Posts tagged ‘vacay.ca’

April 14, 2013

Rene Redzepi speaks from the heart in Toronto

[This article and video were first published on Vacay.ca on April 10, 2013.]

The world knows Rene Redzepi can cook, but who knew he could write?

On Monday afternoon, Redzepi stood in front of 500 attendees at the Terroir Symposium in Toronto and read from a manuscript he prepared especially for the conference. Candidly, he detailed his passion for food, the roots of that passion that go back to his childhood in rural Denmark, how being true to his desires propelled his culinary success, and why losing sight of those desires led to standing on a beach in Mexico and contemplating running away from Noma and the mania surrounding it. His words about the dangers of burning out were a generous gift to chefs in the audience striving to attain what Redzepi has accomplished at his Danish restaurant. They were also extremely well thought out sentences, carefully chosen nouns and verbs that resonated with emotion.

Redzepi spoke about how so many people were advising him to go against the ethic of Noma, which has always been about food and flavours first and foremost. The restaurant, which has topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three straight years, has never had the finest silverware or the most fashionable wait staff, but Redzepi has been encouraged in recent years to add such pretentiousness. Advisors told him to reach for more accolades and that meant more material luxury in his rustic dining space “as if a fucking bowtie would make the food taste better.” On top of those influences was the intense pressure of running a business that has faced more scrutiny in the culinary world than any other restaurant on the planet in the past four years.

“I said, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Redzepi said to the crowd at Terroir, an annual gathering that brings together international food industry professionals to discuss sustainability and better practices.

Afterwards, he told Vacay.ca and other media, “We got very confused at Noma when we first started having success. I went to cooking school to learn to whip a bernaise, not how to deal with the New York Times in a press conference.”

Like many accidental celebrities, Redzepi found himself performing tasks he never endeavoured to perform and, on top of 85-hour work weeks at the restaurant, the demands on his time resulted in a wish to escape. However, his drive to improve overwhelmed any thoughts of quitting. After introspection about how to deal with the stress and what it was doing to him, the 35-year-old said he chose to clutch onto the beliefs that made him so celebrated in the first place.

“I feel more energized than ever,” he said, explaining that any downbeat sentiments in his story were there as a cautionary note to other chefs. He urged them to not lose their vision, or allow it to be circumvented by people who feel they are better at business or public relations or management. “This was a story about memories and also a story about sticking to what you know.”

What Redzepi understands better than just about anyone is how to make the most of the quality of food within your grasp. When speaking about the use of unusual ingredients in his cuisine, he said, “It is all about a search for flavours, it has nothing to do with shock value.”

The ants that he uses in his dishes are “little tiny creatures” that have what he describes as an explosive taste exotic to Scandinavians. “Here we are in cold, grey, shitty, Protestant Denmark with our potatoes and our beet root, and suddenly you have the flavours of ginger and lemongrass to put on your beet root. That is magnificent.”

read more »

Advertisements
March 5, 2013

Atelier deserves all the praise it gets

[Vacay.ca is putting together its second annual list of Canada’s Top 50 Restaurants and public voting helps to determine that list. The voters have been incredibly supportive of Atelier, a wonderful restaurant with only 22 seats in an out-of-the-way neighbourhood in Ottawa. I had a chance to dine there and speak to its chef, the talented Marc Lepine. This article was published in Vacay.ca in October.]

OTTAWA, ONTARIO —  Midway through her dinner, Jennifer Swartz looked up to her dining partner and exclaimed, “Hands-down the best meal of my life.”

Swartz had been meaning to make reservations at Atelier for a number of months and wasn’t disappointed in her August visit despite entering Marc Lepine’s restaurant with lofty expectations. “You hear so much about this place in Ottawa but it’s still a little secret outside of the area,” said Swartz, who lives in Canada’s capital and was dining a couple of tables away from me. “The food is like art.”

And that’s not by accident. Lepine began Atelier in 2008 after completing a stage at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant run by Grant Achatz that’s consistently near the top of the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants ListAlinea is known in North America for popularizing microgastronomy, the cooking technique that involves chemistry and often results in whimsical creations. Numerous chefs have tried to replicate Achatz’s success with microgastronomy and the results are often hit and miss. Lepine is one of those who is on the mark.

