The easy headline would have been, "I need more cowbell!"…
For Arron Carley, the past, the present and the future of cooking Canadian food are inextricably linked. Understanding the history of what we have cooked and eaten in the past and what we eat today are integral determinants of what we should be eating in the future. It’s the philosophy that drives him in his role as executive chef at Stratford’s The Bruce Hotel.
With the Stratford Festival setting the stage, the lovely 25-room boutique hotel — both hotel and restaurant have CAA/AAA Four Diamond Awards — is a graceful, modern structure with eclectic decor and a unique and warm personality that extends beyond its Shakespearean milieu; Carley’s food seeks to be simple and yet thoughtful. It resonates like good iambic pentameter.
He reflects regularly on, and is guided by, the local terrain — the terroir — and the ingredients that he finds around him. In a way, that is his muse — one that asks a lot of him, and which he admits has made him push himself to achieve more, whether it is diamonds or stars or other designations.
It’s what he sees when he looks at that terroir that drives him. But he talks about more than food and cooking — there is something personally that is at play here with the sense of motivation he feels.
“That’s the goal, the ideal,” Carley says. “I’d like to achieve something. And I don’t think it’s a terrible thing to have goals like that,” he says pointing to a tattoo of Michelin stars on his arm. “It reminds me to keep dreaming because dreams are just goals that haven’t quite happened yet. That’s my belief.”
Canadiana: creating food from the landscape
Now at The Bruce Hotel for just over two years, Carley believes the path — an appropriate term given the foraging he does — to achieving those dreams is what he calls “Canadiana,” a culinary stance that chooses ingredients and an approach to cooking that is grounded in a hyper-localism at the same time it eschews plants and products that are not local.
That part of understanding our culinary history is critical to Carley. At the same time, I don’t think he’s mercenary or opportunistic about the position; I think he really means it and isn’t using it as soap box or a vehicle. He believes. “To me, Canadiana is using what’s within your landscape and what grows comfortable and not forcibly here. It’s about what is wild, but it’s also about what is ethically raised and humanely treated. We look deep into the past and French and British settlers but also further back to the Norse, who people forget were some of the first visitors here. And, of course, Native peoples too.”
But it’s not cooking in the past. The historical perspective is an important foundation, a defining touchstone, for applying modern techniques, perhaps like sous vide cookery, that produce the best flavours — and the best dining experience — possible.
“That’s what we define as Canadiana,” according to Carley. “I think the biggest thing is that when you say French, Italian or Japanese, it immediately pops into your mind what the that means for food. What we have thought that constitutes Canadian food is laughable. We think poutine or back bacon. We don’t think a lot of great culinary things. I believe we have to start thinking about that, or a lot of great historical things are going to get lost.”
What if we started down this path of what is Canadian food?
— Arron Carley
He says, therefore, that we need to set some of those definitions of Canadiana in motion, or they will be irrecoverable. “What is it that people would choose to cook tonight as a Canadian dish? If I can stake a claim to one dish that I can put on the map as Canadian, that what I want to be able to do.”
Forget about lemons and olive oil
Carley, 35, is Barrie-born and Oshawa raised.
He graduated culinary training from George Brown about a decade ago and has logged many hours behind the stoves in kitchens that range from chain steakhouses to one of Canada’s top Canadian-inspired restaurants, Canoe. He says he’s taken away important kernels of value from each experience. Most importantly, perhaps, he met his wife, Serena, while the two were at Outback Steakhouse and where he was a line cook at the time.
Later, at Jack Astor’s, he became an operating partner. “I learned a lot about running a restaurant,” he says. He also worked a year or so at E11even, the MLSE restaurant. “I then moved to Luma and worked for Jason Bangerter, now of course at Langdon Hall. He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
In 2016, Carley won The Food Network’s “Chopped Canada” television cooking competition. It’s an achievement of which he’s proud.
Carley took another formative step with a three-month stagiaire at Noma: as he describes it, “I bugged my way in there!” The work was hard at the famous, iconoclastic and once best restaurant in the world that is now closed and awaiting a new iteration, but he adds that the short time time he spent in Copenhagen helped sharpen the vision of his current philosophy.
Then, after a stint as sous chef at Canoe, he moved to The Bruce Hotel where he has been for over two years now. He recently returned from a stage at Aska, New York, a Scandinavian seasonal, tasting-menu restaurant run by Fredrik Berselius. The experience added another layer of understanding — and goal-setting.
The philosophy that has made the most impression on him — as it has with many, many other cooks — is that of Noma, but to a hitherto un-imagined level, explains Carley: “Let’s see what’s in our own backyard, and let’s forget about every lemon and olive oil and all the things you think you need in a kitchen. Let’s look at what’s here. To see that incredible passion at Noma and the discovery on a daily basis — and how good it tasted — was very cool.”
He emphasizes the word “discovery.”
After time at Noma and Canoe, Carley had a pressing question: “What if we started down this path of what is Canadian food? Right now, that’s hard to say exactly.” He describes three “crutches” he then boldly took out of his kitchen as lemon, olive oil and black pepper. “Everyone uses them. The only kitchen I have never seen them used in was Noma.”
That was a bit of a rattle to other cooks’ sensibilities, and he says he caught some flack from kitchen staff at first. “Everyone said, ‘What the hell do we do?’ when we eliminated them. Well, we use vinegars, we use seabuckthorn. There are so many things from our landscape that we can use,” Carley says.
In a room off the Bruce kitchen, a shelf in a pantry holds different kinds of miso sitting solidly in a row. “We are currently serving some with a fish dish. Otherwise, they are created to create,” he says. “Most crazy things we make end up on our tasting menus exclusively, as some of it freaks people out. We often create for the sake of discovery, culinary exploration.”
