It’s the most magical time of the year. Christmas? Sort of. Imagine all the good food you eat at Christmas, except prepared by Newfoundland and Canada’s top chefs. The best part? No presents to buy for anyone, just one big fat present to yourself. And no fruitcake. The annual Roots, Rants and Roars Festival in Elliston arrived this year with sunny skies and sold out crowds. I left the tent home this time and instead brought one sister, one mom and one very brave boyfriend.
Registration on Friday night and a glass of Champagne to start (sorry France, sparkling Canadian wine, can you please just let us say it). An awesome addition to this year’s festivities? Oh a wineyard, I’d say. A what what? A wineyard! Like a lanyard, except it holds a glass of wine instead of a name tag. A little keepsake from Elliston and something guaranteed to start conversations when worn to parties. Mostly conversations about you maybe being an alcoholic. Onward! Into the park and the start of the King of Cod festivities.
Business time. First line we hit, Mark McCrowe of Aqua. Tempura miso cod with Thai mango salad and fried cashews. Just…what. God. No words. Not surprising to anyone who’s eaten at Aqua, this guy wasn’t messing around. Just like last year, the first bite made the trip worth it. It felt like home already.
I’ll tell you something, Jeremy Charles (Raymonds) was out to impress, and it doesn’t get more impressive than deep fried cod face for a couple of hundred people. His spin on fish and chips turned a few heads. “Face and Chips” came with a cod head, tongue, sweet corn, snow crab, potato salad and wild leek aioli. Sweet Mother. I’ve been lucky enough to have eaten at Raymonds and I know that everything this guy touches turns to gold, but Robin was a little skeptical. “I don’t know about the whole eating the face thing.” We all have memories of crying over a plate of cod tongues as a kid, being scolded about the poor little kids in Africa who had no cod tongues and would we like to eat our cod tongues or wear them? Or you know, maybe your mom relented and made you hot dogs, but mine never backed down and I like to think she has something to do with my grown-up palate. And here we all were, lacing into a cod head each and no one had to wear their supper at all.
Chris Chafe (Magnum and Steins) worked his station like a rockstar. This guy’s a 23 year old ninja-chef and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished nothing in life, so thanks for that Chris. He made cod tostada with guacamole, black bean and pork chilli, queso fresco and pickled onion and tomato salsa, which I’ve decided I would like to put in a piñata for my next birthday. It was because of this dish that Justin and I went to Magnum and Steins last weekend for the first time. When the waitress asked how I liked my heirloom tomato and pancetta caprese salad with balsamic caviar I told her I wanted to marry it.
Roary MacPherson killed it with a chimichurri glazed cod with minted couscous and pickled veg. He was churning food out like a drill sergeant, fast enough that rumours started circulating early that his cod was going to be the one to beat. Roary’s was the very first RRR dish I tasted last year…cod poached in olive oil on a bed of split pea masala, so for that, he will always hold a special place in my heart.
A friend told me to get over to the Chinched station (Shaun Hussey and Michelle LeBlanc) because they were running out of food; we made it over just in time to grab the last little taste, but the four of us had to huddle over the bowl and share. The cod was something salty and buttery and beautiful that came with sausages (which we sadly never got to try). Word on the field was that they were gorgeous and I’m not surprised. Chinched Bistro might be my favourite place to eat in St. John’s and if anything it gave me a good excuse to make another reservation when I got back to town.
No desserts last year, but this time there was unlimited cotton candy. I can’t think of anything better after an evening of cod as rich and filling as this one was. I don’t think anyone had room left for a creme brulee, but there sure were a scatter few sticky blue faces in the crowd.
I agonized over who to vote for as The King of Cod. Jeremy Charles punched it in the face last year, but there was something about the dishes this year, how absolutely different they were. The kind of thing where one would be your favourite on a Monday, but on Thursday it would be the other, depending on your mood. Like, parents, how do you choose a favourite child? This is what I was pondering as I ate my second cotton candy. The end of the night came and…no ballots? But…why? I heard something about no prize this year because it would show favouritism. What the what? I won’t lie, it took the wind out of my sails a little. Kind of like sports day at school these days, where everyone gets a ribbon instead of just the kid who ran the fastest. These chefs are tough, I think they can handle it. Bring back the $1000 prize! Make them mud wrestle! Come on! Everyone loves a competition, and if the ante is upped, the food gets better. See? Everybody wins!
The crowds this year were huge; I was really feeling for the chefs. Taken from the controlled chaos of their own kitchens and plunked down in the middle of an outdoor municipal park where hundreds of people were waiting to be fed some of the best food of their lives? I think someone needs to write a letter to the Queen on their behalf or something, seriously. Well done guys.
Next day: Food Hike. Probably the most sought after ticket of the weekend, according to pleas for last minute spares on Facebook and Twitter. The food and weather gods collided in the best way possible and the day was perfect; sunny, warm and breezy. Chuck Hughes (host of the Food Network’s Chuck’s Day Off) was manning the station closest to the municipal park’s entrance. I bet Chuck was wishing it really was his day off when he saw the line of people waiting to be impressed. Three-quarters of the line was supposed to be put on a bus and dropped at the other end of the hike to even things out, but no one was budging. I think they might need a bullhorn next year. Or a herd of bulls.
I was so pleased to round a corner and find the man himself running a station this year. How it is that Todd Perrin managed to find the time to cook is beyond me, but his deep fried capelin were just the best example ever of taking something every Newfoundlander knows about and making it something every Newfoundlander should know about. Even Robin ate them, face and all.
Martin Juneau was the only chef who gave halibut a go on the hike. He’s a Montreal based chef at Pastaga, which I’m pretty sure is Italian for “Don’t hate me because I’m this handsome and can cook too”. Justin and Mom’s favourite. Bacon marmalade gets the moms every time, Martin.
Jonathan Gushue’s dish (I’m guessing he has a restaurant next to Martin’s) was the prettiest and most colourful thing I’ve ever eaten. Cold poached salt cod with buttermilk and leek oil, garnished with wildflowers. If Roary MacPherson’s olive oil poached cod baffled me last year, this stuff just made me question my beliefs. Here’s the thing; Jonathan Gushue made me get it. This fish was melt in your mouth, perfectly salty and savoury, tangy, bursty, everything. This guy can bring it. The dish was so, so beautiful that I was afraid to eat it, afraid it wouldn’t taste like the thing I was staring at. I think this is what happens when a Newfoundland chef decides to take everything about traditional food and completely embrace it and own it. And just as a side note, Jonathan Gushue was interviewed by the Globe and Mail and he said that only one of the six cooking students he was working with at RRR would try his dish. The fact that I didn’t see five unconscious young people lying on the grass around his station is a testament to the fact that he must be an awfully nice guy. Can you imagine? I wonder if they went home after the food hike and had chicken nuggets and fries. Oooh, we still have so much work to do.
And look at Grant Van Gameren! Making chocolate blood pudding! Now there’s a brazen one. You should have seen Mom’s face, I almost had to kick her in the leg. Our cousin’s husband Philip was one of Grant’s sous chefs and scammed Mom a plate with just the white chocolate aerated mousse stuff it came with, but I couldn’t back down. I don’t think it’ll replace lava cakes in my life or anything, but this guy would have gotten mega brownie points from the judges on Iron Chef for originality. Heh heh, or blood pudding points. And I’m willing to bet there were a few people who might have been fooled into thinking it was real chocolate (Mom) if the rumours of a meat dessert hadn’t jumped the hike like wildfire.
Ahh, liquor control boards. Ruining fun since the dawn of time. They nixed the wine tastings on the hike this year…something to do with the crowd, too many people. This makes as much sense to me as Rona Ambrose having a job. And sort of just gets people to discreetly hide their own booze instead of sampling new wines and encouraging the purchase of new products. Exceptions for major tourist events? No? I would kind of get it if it was a bible camp hike and not a foodie hike…but anyways, let me put down this flask of Jim Beam and say that the RRR folks handled the problem beautifully, giving out a very generous amount of drink tickets for the weekend. And having a pit stop on the hike with your choice of Quidi Vidi iceberg beer or a cocktail with homemade blueberry puree. Well done, RRR. And hey, liquor board, can’t we all just get along?
Mom is scarred from making friends with the family farm animals as a child and then having to eat them for supper, so she opted out of the roast that night. I’m of the school that if you eat it, you should be able to look it in the eye instead of in the plastic wrap, but we took her drink tickets and sent her home. And it’s a good thing too, because I’m not sure she would have dug the pig head with the apple in its mouth and knife in its head. Hey pssst, wanna see a picture that’ll make a vegan turn whiter than Mitt Romney?
I’ve always felt weird about not owning a rolling pin, but watching Jeremy Charles use a wine bottle to roll dough for flatbread made me feel a bit more like a badass and less like a boozehound. His lamb kebab was the last dish I tried before hitting the meat wall later that night. I can’t think of a better way to hit a wall.
The roast was insane and the lines were long, but I was hellbent on getting a taste of everything. The line up towards the back of the park was a mishmash of people not really knowing if they were lining up for the beer can chicken or the barbecued pork, but the mood was pretty easy going thanks to the proximity to the beer tent. The chicken was definitely worth the wait, but Roary MacPherson gets the biggest, fattest shout out from me for the fast moving line of moose sliders with a side of Jigg’s dinner. Yes, on the side. Sunday dinner in my house may never be the same.
No doubt everyone will be rooting (and ranting and roaring) for more food adventures next fall. Another whole year til Christmas. I guess the one in December will have to do me for now.