Canada 150 will be a year-long celebration in 2017, the sesquicentennial of Canadian confederation. Nearly fifty years ago the Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, Canada’s centennial celebration in Montreal, contributed to strengthening a powerful cultural unity. At the time the pavilion’s two restaurants were seen as providing a national culinary narrative. Restaurant La Toundra, operated by CN Hotels, served a Katimavik (which means “meeting place” in the Inuktitut language) Special that included chilled Okanogan apple juice and “Tourtière Chateau” with buttered peas and Saratoga chips. This was followed by Coupe Innuit [sic].This conceptualization of a Canadian cuisine was viewed as an all-encompassing initiative containing regional dishes and traditions derived from the multiculturalism of the nation.
Many feel that an emblematic Canadian cuisine is an abstract concept, indefinable due to the contradictory nature of Canadian identity. Indeed, ours is a complex identity, and paradoxically includes vast cultural and culinary differences. For many years serious attempts to define a national cuisine have either met with derision or devolved into stereotypes.
If you were to ask most people about what is meant by Canadian cuisine, many would respond with the stereotypical dishes like cod tongues, prairie oysters, Nanaimo bars, poutine, tourtière, back bacon, Montreal-smoked meat, butter tarts, seal flipper pie or fried bannock – a bread introduced to First Nation communities by Scottish settlers.
For some years now chefs across the country have been redefining Canadian cuisine. Chef Arron Carley is one of them. At The Bruce Restaurant in Stratford, Carley celebrates the food and ingredients of Canada every day. Chef uses the moniker New Canadiana to describe his evolving cuisine. He notably served as a sous chef to Jason Bangerter at Luma before Bangerter became executive chef at Langdon Hall. For three months Carley interned with René Redzepi’s team at Denmark’s famed Noma. On his blog, The Noma Intern, Carley says, “The knowledge you gain from staging at a restaurant like Noma will last you for the rest of your life and is easily worth three months of commitment.” Returning to Ontario, he worked as a sous chef under John Horne, executive chef at Toronto’s Canoe restaurant, before accepting the executive chef position at The Bruce Hotel in June last year.
Carley is, no doubt, acutely aware that Stratford is a town that can be very critique-heavy. He boldly ventures where few chefs have the resources or support to go and his determination and curiosity is matched by his talent. He is unwavering in his journey to take the Canadian culinary landscape and inculcate it with both his personal style and a narrative that is receptive to the local terroir and changing seasons. Carley and a team that includes sous chef Sam Santandrea and pastry chef Gilead Rosenberg continue to re-evaluate Canadian cuisine by looking to First Nation’s food culture and what early settlers ate in the wilderness. Foraged wild ingredients are intrinsic to The Bruce’s culinary identity. Any foraged ingredient used at The Bruce Hotel is sustainably procured by either Carley or the dedicated in-house forager Phil Phillips. They like to define and reinterpret “Canadiana” on their own terms rather than emulate their mentors.
Chef does not use lemons, black pepper or olive oil in his kitchen. Instead he uses indigenous alternatives with complex flavour profiles. Catkins, the bitter buds of the green alder plant, are what Chef uses instead of pepper. The Bruce has its own in-house bakery run by Chef Ian Middleton, an apiary, and a culinary garden in the back of the hotel with heirloom vegetables and forgotten herbs like rue (herb of grace), angelica and bronze fennel (which is actually black). This allows Carley to make a powerful culinary statement. Chef uses birch syrup in some of his dishes for an intense sweetness and depth of flavour. Carley likes to live and breathe his ethos.
The Bruce’s most iconic dish “Spuds in Dirt” is Carley’s way of paying homage to the ubiquitous poutine. Chef uses mini marble potatoes that are compressed by beer and cedar jelly (made from the juice of young cedar tips) and slow cooked sous-vide. The potatoes are tossed in wild leek vinaigrette and then buried in a mixture of peanuts and sumac. The spuds are then topped with dehydrated smoked beef fat, cowder (a powder of dehydrated marinated beef, sea buckthorn and black garlic,) and a pudding made from Glengarry’s Celtic Blue Reserve. The dish is finished with fried rosemary and burnt herb and ale jus.
Picture wild ivory salmon from the pristine waters of the Queen Charlotte Islands with goose barnacle, snap peas, beluga lentils, wild ginger broth, sea asparagus, Ontario edamame, fennel purée and kelp oil. Another signature dish is the Quebec Cerf du Boileau, venison striploin with charred and brined carrots, golden beets, reindeer moss (it’s actually funghi), Saskatoon berries, green alder jus (reminiscentof black pepper) and beet purée. At a recent tasting the house-cured charcuterie served on a locally-procured walnut board included lardo, saucisson, coppa, confit of beef tongue, pig’s head terrine and cold fermented Mennonite summer sausage.
The modernist plating techniques at The Bruce are acutely complicated with numerous components – emulsions, foams, ferments, sauces, powders, vinegars, berries, herbs, mosses and painterly smears – layered and aesthetically presented in ways that are both balanced abstracts and edible topography.
Carley is also an aficionado of older Canadian cookbooks. He recently introduced me to The Northern Cookbook, edited by Eleanor A. Ellis and illustrated by James Simpkins. The book was initially published in 1967, as a Centennial project by the Education Division, Northern Administration Branch, the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development.
This interesting canon on indigenous cookery offers guidance on nutrition along with recipes that are sometimes out-of-touch with the availability and seasonality of certain ingredients. “The purpose of this book is to record facts about some of the wild game, game birds, fish, fruit and vegetables available in Canada’s north (which includes not only the Arctic and sub-Arctic, but the northern lake and forest regions of all the provinces), and to suggest methods by which these foods may be prepared and served. To include recipes for all of the indigenous foods would be a mammoth task, but I have tried to include enough to be representative of a cross section of this vast land…,” states the preface by Ms. Ellis.
Interesting recipes include Arctic muktuk chowder (the traditional Inuit/Eskimo and Chukchi meal of whale skin and blubber), reindeer bourguignon, and casserole of seal served with fiddleheads or fireweed leaves. Among other dishes are sweet pickled beaver, partridge paprika, ptarmigan with orange ice, smothered muskrat and onions, moose chili con carne, elk burgers and Newfoundland seal flippers.
Each region of Canada with its own indigenous people has used their resources and traditional food preparations to develop unique versions of these dishes. Canadian chefs like Carley are acknowledging that Canadian Cuisine can be defined by its ingredients as much as by its traditions. We have come a long way since the Katimavik Special. Now the idea of the New Canadiana needs to percolate through the population in much the same way as the idea of eating locally and sustainably has done.
The Restaurant at The Bruce
89 Parkview Dr., Stratford,
Lunch: 11:30 am–1:30 pm
Dinner: 5:00 pm–close
Lunch is served Sunday and Monday in The Lounge.
The Lounge is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as late night.
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large