They had been bandying about heading home to New Brunswick for years, and a magazine article on the grim future of the Maritime province was the final straw for Jennie Wilson and Peter Tompkins , who at the time had been the long-term chef of midtown Toronto restaurants Quince Bistro and Noorden.
“It was kind of a kick in the gut,” said Ms. Wilson, who grew up in the small town of St. Stephen, N.B. “We started just seeing ourselves as part of that problem. If we all leave here, gain skill, gain wealth and do not put it back here, what will happen?”
New Brunswick suffers the highest interprovincial outmigration in the country. It also faces a historically low birth rate and is expected to have the worst economic growth of any province this year.
Despite this, Ms. Wilson, 44, and Mr. Tompkins , 48, packed up for the economically beleaguered province a year ago. They headed to the staid capital city of Fredericton, where they had first met in university and where no one had yet heard of an artisanal ice-cream cocktail.
They opened 11th Mile, a restaurant focused on shareable plates, craft cocktails and local ingredients. The menu – American modern, with Japanese and Korean influences – was cultivated through Mr. Tompkins ’s experiences working with chef Hans Vogels from Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto.
“I thought we’d be busier out of the gates than we were, but there was kind of no demand. There’s no dining out culture here,” Ms. Wilson said. “We’re actually creating a culture of people going out again.”
Nine months after first opening, the couple are at the forefront of food revolution that’s been slowly simmering over the past three years throughout New Brunswick. In the capital, Saint John and Moncton, chef restaurateurs have been setting the scene to revamp the notorious “drive-through” province into a foodie destination.
One of them is Jakob Lutz, whose vision to create a distinctly New Brunswick cuisine in the blue-collar port city of Saint John has earned him some serious culinary street cred.
Three years ago, he transformed a boarded up storefront down an unlit alley into Port City Royal, a restaurant and bar with locally sourced ingredients. He calls it his “love letter to New Brunswick.” The spot landed No. 2 on enRoute magazine’s list of Canada’s best new restaurants in 2015. Now, the formerly dark alley is afoot with pedestrians and string lights, and six other businesses have since moved in, four of which are food- and drink-oriented.
Still, he says, uptake among locals has been slow.
“Any restaurants that are successful are typically pubs or ethnic cuisine. That’s what’s popular, and if I were to cater a restaurant to the city, I would probably do that, but then it wouldn’t be a love letter. It would be a bunch of lies to get people to like me,” Mr. Lutz, 36, said. The chef previously worked at Atelier in Ottawa and Algonquin Park’s Bartlett Lodge, before moving back to New Brunswick, where he grew up, in October, 2012. “We’ve been able to swallow our pride or the most part up until this point and put burger and fries on there.”
Moncton, too, is landing on the East Coast culinary map, with side-by-side restaurants that share a passion for cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients from local farmers.
Chef Camille Pluymackers, 32, first arrived in Moncton six years ago from her native Belgium, with her Moncton-born husband, André Léger. She was excited to test the food scene but found it disappointing.
“It’s a city where there is a lot of restaurants, but the majority were fast food or industrial food, or the menu had been the same for the last 10 years, so I was feeling that it was a city that was not really excited by food or looking for creativity on the plate or new ingredients,” Ms. Pluymackers said.
She and Mr. Léger opened Manuka inside a sunflower-yellow shingled home in Moncton three years ago. The restaurant serves up gourmet dishes with unexpected twists using fresh ingredients and intricate French pastries.
“It was challenging, but also important because I realized that it was not something we could find easily in the area,” she said.
Now, Manuka has a full roster of regulars and is a destination for discerning foodies: In 2017, Lonely Planet for North America named it the top choice for where to eat in Moncton.
Across the street, Michel Savoie is also pushing the limits of Moncton’s food scene with fresh takes on traditional dishes made from local ingredients. He opened his upmarket francophone bistro, Les Brumes du Coude, after living and working as a chef in Europe and Montreal.
“It hasn’t been easy to convince people to get through the door,” said Mr. Savoie, who is originally from the tiny village of Tabusintac on the Acadian Peninsula. “We have to convince the fish, once you’ve got him on the line, that the best place in the world is in the scow of the boat. So it’s the same thing here: This is a hamburger town and the challenge is that you’ve got to get them in and once they’re done, their faces have completely changed.”
In Fredericton, where people are still warming their palates to the fares of 11th Mile, Ms. Wilson and Mr. Tompkins are hoping to create more opportunities for New Brunswickers. They lend their restaurant space to one of their kitchen staffers to sell his knife-sharpening services on some Sundays during brunch and have hosted pop-ups for another kitchen worker to flex his culinary skills.
The kitchen staff are also tipped out 30 per cent – something virtually unheard of the restaurant industry.
“If we opened something in Toronto, we’re just another restaurant, no matter how good it is. There’s enough restaurants. There’s enough opportunity for chefs,” Mr. Tompkins said. “Here, there isn’t and it gives people a chance.”