A celebration of moose tongue, sea snails and more
Chef Jeremy Charles chuckles as he describes the “organic” Newfoundland diet of codfish, salmon, berries, moose and rabbit his 92-year-old grandmother ate growing up.
“People live fairly long here because they never ate any garbage,” he says. “It was all just wild, natural foods before the word organic was even a term.”
Local, fresh, natural foods may be all the rage in the hottest restaurants across the country, but it’s the way Newfoundlanders have been eating for centuries, says Charles. As co-owner and chef at Raymonds, the award-winning fine-dining restaurant in St. John’s, he has spent the past decade elevating and celebrating the traditional, humble foods of his rugged, island home, including razor clams, sea urchin and whelks (large sea snails).
“People live fairly long here because they never ate any garbage.”
“These are beautiful, treasured ingredients around the world that should be celebrated on our tables as well.”
Soon, he’ll expand his educational efforts to Edmonton as NAIT’s Hokanson Chef in Residence, working with the polytechnic’s Culinary Arts students for a week-long immersion in regional cuisine from March 9 to 13.
“I’m looking forward to having those discussions with students and educating them to the possibilities that you can discover in your own backyard,” he says.
“You don’t come to Newfoundland to eat pineapples”
Join Chef Jeremy Charles for lunch or dinner
Tickets for a three-course lunch and a four-course dinner prepared by Charles and NAIT Culinary Arts students on Thursday, March 12 are available by emailing or calling Tanya Wright at 780-471-8685 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lunch tickets are $39 per person including tax and gratuity; dinner tickets are $65 per person including tax, gratuity and wine pairings.
Charles wasn’t always a promoter of Newfoundland’s bounty. As a young man, he went to culinary school in Montreal, where he spent years cooking and eating, and then in Chicago.
He returned to Newfoundland in 2006 to help found the now-defunct Atlantica, an oceanside, farm-to-table restaurant in Portugal Cove, near St. John’s, that was named the country’s best new restaurant in 2007.
“Years ago, we were serving foie gras and all the stuff you couldn’t get in Newfoundland. We weren’t looking at serving moose tongue or sea urchin. Now the table is totally turned and we’re sourcing everything locally … We want people to have the story behind the food and get to know the lay of the land. You don’t come to Newfoundland to eat pineapples, you know what I mean?”
His 2019 cookbook, Wildness: An Ode to Newfoundland and Labrador, includes not only recipes like partridge liver mousse with molasses lavash, and urchin and squid-ink capelin masago (fish roe), but stories of the local hunters, foragers, fishers and divers who provide these unique ingredients.
Charles was featured in 2018 on the late Anthony Bourdain’s popular Parts Unknown TV series, hunting and preparing food with the renowned American chef. In 2017, the New York Times called Charles a “visionary chef” in an article about the burgeoning food scene in St. John’s. Raymonds consistently ranks among the top restaurants in the country according to Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants list.
He plans to bring some of his own favourite coastal ingredients to the Prairies, including fresh cod, whelks and sea urchin. But he’ll be leaving behind the wild game that is the trademark of Raymonds and his second restaurant, The Merchant Tavern, because Newfoundland is the only province that allows restaurants to serve it.
Instead, he hopes to get a taste of Alberta’s wild ingredients, like elk and deer (which can’t be found in Newfoundland) and to go fishing in the area. (“That’s my favourite thing in the world to do,” he says.)
Lessons in foraging and experimentation
At NAIT, the 42-year-old chef plans to share not just food and recipes but also stories with NAIT students, most of whom, like many Canadians, have probably never been to Newfoundland.
“We’re kind of way out there when it comes to the landscape of Canada,” acknowledges Charles. “It’s going to be fun to talk [to the students] about our wild ingredients from the land and sea, and tell some stories about the people we work with who bring all those ingredients to the restaurant to make it all possible.”
Perry Michetti (Cooking ’90), who oversees the Chef in Residence program at NAIT, says he’s thrilled to have the celebrated chef coming to work with students. “He’s doing something nobody else is really doing in Canada,” he says.
“He’s doing something nobody else is really doing in Canada.”
Edmonton filmmaker, outdoorsman and food forager Kevin Kossowan visited Charles’ restaurant in 2018 and shot a video of Raymonds’ impressive pantry, says Michetti. “He was blown away. He said there’s about 300 things in his pantry that you’ve never seen before and that they use in the restaurant every day.”
A peek at Charles’ cookbook gives you an idea of a few, like dehydrated pineapple weed, scotch lovage (another Newfoundland weed), pickled spruce tips, dehydrated partridgeberries, wild hops shoots and pickled maple blossoms.
Michetti hopes to show the video to students, turning them on to the possibilities of unique ingredients in their own backyards. “We’re thrilled for our students to see this, and then hopefully in the spring, summer and fall, they’ll be inspired to go out and forage and experiment.
“Shortening the travel of your food is what it’s all about, and celebrating what’s local in your region of Canada,” he adds.
Charles, with his salt-of-the-earth, Newfoundland charm, is the perfect chef to deliver that back-to-your-roots message, says Michetti. “I think his humble approach and sincerity will win over the hearts of many.”
Charles says he’s looking forward to connecting with students. “I remember meeting various chefs when I was young, and every one taught me something. I guess you always take that with you and at some point in your career, you put it to use.”