Hailed by MUNCHIES' own Adam Gollner as "Canada's real top chef," Jeremy Charles is on something of a one-man mission to showcase the rich natural produce, fish supply, and forageable ingredients of his native Newfoundland. Charles' Raymonds Restaurant in his hometown St John's has been hailed as one of the best in the country for its creative, terroir-driven dishes.
Cod tongues have always been a part of me. Not literally, but I would spend summers as a child on the wharf with my grandfather. I would be there splitting and gutting the fish and—because they would be thrown away otherwise—I cut out the cod tongues. I reckon they probably paid for two fishing rods when I was a kid because I sold them to tourists as a local delicacy. And they really are—even now, I love to quickly fry them off and they make this crunchy, beautiful piece of cod. It's definitely a different texture, more meaty and gelatinous than the rest of the fish.
That's just one of the unique staples back home in Newfoundland. I left when I was 19 and travelled and cooked in Montreal and Chicago. It was so strange to me to encounter the legal restrictions on serving wild game—it was both highly illegal and frowned upon. People went out to have a piece of filet mignon or pork chop, not to eat something that had just that day been hunted and butchered locally. But that's just the lifestyle back home, it's how I grew up at my parents' table and my grandparents' table.
I've been back in Newfoundland for about eight years now and we are just so fortunate with the natural abundance of game and incredible produce—as well as the lenient regulations on serving wild game! At Raymonds, we want to educate our customers and showcase what we have in Newfoundland. We try to make sure everything comes from Newfoundland, even the plateware we use was made by the potter down the street. You sit overlooking the harbour front in St John's while you enjoy the simply, beautifully prepared local produce.
There can be more stigma attached to serving certain animals. Seals are gorgeous, wild, organic meat. People in Newfoundland and Labrador have been hunting and eating them for generations, it's how they have always survived the winter.
It's amazing how the understanding of what we can do with food—what we can forage and eat—has matured so much in recent years. We have one of the most prolific chanterelle mushroom seasons in Canada here but these are something my grandparents' generation would never have eaten because they were told mushrooms are poisonous. Now I use so many different types of them in my cooking—hedgehogs, yellow foots, and many others, and they go hand in hand with beautiful game birds and venison.
Travelling to Scandinavia was an inspiring and important part of educating myself about what can be done with what we naturally have. We went all over in Denmark and Sweden, from Noma to Faviken. Obviously we are on roughly the same latitude on the planet so we have similar ingredients we can work with. You always bring something back from seeing how another culture deals with food. Their approach to fermenting for example, or their use of wild sea greens were very educating for me.
There can be more stigma attached to serving certain animals, though. Seals are gorgeous, wild, organic meat. People in Newfoundland and Labrador have been hunting and eating them for generations, it's how they have always survived the winter. But it's a really controversial topic in the US and Europe because of the lack of education about how and why seals are hunted. People just immediately think clubbing baby seals over the head, which is total misinformation. Hunting seals is done in one season in a year to keep the population in check. It's a very special meat, like any other animal protein. We do loads with it, from braises to cures and we will use the whole animal—tongues, heart, and liver included. You can really taste the iron in the meat.
While we've been building this establishment [Raymonds Restaurant] centred around Newfoundland's amazing produce, people have really started to notice. People are coming from all over outside the province to experience what we want to showcase. It's really exciting and also a bit bizarre. I'm a pretty low key and easy-going guy. I love to cook and be out there on the boat fishing or to be foraging for my mushrooms. I love being with my crew. I don't particularly enjoy being in the limelight so to speak, but I am immensely proud of what we've accomplished and I feel honoured to be recognised.
Newfoundland was a bit of a lost soul, forgotten about in the middle of the atlantic ocean. I feel like we're really injecting some life into the place.
Newfoundland was a bit of a lost soul, forgotten about in the middle of the atlantic ocean. I feel like we're really injecting some life into the place through showing to Canada and the world what an amazing bounty of wild edibles we have. I think people are a bit envious of the freshness and beauty of the ingredients.
You're really only as good as your ingredients and my friends who are chefs are staggered by the quality of what I'm working with when they come to visit.
As told to Sarah Phillips.