On the furthest eastern tip of Canada and with a population of just over half a million, Newfoundland and Labrador is drawing visitors to witness the glacial fjords off its rugged coastline, to catch a glimpse of one of the world’s largest populations of humpback whales and explore the province’s intriguing culinary landscape. Newfoundland cuisine is intimately tied to the terroir; icebergs are harvested for uniquely local beers and spirits, fish is as fresh as it gets, and foraging is common among chefs and locals alike. It’s also one of few places in Canada where you can find wild game on restaurant menus – a big draw for international visitors.
Newfoundland’s off-the-beaten-path appeal also captured the attention of London and New York-based publisher Phaidon, who approached celebrated chef Jeremy Charles to produce their first Canadian cooking title. For Charles, who co-owns Raymonds restaurant overlooking St. John’s harbour and has been featured in The New York Times, The Guardian and Parts Unknown with the late Anthony Bourdain, the seasons and terroir have everything to do with his menu. Wildness: An Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador is a gorgeous hardcover book (with a $59.95 list price) that you’ll want to cook from, but may want to protect from kitchen splatters; in it, impassioned photographs shine a spotlight on a province alive with cod, shellfish, moose, game and wild edibles, with stories and essays about the people who help inspire his unique approach to modern coastal cuisine.
Why did you decide to write a cookbook?
I was really honoured and flattered that Phaidon would approach me to do a project like this. For me, it tells the story of Newfoundland and Labrador, and my story of my childhood up to the present. I was excited to showcase the landscape – it was an amazing platform for John Cullen, the photographer, who I’ve been working with for the past five years. We live in a unique environment, working with unique ingredients – we’re cooking food from our landscape, so there’s a story behind the food.
Who is the book aimed toward?
The book is a true celebration of Newfoundland’s culture, its people and its landscape, its culture and its artisans. It shows we’re an interesting part of Canada, a very unique part of the country that wasn’t celebrated for many years. It was kind of forgotten about – it’s nice to be able to showcase it to the world in such a beautiful way.
Hopefully it encourages people to cook and be a bit more adventurous about what they’re eating, to look around their own backyards and see what’s available in terms of wild ingredients. It’s easy to go to the market and pick up a few things, but it takes a bit of work to take a walk in the woods and look around and forage. I hope the book is inspiring to young chefs, especially those in Newfoundland.
Is Newfoundland becoming more recognized as a culinary destination?
Definitely. It isn’t just polar bears and whales – there’s also great food here. Some people don’t realize that Newfoundland is one of the only places in North America where we’re able to serve wild game – we serve moose, rabbit, partridge and grouse. It’s a big part of our menu, which gives people a true sense of place, and a true taste of our terroir, from both land and sea. No one imagined moose or rabbit would be on a fine dining menu, and it took a while for the local community to embrace it, but people come from around the world to eat here.
You grew up hunting, fishing, foraging, and in the book you talk about other traditions, such as making sea salt from seaweed … are these methods still a part of the culinary fabric of Newfoundland?
They were lost for a long time, but I think this is a great platform to raise awareness and remind people of what’s around them and what’s possible. I can feel a movement … people are going back to their gardens, growing more vegetables, having a root cellar. It’s just a way of life, and the way we’ve lived for generations. We’ve become so out of touch these days, but we’re going back to our roots, getting back to the land, trying to be more sustainable.
Do you think these traditional techniques are being embraced as people pay more attention to the impact their food choices has on the environment?
Absolutely – people are thinking more about what they’re eating. Education is everything – it comes down to knowledge and technique. It just makes sense – putting wild, organic things into our bodies, and educating ourselves about what’s around us, what’s edible and what’s possible. I’m happy to celebrate everything around us, not only the ocean and sea, but the land as well. People are paying more attention to seaweeds, shore greens, berries and mushrooms – and are becoming more adventurous about what they eat.
Do you think Newfoundland has more unique dishes and holds on to culinary traditions more than other provinces?
A lot of the dishes that originate here come from things that could last months on a boat out on the ocean – lots of salted fish, salt pork and hardtack. But they’re also meant to feed large families or a whole crew of people, like our boiled dinner, called Jiggs’ dinner, which people eat every Sunday.
What other cookbooks do you find inspiring?
I’m looking at a thousand cookbooks in front of me – I’ve got a lot of cookbooks in a little library in my house. I pick them up randomly. Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli has always been inspiring – it’s nothing new, but I’ve always been drawn to it. Thinking of Canadian cookbooks, there’s True North by [Montreal chef] Derek Dammann – he’s doing great things with Canadian food – and there’s [Ottawa chef] Marc Lepine’s cookbook Atelier.
There’s an old Newfoundland cookbook from the eighties by Kitty Drake called Rabbit Ravioli – it’s out of print now, but she’s kind of a pioneer, doing interesting stuff back in the day. It’s not traditional Newfoundland fare, but she uses traditional Newfoundland ingredients.
As we come up to Canada Day, how would you define Canadian cuisine?
We live in such a wide, vast country full of so many amazing landscapes from B.C. to Newfoundland – and we’re so fortunate to have such a diverse culinary scene. I have lots of friends cooking across Canada, and it’s amazing and inspiring to see what they’re doing in their provinces and regions. Canadian food is so vast and so special, we’re so diverse – chefs travel and cook abroad, and then come back to showcase the ingredients around them. Just because we don’t have Michelin stars doesn’t mean we’re not doing amazing things – I think Canada has some of the best chefs in the world.
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