway, we’re more able to get fish that was caught within a few hours, certainly up to a day, because we’re close to the source. Our restaurant is focused on local products, so really whatever shows up at the backdoor is put on the menu. We change the menu almost every day. Sometimes you never know what’s going to show up.
What are the pros and cons of a constantly changing menu?
I don’t think there’s many cons, to be honest with you. The pros are that it keeps it interesting for your customers, and also for your cooks and the people that work there. It usually means you have the best ingredients possible; you don’t have something that’s just sitting on your menu, where maybe you don’t sell it for a couple of days.
The cons are probably that in the beginning when you start to cook that way, you have to get all the cooks up to speed with the idea that there’s no menu and that it changes every day. But once you get into it, it’s actually easier I find than writing the menu before finding the products. When you are in Newfoundland, and St. John’s where we are, we have a lot of challenges to get certain products. Setting your menu and then trying to find your ingredients is really a backwards way to approach it.
Are there any misconceptions about the Newfoundland food scene?
The biggest one is probably that everything we eat is run through the deep fryer. We have the fish and chip culture, which is a strong one, but there’s a lot more to Newfoundland food than fish and chips or salt beef and cabbage. In the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve seen a big change, more focused on a more culinary approach to the ingredients found in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Why did you pick the small fishing village of Quidi Vidi to set up your restaurant?
It’s a small village, but it’s in the city. It’s on the edge of St. John’s — about a 20-minute walk from the heart of downtown. Even though we have that small village feel, we’re in the heart of the action in terms of what’s going on. The bulk of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador live within an hour of the restaurant. It may feel like we’re in remote Newfoundland, but we’re actually right amidst it all. As a customer, you can have a meal at Mallard Cottage and feel the sea breeze on you, and then you can walk to the hottest nightclub in the city by crossing the historical landmark of Signal Hill in the process. Our location and geography are especially unique.
What dish on your menu would be best complemented with some premium Newfoundland screech?
That’s a really good question! Screech is not a favourite of mine but it’s quite a sweet rum. I would suggest you drink it with a dessert at the end of the meal. You could pair it with a strong vanilla ice cream and gingerbread, and that wouldn’t be a bad way to go.
What’s your cooking mantra?
We try to look at the whole thing as an experience for the guests and the people who are working here. Our mantra has been to make people feel like they are coming to our house for dinner. It’s a quality meal that is enjoyed with friends and family, with smiling happy faces, and a good soundtrack. We concentrate and care a lot about our food but at the same time, we just try to support people’s evenings. From the server that greets them at the door to the wine or beer that they are drinking to the food – the whole thing. My overall mantra is that we always try to get better in every facet of the experience. That’s what motivates me to keep going.
What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career in the culinary arts?
You have to treat it as a life. Cooking in a commercial kitchen is not a great job — it’s a good career if you find the right place — but rather it’s an amazing life. You have to treat it that way and look at it as the thing that you are and not the thing that you do. Otherwise it’s too hard. You have to be committed in a way that you don’t have to be with some other types of work. That’s why you see cooking schools turning out lots of kids, and then two years later, 90 percent of them aren’t in the industry any more. Knowing that’s what you want to do and be committed to it, that’s what you have to do in order to survive.
You’ve spoken of the challenges that exist in being on Top Chef Canada. Is there another cooking show out there that you’d want to be on?
At this point in my career, I’m pretty focused on growing our restaurant and working on some other things. I’ve had my 15 minutes of fame on a couple of TV shows, so I think I’ll call it a day for that stuff.
roasted red potato salad
2 lb red potatoes, large diced
2 carrots, julienned or grated
1/4 head green cabbage, julienned or grated
Bunch of kale, de-stemmed, chopped and wilted
1/2 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Tabasco, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Chopped chives, for garnishing
Toss the diced potatoes in oil and roast at 425˚F until tender (about 30 minutes).
Cool the potatoes and then combine with carrots, cabbage and kale in a large bowl.
Mix together the mayonnaise, cider vinegar and Tabasco in a small bowl.
Pour the dressing overtop the potato salad, then mix well and season to taste.
Chill for 2 hours, then serve sprinkled with chives as a garnish.