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 Katie Hayes who celebrates the value of homegrown food at Bonavista Social Club in Upper Amherst Cove, Newfoundland.
Katie Hayes doesn’t have fond memories of picking rocks while growing up on her family’s property in Upper Amherst Cove on Newfoundland’s Bonavista Peninsula.
The task usually came on the heels of an argument with her two brothers, and picking rocks was her parents’ way of getting cooler heads to prevail.
For what she lacks in love for the job, Hayes makes up for with the perspective that comes from 21 years of clearing stones on The Rock to make way for the gardens that would feed her family.
The chef-owner of the Bonavista Social Club — a north Atlantic nod to Havana’s Buena Vista Social Club — knows the value of a vegetable, and how much work goes into coaxing life from the soil.
“(Picking rocks) was not the most fun as a child but now it’s paying off,” Hayes, 31, said. “It opens people’s eyes that this is what goes into growing your own food and how to do it. It puts a value on the raw product. People ask why is it so much for a pizza but it makes me confident about what I charge.”
It’s knowledge served up most often as visitors wait for a table at the Bonavista Social Club, just a four-hour drive from St. John’s. Hayes encourages diners to walk through those very gardens she cleared as a child to see what might soon be on their plate.
It’s also an exercise in shattering stereotypes for those not from these parts: more than just the holy trinity of vegetables commonplace to Newfoundland cuisine — potatoes, turnip and carrots — grows here.
Hayes’s staff of gardeners tease leeks, tomatoes and the chef’s favourites, asparagus and garlic, from the soil. Lettuce thrives in Bonavista Social Club beds for four months of the year, too. Whatever is ripe at a given moment dictates what will be on the restaurant’s menu that day.
“There is nothing better than picking lettuce in the morning and then having it on a plate for lunch,” Hayes said. “People say, ‘Oh, I thought you only grew root vegetables in Newfoundland. Your growing season is so short. A lot of things can be grown here. There’s also a lot more seafood than cod and a lot of other ways to cook it (than with scruncheons).”
The latter is a skill she honed working at a seafood restaurant called Nosh in Dalkey, Ireland, and as a chef at Raymond’s in St. John’s after she graduated from the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown, PEI.
Hayes wasn’t set on being a chef when she graduated high school. She went to art school instead, which turns out to be more connected to helming a kitchen than one might think.
“I really did enjoy that and the whole design part of that. It helped me through culinary school,” she explained.
Still, Hayes realized she wasn’t going to be an artist by the time she graduated, so she took a chance on another type of art instead — culinary arts. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to trade one palate for the other, either.
Hayes had always dabbled in hospitality, doing jobs as a dishwasher, cleaning at a B&B, and eventually serving in a restaurant.
“I realized quickly what I wanted to do but I also realized I didn’t want to be front of house forever,” she recalled.
Her two years in Charlottetown were an adjustment, given it was her first time away from home. Winters were colder, for one, so Hayes whiled away the months playing hockey and taking advantage of every opportunity cooking school provided. She spent weekends working with chefs, lapping up the lessons they offered, and training for culinary competitions that enabled her to travel.
When she graduated, she opted for a stint in Ireland because it was easy to get a work visa. She put in her time at Nosh and helped a friend open another restaurant.
Hayes also met her husband, Shane, who works front of house at the six-year-old Bonavista Social Club, helps with the gardening, and is in charge of marketing and the books.
“I really loved it in Ireland. The seafood — it’s not really known for food, but I loved it,” Hayes said.
There’s a hint of irony that the young chef left Atlantic Canada to develop her kitchen technique with fish, particularly when one considers she grew up with a view to Bonavista Bay. But her family, transplants from Ontario, aimed for self-sufficiency by raising their own animals. Land dwellers like goat figured prominently into their diet.
Hayes and her brothers had flings with vegetarianism when they clued into what — or whom — they were having for dinner as teenagers.
“We named them all these lovely names and then realized little Naughty is in the freezer. I didn’t want to eat my pets,” she recalled in her unmistakeable Newfoundland lilt.
Eventually, she had a change of perspective, much like what resulted from picking rocks. And much like the effects of hunting and removing stones from the soil, eating the animals she raised would inform her approach to food procurement as a chef.
Hayes continues to tend her own animals today, putting them on the menu at the restaurant and using them to feed her own family now. She knows the slaughterhouse they go to, and she honours their life by not letting any part of the goats, cows and lambs she raises go to waste.
“I went from not wanting to eat my pets to only wanting them because I wanted to know where my food came from,” Hayes said. “I do all the butchering. I can’t kill. I can’t kill a moose. At most I can catch a fish but I will do the butchering. We’re respecting the animal. We’re giving them a good life and slaughtering them very ethically.”
Visitors get to see just how good a life it is as they sit on the ocean-view deck at Bonavista Social Club and really take in where they are while eating pizza, or a moose burger with partridgeberry ketchup — named one of the best burgers in Canada by Reader’s Digest.
“It’s pretty unique. It’s a beautiful spot. It’s right on the ocean and there are icebergs, whales and bald eagles. It’s magical when the sun goes down and you see the whales. The gardens are in front of you. The sheep are there, too. It’s quiet, other than the sound of the sheep.”
It all sounds idyllic but there are days even someone so committed to eating this way questions what she’s doing.
“It definitely is a lot of work. The Sysco truck comes here, so we can get vegetables and it’s definitely not cheaper growing your own,” Hayes said, noting her staff of four gardeners. “But I realized the value of really good food in school. The big thing is knowing where your food comes from and you can feel confident serving good food. That’s a big part of it for me, the confidence of knowing where it started. And that helps me, knowing how good the food is that I’m working with.”
The restaurant is housed in the former furniture store built and operated by Hayes’s father Mike Paterson. Diners get to watch their dinner come together inside. A wood-fired bread oven, fuelled by local silver and white birch is given prominence. Crusty rolls, bagels and sourdough loaves are turned out from the oven constructed using reclaimed brick from buildings in St. John’s.
An open kitchen gives a view to all that’s involved in baked fresh cod and partridgeberry bread pudding. Diners get to see the joy of Hayes and her team working together, the excitement of coming up with ideas and being a team, she explained.
Hayes’s mastery behind the burner has made Bonavista Social Club a destination that’s spurred other new businesses in this former fishing town. It also landed the eatery on the 2012 list of Canada’s best restaurants published by toprestaurantsincanada.com.
All that activity fills the void of no WiFi signal in Upper Amerhest Cove. Heck, if it’s cloudy, even an Internet connection is hard to come by.
Hayes doesn’t mind the tentative relationship with technology, although it might limit the Bonavista Social Club’s appearances on Instagram. It just adds to the ambience and her restaurant’s success.
“We just remind people to take a deep breath and enjoy what we have to offer. It’s hoping people walk away having relaxed a bit,” she said. “It is upsetting for some people. They don’t like it but then they put their phones down and enjoy it.”
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 Grub by Eating Niagara. You can also listen to her newly launched food podcast, Grub