Derek Dammann, chef at Montreal's Maison Publique, and chef Jesse Vergen of New Brunswick's Saint John Ale House – two of the most talented and respected chefs in Canada – were seated at an elegant corner table in a Newfoundland restaurant. They were, as locals might say, in the middle of having a feed.
A seafood platter lay between them. This wasn't, however, the usual basic shellfish-plus-bivalve medley. The platter – a freshly felled cross-section of tree trunk – had arrived bearing delicacies like smoky surf clams stuffed with wild sea greens and chives and salsa verde capelins ensconced within razor-thin shrouds of lardo. The two chefs were incredulous.
"This is, by far, the best food in Canada right now," exclaimed Dammann, a mixture of admiration and surrender colouring his voice.
"It's ridiculous," added Vergen, not realizing what was still to come – the Acadian caviar, the cod, the grouse, the seal, the moose. Vergen would later describe that tasting menu at Raymonds Restaurant, in downtown St. John's, as "probably the top meal I've ever had in my whole life. In terms of terroir-driven food, nothing even comes close."
For those who haven't yet tried chef Jeremy Charles's wild foods at Raymonds: Dammann and Vergen can assure you it's worth the pilgrimage. By now, Raymonds has won several "No. 1 restaurant in Canada" awards. High-level international chefs have been wowed by Charles's abilities through his appearances at Cook It Raw events – prestigious gatherings of the world's top chefs. "Jeremy is easily Canada's most important chef at this point," explains chef Daniel Burns of Luksus in New York, who has cooked at Noma, the Fat Duck and Momofuku Labs.
All of this buzz (alongside that emanating from nearby Mallard Cottage, run by Todd Perrin) is luring curious diners to Newfoundland. As Dammann states, "I'm positive that what Jeremy and Todd are doing here will make St. John's the next major food travel destination in the world."
Not bad for a place that, 10 years ago, felt almost bereft of dining options. Sure, Newfoundland had its old standbys – cod tongues, toutons and scrunchions – but nobody would have considered them contenders for the world's next "it" cuisine. Now, with the rise of nose-to-tail dining, Newfoundland food is finding itself up there with other formerly disdained and now-desirable cuisines such as Roman quinto quarto or traditional British fare.
What's happening at Raymonds Restaurant is more complex – and exciting – than that.
They're certainly using indigenous ingredients and local traditions, but they're mixing these with a new-Nordic-inspired understanding of how best to transform the bounty around them. Think fresh diver scallops in a sea urchin beurre blanc, or moose charcuterie paired with crispy puffs of lichen. Not exactly salt junk and hard tack. What Charles and his team are doing is not only helping redefine Newfoundland cuisine, but they're also getting into something more profound – into questions of identity, of what it means to live on the Rock and live off the land and be part of this immense country. "All of us chefs are looking for the identity of Canadian cuisine today," says Vergen, "and then along comes Jeremy Charles, one of the nicest, humblest, most salt-of-the-earth guys you'll ever meet, and he's figured it all out."
Newfoundland cuisine has always been one of necessity, of making do with what nature gives you, and of ingenuity. "Newfoundland has a very distinct culinary tradition that is still very much alive," explains Ian Mosby, a food historian and L.R. Wilson postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University. "Their cuisine has always been connected to the cod fishery, to isolation and to poverty. Newfoundlanders couldn't afford to eat many imported foods, so they developed a culture of eating locally available ingredients."
Raymonds is tapping into the roots of Newfoundland cuisine while also elevating it into a highly refined version of itself. A meal at Raymonds is not cheap: A seven-course tasting menu, with wine pairing, is $220 before tax and tip. Those prices are a reflection of the new Newfoundland economy, buoyed by the oil boom.
The real forces that conspired to make Raymonds a reality are two Jeremys: Jeremy Charles and Jeremy Bonia, the restaurant's co-owners and partners. The two had previously worked at Atlantica in nearby Portugal Cove, and they're intimately connected to Newfoundland. Charles, 36, was born in St. John's, and much of his youth was spent around fishermen. "My childhood memories are about going down to the wharf when boats were coming in," he recalls. "I'd be cutting out cod tongues and selling them to the tourists. As a young boy, you tried to get a bit of loot to buy a fishing rod to keep you going for the summer."
Charles often joined his father on hunting and fishing trips, where he discovered his love of working with his hands. "For me, it all began with tying flies – the intricacy of it," he says. "Whatever you can imagine you can tie onto a hook. There are endless possibilities – kind of like cooking."
His fly-tying approach to the culinary world is part of the reason Charles's food is so meticulous. "The attention to detail in every dish at Raymonds is astounding," notes Dammann. "Take that surf clam. Everybody in Canada has access to surf clams, but nobody knows how to cook a surf clam like Jeremy Charles."
Why is that?
"Because he's put so much thought into it.… The execution of technique is always there in every plate. Plus he's a hunter. Being able to hunt, forage and fish in your own backyard – and serve the things you catch in your own restaurant – basically means he has the advantage over every other chef in North America. He simply has a closer connection to the ingredients he's cooking than anyone else." Other chefs can forage, but few of them are legally allowed to serve wild game, as Raymonds can, thanks to Newfoundland's more understanding laws.
Unlike other places (New York, Paris or Montreal, say) that have taken inspiration from the avant-garde foraging movement in Scandinavia, Newfoundlanders actually have access to a dazzling array of readily available Arctic edibles, from beach peas and Scotch lovage on the water's edge to cloudberries and partridge berries in the barrens.
Part of the reason Raymonds has been so accepted locally is the number of foragers, hunters and fishermen working with them. "I've turned over a lot of rocks trying to find the people living off the land," Charles explains. "We've made a lot of relationships and are supporting people and encouraging them to support us." Hunters now know to provide Raymonds with braces of partridge, spruce grouse or ptarmigan. Trappers are out snaring hares for them in the fall. Fishermen bring them their finest snow crab, cod, sea urchin, even seal meat, in season. Newfoundland has been undergoing difficult transitions over the past decades. By forging new ties, Charles is helping certain traditions to stay alive, albeit in an updated guise.
Charles's awareness of what makes Newfoundland unique stems from the time he's spent abroad, whether cooking in his 20s in Montreal, Los Angeles and Chicago, or with his peers at international conferences, or attending the MAD symposia in Denmark, or making trips to eat at top restaurants like Fäviken – an avant-garde wild-food temple in Sweden. The only way you can know what makes your corner of the world so special is to truly understand the qualities that set it apart.
Charles himself is a perfect embodiment of Newfoundland – self-effacing yet knowledgeable, as ahead of his time as he is linked to the past. He did the interview for this piece while returning from a fishing trip in Labrador. He and his friends had been travelling by helicopter, and at one point they dropped down onto a tiny island to forage for some oyster plants, caribou moss "and other lovely shore greens." Before heading back, they paused just long enough to hack a couple of chunks off a nearby iceberg – for ice in the cocktails they'd make that weekend.
One of Charles's most interesting dishes is his take on cod sounds. The sounds are the cod's ballast, the part that allows the fish to go up and down in the water. It inflates and deflates, letting them submerge or rise. It's a part you never find for sale in the rest of Canada. In the past, Newfoundlanders would cook the sounds up in fat.
What he and his team decided to do was put the cod sounds in their dehydrator to see what would happen. Out came these translucent, brittle discs. "We tried frying them like chicharrones, and they puffed right up," Charles recalls. They'd become an entirely new thing, a kind of enlarged, crispy fish chip. "It's like a Newfoundland nacho," Charles says, with a laugh. "You add some crème fraîche and shrimp and cod roe and it's a beautiful, unique thing."