In February, Lepine’s team won the Gold Medal Plates competition at the Canadian Culinary Awards in Kelowna, British Columbia, and earlier this year Atelier was named the People’s Choice winner in theVacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List, finishing fifth overall.

Knowing Atelier’s reputation, I approached my visit to the restaurant expecting an opulent room laden with crystals and 500-thread-count linen. Like its chef, though, Atelier is understated in every way but the boldness of its cuisine. The restaurant’s exterior on Rochester Street, six kilometres from the frenzy of the Byward Market, is so non-descript it doesn’t even have a sign. It’s a house, not a mansion. The exterior is slate grey and a black grate covers the window, making it seem almost moody when you approach in the night. But that’s not an indication of what’s inside. When you enter, host and sommelier Steve Robinson greets you warmly, inviting you into a 22-seat space that feels like a dinner party.

“It made sense that we didn’t have a sign, because our menu’s blind and we’re reservation-only, and this kind of works for us,” says Lepine, pointing out that Atelier isn’t the sort of place where people decide to go on the spur of the moment, so it wasn’t important to rent a storefront in a well-trafficked area of Ottawa.

People would come searching for the food, if it was good enough, he believed. As Swartz indicated, the word of mouth drew her in.

One of the most likeable chefs you’ll ever meet, Lepine puts his imaginative spin on dishes to make Atelier as creative a kitchen as you’ll find in the country. One of the plates on my visit featured 14 ingredients, another — an octopus salad — was so minimalist it was positioned to occupy only one corner of the white plate; hence its menu name, “In This Corner.”

That’s the other aspect of Atelier and Lepine you will remember: The imagination doesn’t stop with the food. Each dish has a name that attempts to be clever. A cold pea soup puree is called Give Peas a Chance (and you should, it’s delicious), a crab-and-lobster dish is named after characters in both the “Little Mermaid” (Sebastian the Crab) and “The Simpsons” (Pinchy the Lobster), and a peach dessert gets tagged with the title Impeachment. The servers appear chagrined and apologetic when they pronounce some of the names, which only adds to Atelier’s lack of pretentiousness. The music is all Canadian. Imagine dining on Idaho-raised wagyu beef prepared sous vide — meaning sealed in an airtight bag and cooked in water for several hours — while Joel Plaskett plays in the background. It’s not something you’d ever envision, and that ability to surprise and make you look at dining anew is partly what defines Atelier.

read more »

January 26, 2013

Diamond Rings takes on the world

[This article was published last month in Vacay.ca as part of its Rock ‘n Roll Road Trips series. Diamond Rings has since been nominated for a SiriusXM Canadian Indie Music Award, whose show takes place March 22, 2013 during Canadian Music Week in Toronto.]

Diamond rings, John O’Regan says, are glamorous and tough. That’s why they’re the namesake of his on-stage persona, an act that has busted out of the Toronto music scene to earn superlative-laden reviews across the continent. One reason for the success is the fact diamond rings are mesmerizing too.

It’s difficult not to keep your eyes on O’Regan. For one thing, you have to make up your mind whether his act is an artistic form of self-expression or a schtick. One listen of his hit “I’m Just Me” should convince you he’s much more Ziggy Stardustthan Gary Glitter, which is to say that Diamond Rings has substance and cred. It’s quite possible the persona O’Regan has created is the most interesting act to come out of Canada since Arcade Fire. “I’m Just Me” comes across as a mantra for the sexually uncertain, the androgynous or the transgender, but like any great song it has universality to it, appealing to anyone who embraces their individuality when it clashes with bullies or the sensibilities of the establishment. There’s both a rebelliousness and a sweetness to the song, underscoring the duality O’Regan talks about in himself and his performance.

While most audiences are now hearing about Diamond Rings for the first time, O’Regan isn’t an overnight success. He’s been toiling in Toronto for several years, fronting the electro-pop band The D’urbervilles, recently renamed Matters. In Toronto, the 27-year-old spends his days in Roncesvalles, a historic neighbourhood known for its Polish heritage and proximity to High Park.

“I tend not to leave that neighbourhood when I’m at home. Being away, being in a rock band there is so much stimulation, a lot of long nights, a lot of loud music and loud clubs, and although Toronto is great for all that stuff, when I’m home it’s rarely what I want to do,” O’Regan said during an interview three weeks ago in a suite in the Ritz-Carlton Toronto.

