As part of the Canada 150 celebrations happening this year, we’ll be exploring Canadian food from coast to coast all year long. In our Canada’s Chefs series, Tiffany Mayer will be profiling Canadian Chefs from every province embracing Canadian cuisine. This month she interviews Chef Chris Aerni who takes his cues from nature in creating daily menus at St. Andrews-by-the-Sea’s Rossmount Inn in New Brunswick.
Chris Aerni has a hard and fast rule by which he abides when dining out: if he sees a laminated menu, he’s leaving.
“If you have a laminated menu, you are lying,” Aerni asserted.
Plastic-covered bills of fare are a giveaway to the Swiss-born, New Brunsiwck-based chef that a restaurant isn’t using local ingredients. Those in the kitchen aren’t even likely to be all that mindful of the seasons, be they the four dictated by the calendar or those determined by the natural rhythms of plant and animal life offered by New Brunswick’s terra firma and the sea surrounding it.
“I’ve probably made restaurateurs mad here because I say, ‘If I walk into a seafood restaurant with a laminated menu, I walk right out again because they’re lying to me,’ ” Aerni said with the soft lilt of a Bernese German accent. “You have to go with the seasons or you can’t have good food.”
Aerni is used to taking his cues from nature when making menus that change by the day at Rossmount Inn, the 18-room hotel and restaurant he owns and operates with his wife Graziella in the picture-postcard burg of St. Andrews-by-the-Sea.
Living in a tourist town of just 1,800 people on the edge of Passamaquoddy Bay means the world isn’t at Aerni’s fingertips when it comes to sourcing ingredients. And he’s entirely fine with that.
After all, he has 87 acres of forest and certified organic gardens surrounding the 1960s-era inn to provide for him. He takes his creative cues in the kitchen from his gardener, or from the wild mushrooms, fiddleheads, high bush cranberry and cattails he finds in the woods on his property beneath Chamcook Mountain.
Aerni’s Instagram feed is a virtual smorgasbord of stunning dishes epitomizing haute Maritime cookery that he creates in the Rossmount Inn kitchen: oysters on sugar kelp, Bay of Fundy poutine bogged down with fresh lobster, and unadulterated herring. They’re candid shots taken on the fly before the plate is presented to a very lucky guest.
But scroll back a little further into the archives and there’s one shot that truly captures Aerni and his approach to food.
It’s the one where he’s traded his chef’s whites for jeans and a fishing vest. Aerni is standing on a stony shoreline, fishing rod in one hand, the other hoisting a cord heavy with a catch of mackerel. A handful of fish dangle from the end of the line, their inky bodies catching the light of a waning sun. And there’s Aerni, slightly sunburned and with a matter-of-fact look on his face that seems to say, “This is how it’s done.”
His haul wouldn’t become fodder for watering hole stories rife with hyperbole and one-upmanship about catching the big ones. Instead, those fish were destined to be on the Rossmount Inn menu, perhaps even that evening.
They’re a symbol of how far Aerni will go to bring his diners the best in truly regional, seasonal New Brunswick cuisine. Rather than wait for a restaurant supply truck to bring him ingredients from far-flung places that taste nothing of the Maritime province and St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, Aerni will seek out what he needs to create a memorable meal instead.
Being so dependent on the seasons and having to change his menu every day is a strength, he said. Indeed, the three-star rating Rossmount Inn has held since 2010 in Where to Eat in Canada confirms it. It’s the only three-star venue in New Brunswick, and one of two in all the Maritimes.
Aerni spends most of his time sourcing ingredients when he isn’t behind the burner. That could foraging in the woods, heading to a nearby farm, or working his magic with the security guard at the gate of the local herring packing plant — the only place Aerni can buy the fish fresh before it all gets canned and exported.
“We’re not Toronto. We don’t have everything at our fingertips,” he explained. “If we wanted to have a restaurant like in Toronto, we’d have no chance. Yesterday there was no haddock available. Even though it’s a regular menu item and people expect it, haddock wasn’t available. I could have used frozen from anywhere but I didn’t. It’s discipline, really.”
He started cultivating such unyielding principles in the kitchen as young boy growing up in Bern, Switzerland.
Aerni recalled his mother being a bit of trailblazer with her organic garden that she planted some 60 years ago “when people just smiled at her … and might have been more into fertilizer.” He and his family picked wild mushrooms and berries together. Aerni also spent summers pitching hay on his grandparents’ farm. Milk came direct from the animal, not a tetra pack.
When his mother left him with his grandparents in the city, Aerni would disappear to his aunt’s main floor apartment in the house and have lunch there. She was a better cook than his grandmother, he said matter of factly. She’d let him make the salad dressing, and really, that’s how it all started for the budding chef. At 11, he made the decision he’d cook for a living.
“Food was never in question at home, I think. We always had plenty of food. What was considered good food was important,” Aerni said. “I knew how to preserve stuff. I had a rich education growing up where I grew up.”
He furthered that education by travelling as a young culinarian. Chefs don’t have the luxury of making a lot of money, he noted, but they do have the good fortune of being able to roam from kitchen to kitchen around the world honing their skills.
Aerni spent time in Australia before being beckoned to Canada where he spent 15 years working for Mövenpick, operating the brasserie and fish market in Yorkville and eventually overseeing the Swiss chain’s popular Marché eateries. There, ingredients were flown in from all points on the globe.
Aerni loved big city life but he also fell hard for the rest of Canada. He’d find respite from the grind in Toronto at a friend’s cottage in the Muskoka region. He was even encouraged to open his own restaurant there — a consideration until he went to the grocery store and found little more than a bag of shrivelled carrots.
“I said, ‘I can’t. What am I going to cook? I can’t have a truck coming from Toronto with toilet paper and tomatoes on the side that have already travelled three times around the world to get to me.’ I needed to be able to identify myself with what was on the menu.”
So he and Graziella, who had a background in hotel management, pinpointed places on a map that they thought might be good candidates for a hotel/restaurant venture. They searched three years before finding Rossmount Inn, languishing under previous ownership.
The next 17 years brought with them a great deal of rebuilding — the physical space and its reputation. But Aerni was unfazed as a self-professed optimist. He and Graziella turned it from a place that could only be sustained six months a year to one that hums with business for nine months at a time.
Today, Rossmount Inn is a B&B for some, a small resort for others, but for everyone, “it’s all about the food,” he said.
“It’s an experience for people to come out of cities and stroll through the garden, talk to the gardener. It’s always about the food, always about the experience.”
And doing it in a tiny speck of a place on the map instead of a booming metropolis? It’s a “chef’s dream” to be at the mercy of whatever product shows up at the kitchen door from local farmers, fishers, his garden and his forest, Aerni said.
“I feel very privileged making a living in the country and not having to do it in the big city.”
- Canada’s Chefs: Matthias Fong of River Café
- Canada’s Chefs: Chef Ilona Daniel of PEI
- Canada’s Chefs: Dana and Cameron of Joy Road Catering
Canada’s Chefs is written by Tiffany Mayer, a freelance journalist and author of Niagara Food: A Flavourful History of the Peninsula’s Bounty (History Press, 2014). She blogs about food and farming at eatingniagara.com. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub.