Q&A with Jesse Vergen, Executive Chef, Saint John Ale House, St. John, N.B.

Where are your favourite places to eat?

Locally, I hit a Korean spot called BOAZ for Korean snacks. But I love going away on eating adventures. In the last years, some of my favourite places have been BUCA, Canoe and Bar Isabel in Toronto, Le Bremner and Maison Publique in Montreal, and Mallard Cottage in Newfoundland.

What is your favourite ingredient?

Right now it’s “Digby Chicks,” salted, smoked and dried herring filets that end up being a wicked substitute for anchovies. As we try to focus our menu more regionally, we have found that the chicks were not just a substitute but something that enhanced beyond what standard anchovies could.

Who were your biggest influences/inspirations for becoming a chef?

My biggest influence for becoming a chef would have probably been a high-school culinary class when the local college had a speaker come in to talk about pursuing a career in the hospitality field and how there was a big need for people in this industry. I loved to cook, so it seemed logical.

If you knew you were going to be exiled to a desert island, what three ingredients or food items would take with you?

My “Smoking Pig Butt Rub” will fix the seasoning for any creature I happen to roast over a beach fire. Some sort of acid like good vinegar, or citrus. (I always use an acid for seasoning plus it could be used for “cooking” some tasty sea creatures.) Oh, and beer – not only a great ingredient, but a must for being exiled on an island.

What do you think is the most overrated food trend right now?

I think a lot of people are missing the point of the “Nordic” food movement (a reinterpretation of traditional Scandinavian cuisine made popular by chefs such as René Redzepi in Copenhagen, Denmark). I believe the point of it should be more of an ultra-regional look at producing, processing, harvesting and cooking products. I think people are rushing to different regions for the next hot cuisine when the movement is more about celebrating and adapting to the world’s different regions and foods.

What do you think is the most underrated food trend?

I think we haven’t really seen the scope of Chinese cuisine come into the limelight on a world stage. It’s a country filled with regional cuisine, has an ancient Imperial cuisine dating back 1,000 years, and it’s a large country with many different regions, cultures and a vast variety of foods.

Is there any type of cuisine that you would like to experiment with?

I’ve been working with re-examining Acadian cuisine and modernizing it. New Brunswick has a rich heritage of Acadian culture. Growing up, my grandmother was very proud of her Acadian roots, and it’s something familiar to me. It’s rich and hearty worker fare, meant to supply vast amounts of energy to loggers, fishermen and farmers. We play around with the concepts, trying to modernize them, refining or just plain kicking up the flavour. There is not too much in the way of standard recipes in this cuisine as they were all passed down through families and many recipes within a small town could have multiple variations. Something as simple as a Fricot de poule (a chicken stew), could have many different styles within one small region in New Brunswick.

What are the essential ingredients for success in the foodservice industry today?

Teamwork, passion and keeping your finger on the pulse!

Which cooking technique or tool is a favourite of yours right now, and why?

I’m into traditional BBQ – the techniques, the coals, the wood smoke, the low heat. Any wood-fired cooking excites me, but the transformation that tough fatty cuts go through when you apply time, constant temperature and flavorful heat to them gets me going. My Southern Pride pit is our workhorse at the Smoking Pig BBQ – I want three more!

What is your favourite food combination right now?

I like setting off fattiness and rich dishes with pickled or fermented items.

Do you have any culinary guilty pleasures or food treats that you couldn’t live without?

My guilty pleasure would have to be chicken skin, roasted and seasoned with salt and pepper. Everyone loves the skin!

What are some of the most interesting or unique aspects of being a contestant on Top Chef Canada?

I think getting to work with the Top Chef Canada culinary team that puts the show together. They are the ones sourcing all the crazy and amazing ingredients, stacking the boxes, setting up the challenges, planning what cool tools are available in the GE Monogram kitchen. They are an amazing group of very talented chefs and they do it all from the shadows of the show. Viewers don’t see that when we run in and do that “quick fire” challenge, a lot of work and planning went into that challenge. In a way, it reflects on many aspects of the real foodservice industry.

What did the experience of being on Top Chef Canada mean to you as a chef, and how do you think it will affect your future career?

The biggest part of the experience was having to walk away from my day-to-day teams and kitchens and being cut off from them. It’s a weird feeling to not be able to be in contact with people you are working with on a daily basis, hoping that the systems, the training, the people you have put in place will hold together during the curve balls that get thrown at them. Will they put out the fires, or will they create them? Will your vision be upheld or will it be “when the cats away the mice play?” For me, the experience was super positive – where our team members rose to the challenges, grew in their leadership, and grew as a team. I returned to see my team stronger then when I left.

What advice would you have for aspiring new chefs as they enter the industry?

“Wherever you go, there you are.” Realize that when you move though your career you may have awesome experiences and horrible experiences, but if you focus on learning from each of those experiences and take something away from them you’ll be a better person. Some people have a tendency to let negative experiences be just that, when a lot of times those are the ones that we will develop the most from.

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