Chef’s Congress 2012

Chef's Congress

This summer I decided I wanted to open a camp—a Crystal Lake-minus-the-murders style camp—called Camp Firewood. Ok, so I decided I wanted to pretend that I wanted to open a camp. I’m not going to open a camp. But if you spend any time driving around rural PEI, you’ll understand why my fancy ended up with a bit of a tickle: basically every single roadside sign advertising firewood for sale has “CAMP FIREWOOD” on a piece of plywood in a hand-painted all-caps scrawl. They may think they’re just selling logs, but what they’re selling is the wet, hot Canadian dream of a rustic campground franchise.

Camp Firewood came to life for me a little bit this week down at the Land of Evangeline Campground in Grand Pré, not far from Wolfville. The 2012 Canadian Chef’s Congress rolled into town only to unroll dozens of sleeping bags, pitch a village full of tents and basically go nuts. A flag for the Congress was planted at the top of the campground. The stiff, wrinkled sheet was taped awkwardly to a spindly pole looking for all the world like a project taken from a summer camp arts and crafts cabin and thrust into the ground to declare the birth of a new nation in some kind of a Lord of the Flies fit. Luckily for everybody involved, the only Piggy in sight was the one that they roasted for tonight’s dinner.

Chef's CongressThe Congress brings chefs from across the country together with not only each other, but other restaurateurs, growers and producers, fishermen, farmers and others who are interested in Canada’s food culture. The idea is to provide a setting to not only discuss or even debate food issues like sustainability and talk about struggles within the industry, but to bond with one another.

Although I only spent one evening at the event, it’s clear that they are at least achieving that second goal. There was a real sense of friendship and fun, support and strength within the industry. It was a really heartening thing to see. In an industry where it’s become common place to pit chefs against one another for either entertainment or simple drama, there seemed to be a real sense of chefs taking the time to show one other what they could do without showing off or trying to show anyone up.

I have to say: it’s a funny thing to see a campground full of incredible, restaurant quality food. Nobody showed up to this campground barbecue with a bag of wieners and a shrug. (Not that I would have blamed them.) The craftsmanship and soul that went into the food that was produced for the dinner was almost ridiculous.

Chef's Congress

I got to the campground just before sunset on Monday evening. Many chefs were setting up stations—Lauren from Morris East was stoking the fire in the portable wood burning oven that was on-site—and small crowds were perched on hay bales set up in a cozy horseshoe shape, curving around another crackling fire that cut through the cooling air with a bit of smoky heat. Jeff from the Bicycle Thief and Zane from Two if By Sea brewed up some hot black tea that offered a bit of delicious inner warmth.

My friend Jen and I got there in time to see the keynote addresses by David Cohlmeyer, the founder of Cookstown Greens in Ontario, and Michael Ableman from BC’s Foxglove Farm. They were interesting, if at times meandering, talks. It’s nice to hear people talk so lovingly about the food they’ve grown up with and to feel a deep passion for local and regional food. It was also fun to hear Ableman talk about how Julia Child called him a “food terrorist.” Just imagine “food terrorist” said in the bell tones of Child’s voice. Amazing.

Chef's Congress

Soon after, the chefs kicked into high gear to get dinner ready. While I wouldn’t normally start with dessert, Geir Simensen from Saege and Ray Bear made a really incredible sweet and savoury dish. An airy corn bread that had just the mildest hit of chili heat, and a delightful crust that was made almost caramel by a cast iron pan, was served with BBQ peaches, Ironworks dark rum ice cream and some peaches and cream with maple syrup and thyme. Really tasty.

Chef's Congress

Chef's CongressAnd while Jen and I had actually missed the “cooler” made from Prince Edward Distillery Gin and the beautiful Tangled Garden’s Dazzling Damson Plum liqueur, we got to sneak a late tipple. It was so good. I really love the PEI gin, and this was a lovely mix: strong, but sweet. There were a number of really lovely regional beverages available, which really drove home how rich we are in terms of local products.

Chef's CongressThere were also some fleshy smoked oysters. Check out that beauty with the roe! So fresh and incredible.

Chef's Congress

Chef's CongressFrom a boar meat sandwich based on Vietnamese banh-mi to beet salad, smoked fish with dulse and tender lamb burgers, the array of wonderful dishes ran what felt like the entire gamut of local delicacies.

Chef's CongressMorris East really knocked it out of the park with their on-site pizza. Braised, pulled pork shoulder (rubbed with a house-made blackened spice rub, which they gave out—it smells amazing!) was topped with mozzarella and house-smoked apple chutney. It was then garnished with That Dutchman’s Old Growler Gouda, a deliciously sharp counterpoint to crispy sage from Riverview Herb, some chili honey and the icing on the cake: pork cracklins. Thankfully Morris East will be offering this pizza up on their menu starting October 2. I’m probably going to go get it on October 2. You should probably get it on October 2. It was unbelievable.

Chef's CongressThe evening came to an end—for me and Jen, at least—after some terrific music from Mike O’Neill and Sarah Harmer.  People danced and cheered after a long day of eating and drinking. The bus full of NSCC students had long since left, the red streak of their taillights nothing but a memory. Only a small group still remained around the central fire, other revelry was scattered amongst the patchwork of tents. A few small fireworks shot off into the starry country sky and nameless chefs crawled off to their tents to pass out. Jen and I headed back to the city.

I’m sure that this morning there were a lot of headaches, but at the same time I doubt anybody’s Muddahs or Faddahs are going to get A Letter from Camp.