Jesse Vergen: New Brunswick Renaissance Man

Image courtesy Jesse Vergen’s Twitter

Chefs will often tell you of the long hours they spend “on the line”, standing on their feet, burning themselves on hot pans and oil, sweating in front of a stove, cutting themselves on anything with a blade.

Farmers will tell you about how they get up before dawn and get on their hands and knees and weed their garden, slough out the pig stalls – without slipping on something undesirable – and spend hours hunched over doing what needs to be done.

Jesse Vergen can tell both of these groups to shut up. He does both.

Vergen is the executive chef at the Saint John Ale House in Saint John, New Brunswick. When he’s not doling out dishes, the 33-year-old jack-of-all-trades is out on his farm in nearby Quispamsis, planting, weeding, tending and doing anything that needs to be done. When he has a spare minute, you can find him doing anything from smoking foods, fly fishing, foraging for wild plants, hunting or whatever else he can fit on his very full plate. Vergen took some time out from his very busy schedule of farming, cooking, smoking – as well as raising three kids – to do a quick Q&A with Passable.

So tell me about you.

I’m a New Brunswicker, I live in Quispamsis just out side of Saint John. I’ve be in the [food] industry for 13 years, graduating from Dubrule French Culinary School in Vancouver in 1998, then spent a little time in France working. I believe in hard work and following your dreams is the way to live life.

What made you want to be a chef?

[I’ve] always loved food, but it was in high school I looked at cooking as a way to see the world, and to get out of New Brunswick. I think what excited me was there was this huge world of food, and it offered unlimited things to learn.

Where did you spend time in France and for how long?

I worked in Paris for a couple months, was working for free and I had no money and lived on couches, hostels, and even a night or two in the metro

What did you learn?

Too get working papers before moving to a country for work. We had to run out the back when immigration had shown up…but I think the neatest time I learnt was how to eat bone marrow from a dishwasher from the Ivory Coast…in a bowl with fleur de sel.

How long have you been at the Saint John Ale House?

I have been the Chef of SJAH for 5 years, consulted for the owners 7 years ago when they first opened, designing the first menu and helped with staff training.

What are your favorite things to prepare, and why?

I love making various forms of charcuiterie, probly cause i love eating it!

So tell me about your farm. How long have you been running it?

Six years with my wife Kim.

What made you want to farm?

My parents had a small organic farm in the Fundy hills when I was young and my first memories were of chickens and gardens. It was always something I wanted to get back to…even in cooking school I thought that someday I will make that dream come true. The thought of being involved with the whole process of food production from soil to plate was something that made sense to me.

What do you raise and grow?

We concentrate on vegetables, herbs, and micro greens. We have various livestock thrown into the mix for proper rotation of our fields, and to consume or use in various menu items at SJAH.

How do you balance hours behind the line and working the farm?

[By] having great teams. We have a great team at SJAH, and Kim (my wife) heads up the team/ and family at farm…but its all a lot of work.

How involved are you in the farm?

Very much, from picking the seeds, to plowing, weeding, harvesting and delivering [to the members of our CSA].

Do you slaughter your own animals?

Yes I believe it’s the base skill that all butchers should know or at least experience. I’ve done chickens, turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pigs, lambs, cows and every one is a different process.

You mentioned you like to forage. What do you find in New Brunswick?

We go out and pick e, lobster, and morel mushrooms,also fiddleheads, berries (just found out there’s cloudberries a.k.a bakeapples in NB!), and also wild greens like sheep sorrel, plantain, dandelion and lambs quarters.

Would you ever want to exclusively farm or exclusively cook?

I will always do both, and like the ability to cook stuff I have grown, its a very good feeling… once you start gardening, just like cooking for yourself… you never never really stop .