Roncesvalles is beyond West Queen West, an area that’s become a cultural hub for the city, with vintage clothing stores, nightclubs, and a pair of notable boutique hotels, the Gladstone and the Drake, that are a breeding ground for artists of all sorts. O’Regan’s part of town is much more low key, although it does have two of the city’s best new restaurants in Hopgood’s Foodliner and Barque. Despite his flamboyant stage presence, O’Regan struck me as very much an introspective artist devoted to pushing himself and his work as far as he can, and that makes Roncesvalles a fit for him. It lacks the bustle and distractions of other areas of the city, allowing him to hole up and make music.

read more »

January 1, 2013

Why Louisbourg is the best place to see in Canada in 2013

fortress-louisbourg-cape-breton

Fortress Louisbourg celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2013. (Julia Pelish photo)

LOUISBOURG, CAPE BRETON, NOVA SCOTIA — No lawyers were allowed in colonial Louisbourg. Louis XIV wanted to build a utopia on this side of the Atlantic and anyone who was out to practice law could only undermine that dream, the Sun King thought. So rules were enforced by the governor of Île-Royale and an appointed council. But lawyers? They were left to eat cake — or learn to bake it.

Today, Louisbourg still exhibits the spirit and mindset of its founders. Set in 1744, toward the end of French rule of the territory on Cape Breton, the recreated historic village replicates life as it was for the blacksmiths, tavern owners, military personnel, government officials and citizens in the 18th century. To enter the fortified city, visitors must first pass through a gate defended by militia who will test whether you’re a British spy or ne’er-do-well before allowing you to enter. Thoroughly fascinating, Louisbourg is so well done as an attraction you almost lose sight of the beauty of its setting. Almost.

Cape Breton’s natural allure never quite relinquishes its grip and the scenery surrounding Louisbourg is reminiscent of the French coast, with a torrent of waves and swatches of thick, golden reeds that from certain angles appear to mask the fortress as you approach.

“Louisbourg is the jewel of the national parks system,” says Linda Kennedy, who runs Point of View Suites, a sensational property just outside of the entrance to the historic site.

For those who have been to colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, Fortress Louisbourg will seem familiar. But it is much more of a living museum than a commercial enterprise, although you can purchase meals and pay to take part in a murder mystery tour or night-time lantern walk.

In 2013, Louisbourg celebrates its 300th anniversary and will do so with panache, earning it the distinction as the No. 1 place in Canada to visit in 2013 from Vacay.ca.

The Louisbourg300 festivities feature a month-long fête with additional music, cultural attractions and a harbourside market in July. A series of other events and celebrations will take place during the summer, including a much-anticipated regatta on the waters surrounding the fortress. As Louisbourg heralds its tricentennial, it gives Canadians an opportunity to reflect on how important of a place it is to the nation’s history.

“Louisbourg in some ways is a microcosm of what Canada eventually developed into, which is a multicultural, multilingual society,” says Barbara Landry, one of the Parks Canada officers at the fortress.

read more »

December 6, 2012

Rugged Beauty tour is rock solid in Newfoundland

[This article was first published on Vacay.ca on November 28, 2012]

NEW BONAVENTURE, NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Meet Bruce Miller.

He lives here, in the land of his father and grandfather, a remote swath of territory with enough arable acreage, clean air, pristine water, and wildlife to inspire poetry and instill a will to depart only upon a last breath. A thoughtful Canadian, Miller flies the flag of Newfoundland outside his home, a small cabin overlooking British Harbour and Trinity Bay at the edge of the continent. In an island of Baymen and Townies, Miller is Bayman to the core, with a lilt in his brogue and a ready wink to go with his easy smile. He makes a meagre living as a fisherman and labourer and augments his income operating one of the most unique and riveting tours in Canada, taking visitors to communities affected by Newfoundland’s controversial resettlement. The itinerary includes a stop in his own home, for a cup of tea.

“It’s the history that people seem to love,” Miller says on a wet day in September. He flips through picture books that show boats from a half-century ago trawling homes in a mass exodus that you would think only happens because of disaster or a plague. Among the photographs are some of Miller’s parents, who chose not to follow.

“This is home. You can’t replace that. The government can’t replace that,” he says. “These days, it’s becoming harder and harder to stay. You have to be real creative to make a living here.”

read more »

September 11, 2012

Charlottetown’s big-city appeal

holman-grand-hotel-penthouse-charlottetown

The penthouse suite of the Holman Grand Hotel offers wonderful views of the city and harbour. (Julia Pelish/Vacay.ca)

[I had the chance to visit beautiful Prince Edward Island last month and this story on the provincial capital was published in Vacay.ca in August 2012.]

CHARLOTTETOWN, PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND — Charlottetown is so immaculate it needed to invent its own mice population. Three years ago, miniature bronze mice began to appear throughout the downtown streets of this tidy provincial capital. Part of a scavenger hunt based on the character Eckhart the Mouse from author David Weale’s “The True Meaning of Crumbfest,” the mice are another cute aspect of a city that’s easy to adore for all of the reasons you might expect — Charlottetown is as friendly and attractive as its reputation — and for some reasons that will surprise you. Despite a population of less than 35,000, Charlottetown has a surprisingly upscale dining scene and lively bar atmosphere.

Victoria Row, a pedestrian-only block of Richmond Street that’s bracketed by iron gates on either end, is home to patio bars and a summertime stage that features local musicians performing during the day. You can hear the music, which is often very good, from blocks away, creating a festive atmosphere in a downtown core that might otherwise seem sleepy on first encounter.

A few blocks from Victoria Row is Lot 30, an outstanding eatery headed by chef Gordon Bailey (formerly of the Inn at Bay Fortune, PEI’s only entry in the 2012 Top 50 Restaurants in Canada list). The Lot 30 menu changes daily, although you can expect lots of seafood choices and an excellent steak. It fits perfectly with the generation of modern restaurants that emphasizes flavours from natural, local ingredients rather than thick, heavy sauces. Not surprisingly, the succulent scallops were a highlight of a recent five-course tasting menu that also included baked scallops and a dessert trio with luscious Bailey’s ice cream and chocolate mousse. Just as impressive is the quality of service, which is decidedly big city in its professionalism, a contrast to many other parts of Atlantic Canada where wait staffs tend to be friendly and polite but below-par in performance.

read more »

May 14, 2012

Tom Wilson plays a secret Toronto house party

tom-wilson-collage

Tom Wilson gives it his all wherever he plays. (Photo collage by Julia Pelish)

[Had a chance last month to catch up with Tom Wilson, great musician, great guy, at a secret house party in Toronto. Here’s the report from Vacay.ca.]

On March 21, Tom Wilson headlined at Massey Hall in front of 2,750 fans. Less than three weeks later, he is tuning his guitar in the living room of a home in a middle-class neighbourhood in midtown Toronto, about to play to 31 people, many of whom can’t believe their fortune. The performance that ensues gives new meaning to bringing down the house.

On “concert nights,” the home takes on the persona of a venue. It’s nicknamed “The Growler,” tickets are sold, amplifiers are brought in, the musicians have their own “backstage” space in an upstairs bedroom, CDs and other paraphernalia is for sale, and there are no encores until the audience delivers loud applause and calls for “more, more, more!”

Wilson doesn’t hold back anything, either. The singer/songwriter with a wide range of tunes plays for an hour, including a two-song encore that starts with a cover of “Ring of Fire.” His voice resonates with clear, dead-on pitch like what you might be treated to in a studio session. As always, his showmanship is as much a part of the entertainment as his music. His self-effacing comments and hilarious stories of rock ’n roll life never fail to win over a crowd.

During this set on Good Friday, Wilson reveals that Colin Linden nearly showed up, too. Linden, Wilson and Stephen Fearing form Juno Award-winning Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, who finally headlined a gig at Massey Hall after 15 years together. Although it would have been a great bonus to see Linden, the audience is more than satisfied with Wilson and his band members, who on this night include his son as well as long-time collaborator Ray Farrugia. The trio are paid with the money brought in from ticket sales.

It’s Wilson’s second time making the trip up from Hamilton, Ontario to play “The Growler,” and he says he’s open to more. “These people are great,” he adds. “Really, we come back for the food.”

One of the owners is from Mexico and apparently spoils the band with fabulous cuisine prior to the show. The homeowners, who will remain anonymous because operating a “concert venue” out of their house may not fly with some authority figures, also offer bed-and-breakfast stays to the musicians.

read more »