When we're talking about Canadian cuisine, it can often be easy to reference stereotypes like poutine, peameal bacon or anything made with maple syrup, but in reality, Canada is home to agricultural and ethnic richness. Our cuisine is diverse, thanks to the many backgrounds and cultures that exist within our borders all contributing to the mix. For John Horne, Executive Chef of Oliver & Bonacini's Canoe, finding a way to highlight each of the different regions of Canada while honouring the history here in Canada has always been important. For years now, he has made a commitment to showcasing Canadian cuisine in new and exciting ways and continues to do so with his latest project at Canoe: The Taste Series where month to month Chef John and his team design a menu to honour the different regions of Canada. It began with Taste Acadia with Taste Haida Gwaii running currently. We chatted with Chef John about what Canadian cuisine means to him, how we can continue to preserve Canadian culture and what is the best homegrown meal he's ever had.
For the Taste series, you are tackling 'Canadian cuisine', what is that exactly?
For me, Canadian cuisine is ingredient-based, using techniques that are from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. This basically means cooking how you know how to cook, using what Canada has to offer from coast to coast. This also means Canadian cuisine is ever-evolving, never stagnant, as more and more cultures solidify their footing in Canada.
At Canoe we search for new ingredients from all over Canada, trying to find new or forgotten ingredients, whether from a valley, tundra, marsh, prairie, lake, ocean or bog, and cook these ingredients using different cooking techniques from different cultures. For this tasting series, we are focusing on what are considered the building blocks of Canadian food from First Nations. The series is inspired by their traditional cooking techniques, heritage recipes and values.
What would you say are some uniquely Canadian staples in our cuisine and history?
A few years ago we did a cross-Canada menu focused on ingredients from coast to coast (i.e. Taste Ontario, Taste Prairies and Taste Maritimes) and while researching new and unique ingredients from all of our country’s different ecosystems, we started to find dishes we had never even heard of before. For example, fricot (a traditional Acadian stew) was one of those dishes that made me go, ‘What is that? How do you make it? Why have I never heard of it?’ The recipe dates back to before the 1800s, and made me realize that there are tons of heritage dishes like this across Canada we don’t know about. You often think of poutine, butter tarts, tourtière, Nanaimo bars and bacon, but you don’t typically think of fricot, rappie pie, pemmican and k’aaw.
You often think of poutine, butter tarts, tourtière, Nanaimo bars and bacon, but you don’t typically think of fricot, rappie pie, pemmican and k’aaw.
Has there been any thought or consideration into relationships between the explorers and aboriginal people and their influence on Canadian cuisine?
Very much so. This actually happens naturally when creating these menus. The aboriginals and explorers learned so much from each other about how to cook and shared information about ingredients that could and could not be eaten, cultivation, etc. So much of the Taste Canada menu will have more aboriginal and explorer influences than others, depending on what the focus in on. Haida Gwaii, for me, was very First Nations based, utilizing bentwood box cooking. I had never heard of this before I jumped into the research, cooking with hot rocks, harvesting from low tide, as well as learning some Haida words. This unique language is becoming extinct with as few as 30 people still speaking it fluently!
Do you yourself have a favourite Canadian dish?
I can't say I have a favourite, as there are so many and I keep finding new ones that I love. I am a simple guy at heart and sometimes the simplest things are my favourites. Rhubarb + Sugar (we serve this as a pick me up before your main course) always brings me back to being a kid on the farm. I love the tart, sharp rhubarb balanced by the sweet sugar.
Quebec, for me, is like going to Europe. I always feel like I am somewhere else not in Canada.
Is there a place in Canada that you've visited that really changed how you felt about food and food culture?
Many places. Quebec, for me, is like going to Europe. I always feel like I am somewhere else not in Canada. The east coast is so amazing and rich in history. The prairies are way more than just beef and grain, if you dig for it. I love the west coast with its seafood and Asian influences and mountains. The north is so rich with tradition and living off the land.
I would say it’s the people I have met while traveling that have changed me. Whether it’s chefs, suppliers, farmers, or locals, you learn something from all of them. Canadians coast to coast have their own identity, but we are all connected by being Canadian and we all respect that and welcome each other in. Many of them keep traditions alive and have respect for where they came from. I have been very fortunate to have met a lot of these people, as it helps me better understand Canadian culture and food and these people have been great sounding boards for these new menus.
Is there anything we can do to help preserve Canadian culture and certain types of Canadian cooking?
I think awareness is the first step in anything. Many of these traditions are alive and well, it’s just that Canada is so large that it’s hard for us to relate to everything. It’s not like you can drive for two hours from Toronto to Alberta to eat pemmican. But at least if we know about these ingredients and cooking techniques and how they came about, we can respect it more when we do have access to them.