He then points to ingredients like local hemp-seed oil and cold-pressed camelina oil. “Some of this is, I think, better than olive oil, and there’s less or no carbon foot print.”
Carley demands, too, that the proteins the restaurant uses are organic and raised humanely. That has taken a lot of work to achieve, he points out. “We had to find producers and then work with them in order to get the right price point.”
We often create for the sake of culinary exploration.
Foraging: “wild things are very comfortable”
At Noma, Carley also observed first hand what foraging can truly mean to a restaurant, and he brought that to The Bruce Hotel: in fact, the kitchen has an on-staff forager, Phil Phillips. “That’s unique,” says Carley who has searched to find another on-staff forager anywhere in a Canadian restaurant and can’t name one. “Phil’s unique. He’s also very modern when it comes to food.”
The foraging process, Carley continues, allows you to “see things” that grow naturally in your climate. “Wild things are very comfortable, and we only forage responsibly,” he adds. “We never forage more than five percent, except for invasive species, say something like stinging nettles.”
Interestingly, a lot of the responsible and sustainable foraging that they do is for “discovery only” — a research endeavour in Canadian ingredients — in order to see “what works and what doesn’t.” In fact, the customers don’t see all of what comes into the kitchen in the dining room at all. It’s culinary exploration, led by foraging, for learning and discovery in and of itself.
“Phil is a much bigger piece of what we do than people realize,” he says. “The fermenting we do like the wheat-based nuka pot, for instance. He and I work together closely, and I see this intimate knowledge of the ingredients that he has, and he helps design much of what goes on the menu.”
Cooking from the climate and caring for the environment
There have been naysayers, but Carley is undaunted: Why new Canadian, people ask? “We don’t do it just because it is interesting and fun — which it is — but it forces you to look far beyond ingredients,” says Carley, adding that the process is about pushing the envelope and, in their own small way, trying to change the way we think about food.
“One of the biggest reasons is how long before our current food system collapses? It’s not 200 hundred years away,” he insists. “We believe that one restaurant at a time, one hotel at a time, we can change that.”
They work with the area’s farmers to get the produce that will work for what they want to accomplish on the menu and in the dining room. “It’s so easy to cook from your climate, but you have to be cellaring. Over the course of the summer we will cellar over 1,000 litres of ingredients to use throughout the winter. It’s not just to do the process and make jam. We fill the cellar to be able to build menu dishes from previous seasons.”
The hotel is striving for excellence as is the kitchen and dining room. That means, of course, local supplies but they also do their own gardening and farming and are stewards of the land and the environment, and care about carbon footprint. “We think caring for the earth is just the right thing to do,” Carley says. That from a man who helped a struggling fellow Chopped Canada competitor — even with $10,000 on the line.
At its most basic, Carly believes the bromide about acting locally. “It makes an incredibly small difference, but I just believe that if one restaurant at a time does this, it will help. It doesn’t mean only new Canadian. It could be Mexican. It could be German. But just use what is from your landscape.” That’s the anchor of helping keep the message of “new Canadian” clear. “Even though we’re doing a southern-U.S. dinner — which guests really like — we try not to stray too far from our ethos and remain cohesive. These menus have been the most ambitious we have done,” he says.
Carley uses terms like “Plants” and “Animals,” he says, because especially in the case of the latter, it is a reality — but often one that unsettles people.
“I think we are getting to a point in society where we can understand that. People talk about animal welfare, but they still don’t commit to it. Here we use pasture-raised and humanely-raised animals. I understand the entire process right until the last moment.”
He cites the example of Blackview Farm proprietor and Bruce supplier Bill Parke. “He goes with the cattle to the abattoir to keep them calm. That’s incredible.” And it means better tasting meat, too.
“I think also that many generations ago we got away from the idea of animal husbandry and why we raise animals to focus more on pumping out meat. Meat is sustainable, but restaurants can’t serve 20-ounce steaks anymore. That is the price to pay for having an animal live an appropriate life,” Carley says, adding that cattle do generate greenhouse gases as well. “It’s something we need to think about and act on,” he says. “Restaurants will have to get away from having five cuts of beef on the menu, I believe.”
If you are like me, you’ll like tasting menus — ones that aren’t absurdly long and drawn out. It’s a talent and sign of an efficient and professional kitchen to pull them off. The Bruce kitchen has done Chefs’ Rebellion, Sugar Shack, Southern Night, Hunter’s Feast, and look for Chef’s Rebellion 2 in October). Each chef at the restaurant gets to create a course in the monthly themed menus. “Our next Sugar Shack will use our own pigs. We are working with the farmer to raise them the way we want,” Carley says.
A late-spring “East Coast Dinner” menu ranged from a delightful miniature lobster roll that captured the essence of the sandwich and a hearty poutine râpée, the latter an Acadian pork and potato “dumpling,” to the classic Jigg’s Dinner “boil” and a wild blueberry grunt. The eight courses, which also included a mussel chowder, fried cod cheek, deer tongue pastrami and a screech rum cake with cloudberry, cost $60 (with beverage pairings an additional $40).
The essence of the Canadian east coast is there, but so too is the essence of local as well: the kitchen can expand their repertoire, express themselves and yet remain true to the philosophy that Carley says is “guided by terroir” and designed at once to satisfy the customer in terms of flavour and educate about the food system that we have to take responsibility to sustain. “It’s just the right thing to do,” says Carley as his kitchen prepared delicious food.
“Diners will see that you can do some amazing things with ingredients from your own landscape.”