Q&A with Emily Wells: “It’s about working with what you got”

Interview by Gregory Furgala

Five years ago, Emily Wells made for New Glasgow, a hamlet on the northern coast of Prince Edward Island. Having built a career in Ottawa and Charlottetown, Wells wanted her own restaurant, and she found it at the Mill in New Glasgow, a community hall built in 1896 that spent the latter half of the 20th century earning its current namesake as a mill.

Since taking over, Wells has been recognized by the Matador Network, an online travel magazine, as one of Canada’s best chefs and won a Prince Edward Island Tourism Taste our Island award for her creative, classic use of PEI’s local fare — skills picked up from her mother, as part of Culinary Institute of Canada’s first graduating class and a childhood spent in Europe and on the island. But while business is brisk during spring, summer and autumn, PEI’s relentless winter prompted Wells to shut her doors for the season. Spring is nearly upon the island, though, and Wells has used the cold, quiet months to plan for 2019’s hot-weather rush.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CRFN: Tell me about your cooking background.

EW: I moved to PEI in 1974 when I was 11. My mother learned to cook really well in Europe in the ’60s and ’70s — that’s my connection to European cooking. Then I went to the Canadian Culinary Institute for its first two first years, from 1983 to 1985, and I’ve been cooking ever since. It’s been a long run. I’ve been at it for 35 years, horrifyingly enough.

CRFN: How would you describe your approach to cooking?

EW: I think it’s about working with what you got. I think the classic methods are so important, but you have to allow for things to develop their flavour. I like to be able to be able to look at what I have available, and adapt a recipe from it. I think, in so many ways, that’s what people in many parts of the world have to do, so they don’t always have the benefit of going to a massive grocery store and having the pick of everything they want. That’s not to say I don’t certainly take advantage of having the pick of what I want.

CRFN: Why did you decide to buy your own place and open your own restaurant?

EW: Sometimes I wonder! I just reached the point where I wanted to be able to do what I believed in. I had a lot of freedom at the Dunes Cafe. It’s an established place, and we helped to put it on the map. But at some point I just needed to have my own independence, and I reached an age — I was in my early 50s — and wanted to give it a whirl, and I knew if I left it any longer, it’d be too late.

I wanted to be autonomous. And I was also hoping — I must admit this has been a learning curve for me — that I could make it a year round business, and that has been a struggle because PEI is so seasonal. I’ve kind of accepted that it’s very hard in many parts of rural Canada to keep restaurants open in the off season. It’s not just PEI and not just the Maritimes, but it’s in many places, so I think we have to adapt.

CRFN: Why did you decide to run a restaurant in a rural area?

EW: A big part of it was, it was in a price point that I could purchase. I like the building; I like the size of the building. It’s three storeys. I have a large prep kitchen in the basement, and there’s room to expand. Even in Charlottetown, which isn’t too expensive, I would’ve only been able to rent a small space. I wanted to buy something, and I didn’t just want to be a 40-seat restaurant. I wanted to look at something in a bigger picture. I did attempt a small space in downtown Charlottetown, but even though it’s a city, it’s still a tough go in the winter, and that’s true of many places in Canada.

CRFN: Operating seasonally, closed for the winter, open for the summer — what kind of advantages and drawbacks does that offer?

EW: The advantage, certainly, is that for the bulk of that season, the height of that season, you’re buying local lettuce, local tomatoes, the whole thing. That’s a huge chunk of it — it’s seafood season in PEI. That’s wonderful. That chunk of your season, if you can master it, if the season is good, is a big money maker. Now I realize, looking back, this time last year I was struggling. I was still open, there’d be a snow storm and I’d have to decide if I was going to close, or how many staff I’d have on, or how much food I should buy. That’s a drag with restaurants — food is perishable. I’d still rather be open in the winter, but I’m prepared to accept that probably January, February, March are not great months to be open.

The drawback is a subject close to my heart. So many cooks in PEI and restaurants in PEI is not being able to work year-round. The restaurant industry is really struggling to staff the businesses in the summer because they have such a short season. There are restaurants that open the first of June and they’re closed by the end of September. That’s an incredible short season, and some of them even close at the end of August. How do you find a chef, first of all, who’s prepared to run a restaurant and work for that short a period of time? It’s tough, you know?

CRFN: Why did you decide to get into offering live music?

EW: We have a great space on the third floor that we call the loft, and it’s kind of gradually developing into a space to hear live music. It’s another aspect of drawing people in. I do like the fact that there’s some really great local entertainment out there, and I’d like to see more local people coming in.

In some respects, it’s about trying to recreate that concept of a tavern or pub that used to exist in these smaller communities, but sort of died off in the last 20, 25 years. All these little places that used to be in existence, they way you still see them in parts of Britain, there’s local pubs, somewhere to drop in for something to drink and a cheap bite to eat. I still like to think we could redevelop that concept which did use to exist here. I know when I was growing up here in the 70s and 80s, there were still a lot of little towns that had a restaurant or restaurants. There’d be a Saturday night dance at the community centre down the road where people would gather. A lot of that kind of disappeared.

CRFN: You’ve also dealt with a few curveballs, like when someone crashed their car into the restaurant.

EW: Yes! Some poor young man, on a Sunday afternoon in December, who I gather had too much to drink. I was in the basement prepping for a Christmas party and was the only one there. Somebody called me, and asked, “‘Em! Are you there?’ And I said yes, and she said, “Some guy just drove into the front porch of the building!”

I heard some muffled sound, but I was way in the basement of the building, had music on, and the convection oven on, and I thought it was just ice sliding off of the roof or something! So I go upstairs — and our building is right across the street from the New Glasgow fire hall, so it was perfect — and I’m covered in flour because I was making chicken pot pies or something, and there’s two fire trucks and they’re taking care of this kid. It was all settled with insurance but it was quite a sight.

CRFN: Heading into 2019, what can people expect?

EW: I feel really good about it. I think there’s a lot of truth in the fact that it takes four to five years to get yourself into some sort of groove, and get your footing, and sort out your financial mistakes. So I feel really good about this coming up. We’re starting to put together some music for the loft and I’ve got some ideas swirling around my head for the menu. I’ve got a couple of new staff, and I’ve got some great staff that are coming back.

PEI’s economy is so seasonal, given its tourism, fishing and farming. Lobster season starts the first of May, and it just sort of goes from there, and everyone gets caught up in this crazy whirlwind of activity. It goes from one extreme to another, and it’s true in the restaurant part of it, and hospitality, accommodation, fishing, farming. I think we’ll have a good year.

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