By Catherine Lefebvre
Jeremy Charles, Executive Chef at Raymonds Restaurant, is a fisherman, a hunter and particularly fond of everything that grows, grazes and swims in his native land. Whether he’s in the kitchen or fishing, nothing is wasted, everything is created. It’s a delicious way to pay tribute to Newfoundland and its astonishing abundance.
What was your vision of gastronomy when you moved to Montreal at the age of 19?
I had a very classic vision of gastronomy. I wanted to cook foie gras, truffles, everything that I couldn’t find in Newfoundland. The last thing I wanted to work with was cabbage or turnip. Of course this is the complete opposite of what I'm doing now. I was obviously inspired by great French chefs, like Alain Ducasse. But, since this was much less accessible than today, I mainly stuck to cookbooks. I also found a lot of inspiration from the people that I worked with: Claude Pelletier (Le Club chasse et pêche, Le Filet, Le Serpent), Michel Ross (Brunoise, MAS cuisine and Wilfrid sur Laurier), Marc-André Royal (Le St-Urbain and La Bête à pain).
How did working in northern Quebec (at the Molson Fly Fishing Camp in Godbout) influence you?
Northern Quebec is very much like Newfoundland. Not only are they both isolated regions, but they have similar products, like moose, wild salmon, cipaille ... Before working there, I never even realized just how rich and unique Newfoundland’s terroir is. The five years I spent in Montreal before I began working at Godbout also opened my eyes to the possibility of what can be created in the kitchen. The possibilities are endless. It's as if each dish is a blank canvas. I remember that I used to save from each paycheque to pay for a meal at Toqué! and allow myself to be inspired. It was mind-blowing every time.
What prompted you to return to St. John's? And what was the culinary scene like at the time?
After Godbout, I made the leap to Los Angeles, then moved to Chicago. The culinary scene was booming when I got there. Charlie Trotter was there, the restaurant Alinea had just opened. I kept seeing products, like chanterelles, being delivered to restaurants. And then I said to myself: but, we have all this at home, and we never celebrate this richness. When I visited St. John's, I noticed that my family and friends weren’t familiar with our terroir either. One day a friend of mine who’s a diver came back with razor clams and didn’t know what they were. I rolled my eyes and thought to myself that there was obviously work to be done here.
How has the culinary scene in Saint John's changed since you came back?
Originally I opened Atlantica (named Best New Restaurant in Canada by En Route Magazine in 2007). It was the first restaurant in St. John's to offer a tasting menu. At the beginning, it was difficult at times to convince people to pay considerably more for moose, for example. (Newfoundland and Labrador is the only province in Canada where restaurants are allowed to sell wild game that’s been hunted, with some exceptions, like migratory birds and beaver.) But little by little, people came to understand what we wanted to do with local products. Then in 2010, we opened Raymonds (with Jeremy Bonia, floor manager and sommelier) and we pushed the idea of creating a unique experience even further. (The restaurant was named Best New Restaurant by En Route Magazine in 2011.) At our restaurant, you know that you're in St. John's and not only because you’re looking out the window or reading the menu. Even our plates are made by a local ceramic artist. It helps us to tell our story and to create a real sense of belonging.
Besides using mostly local ingredients, what is your vision of Nordicity?
It's about pushing our limits a little further each time. When the simple act of sourcing is a challenge, it’s even more extraordinary when you succeed in making an exceptional dish. Then there’s education. After that it becomes easier to refine our palate and discover new products, without too much reluctance. Our pastry chef, Celeste Mah, is very gifted at blending together surprising flavours in her desserts. In any case, it is essential to connect with the food. Without a connection you take away the very essence of the history and ruin the inspiration.