Derrick Hoare has lived on Canada’s Prince Edward Island for 12 years and his love for it runs so deep that when he retired five years ago, he knew there was nowhere else he’d rather be. “I’m an islander by choice. I chose to live here because there’s a sense of community, a collective of folks putting together great things,” he said.
Derrick is one of those people doing “great things”. In May this year, he opened The Table, a culinary studio showcasing the island’s bountiful produce.
Derrick spent 35 years as a health care executive but he is also a trained chef, and his passion for fresh, local ingredients is inspiring. He particularly loves the spirit of co-operation and genuine friendship that exists between producers on the island.
“It’s not a competition between culinary folks, it’s a collaboration. Everybody helps everybody, no matter what,” he said.
The setting for The Table is a quaint wooden church in New London, a pretty rural community 40 kilometres from Charlottetown, capital of Prince Edward Island (PEI). The 1952 church has been beautifully converted with a modern kitchen opening to a graciously furnished dining space.
When Derrick bought the property in January this year, he built on the foundation laid by Annie Leroux, who established Annie’s Table in 2012. He has continued with Annie’s philosophy of gathering people together in the kitchen and around the dining table to experience fine food, community and laughter.
Every dish that goes onto the menu at The Table is built around foods that are grown and harvested on PEI, from the land and the sea. The cooking classes, hands-on experiences, events and evening dining that take place at The Table bring local history, food and culture together.
“It’s a great concept,” said Derrick. “It gives us a chance to share with folks the island culture and island life. To watch people’s pleasure, to see them participating in the class, is very rewarding. … The joy in their face when they see George opening an oyster is wonderful.”
George is George Dowdle, who together with his wife Marlene and daughter Britteny runs Green Gables Oysters, just up the road. George has been oyster farming for 38 years and his oysters can be found in restaurants around the world. When the oysters are close to being ready for harvest, he brings them from his 10 sites in the island’s pristine waters and puts them in baskets over a natural artesian spring under the sea.
They are left there for about a month during which time they develop a slightly sweet, melon-like flavour. George also produces snow crabs, mussels, clams and eels, and he welcomes visitors popping in to see him.
“He’s just a good neighbour,” said Derrick, who also finds a good neighbour in Al Picketts at Kensington, about five minutes away. Al’s black garlic, produced under the Eureka Garlic label, is fermented over about 30 days till it caramelises and reaches the consistency of a paste.
Al is one of only a handful of Canadian garlic producers making black garlic. According to Derrick’s head chef, Roark MacKinnon, Al “could be an exceptionally rich man but he loves what he does.”
As we speak, 21-year-old apprentice Michael Bradley is kneading bread with shavings of the black garlic and walnuts. I help him to braid the bread as he explains what he loves about the island. “It’s the local connections between everyone, for example, George with his oysters and Al with his garlic. It’s all local, fresh and full of flavour.”
His sentiments are echoed by Roark, who at 24 is wise beyond his years, knowing much about the science behind food and cooking, and turning out spectacular dishes highlighting the local produce. Roark comes from a family of farmers and fishermen on the island, and worked on yachts for a few years before deciding he wanted to pursue a career as a chef.
Roark attended the Culinary Institute of Canada from 2013 to 2015, but has always cooked. “It’s a big part of my life. Being in the garden as a kid was a huge thing. I turned culinary into my life.”
With fine, slender hands, he makes a flour well to which he adds eggs and a little oil and cream. He works it delicately into pasta, gradually incorporating all the flour and then adding some crushed black garlic. He cuts the pasta into strips and before long is serving me black garlic fettuccine with lobster and curry sauce.
Lobster is a speciality on the island, as are mussels, and I’m privileged that the pasta dish has been preceeded by a huge bowl of blue mussels sourced the same morning from PEI Aqua Farm just down the road. Roark has cooked them in some roasted butternut squash oil, butter-infused olive oil and canola oil, to which he has added carrots, onions, shallots, celery and an array of spices including turmeric, paprika, cumin and coriander.
Derrick gauges how much his guests want to participate in the cooking – some like to sit back and watch the chefs at work, but most want to be hands-on, working side by side with the chefs, absorbing as much knowledge as they can.
“We have a lot of fun together,” said Roark. “It’s hard not to have fun in this environment.”
What he loves most about the island is its spirit of community. In times gone by, people had to trade food and get on with their neighbours in order to survive the harsh winters, and that co-operation continues to permeate the island today.
People would get through the winter with root vegetables that kept for months, freezing berries and preserving food, even burying food outside. Roark draws on the knowledge of family cooks who came before him. His grandmother always stored her apples with potatoes to prolong their shelf life.
PEI accounts for a substantial portion of Canada’s potato production. The island’s potatoes are legendary and there is even a potato museum in the town of O’Leary. About 12 varieties grow on the island but the waxy Yukon Gold is the chefs’ choice. “It’s the iron (on the island) that makes the potatoes so good and flavoursome,” said Roark. “It’s good for beets as well.”
Both beetroot and black garlic star in an impressive finale to my meal at The Table. Chocolate Beetroot Cake in the shape of a maple leaf is an unusual and inspired creation, complete with strawberry glaze and dustings of rosemary and black garlic.
Derrick serves what he calls his “New London version” of Anne of Green Gables’ raspberry cordial, a refreshing drink made with fresh raspberries that have been marinated overnight with sugar, water, honey and lemon zest. The drink is a nod to Lucy Maud Montgomery’s fictional heroine, whose story has put Prince Edward Island on the tourism map.
One of The Table’s most popular classes, especially with Japanese visitors, is the Taste of the Past class, where all the dishes featured are from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s cookbook.
One of the Maritime Provinces along with Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, PEI yields some of Canada’s finest produce and its cuisine has been shaped by the Scottish, English, Irish and French who settled there. Food and tourism go hand in hand as the island’s main industries.
“The food industry is devoted to keeping the most amazing bounty here on the island,” said Roark. “I could write a book about what PEI means to me. There’s an energy here unlike anywhere I’ve been in the world. I love to travel and I love to experience food all around the world but the food I like to cook is right here on Prince Edward Island.”
Every Monday to Thursday evening, The Table offers a family-style fine dining experience for up to 24 diners. Derrick says the experience is “so different and eclectic” compared to most restaurant experiences.
“Hopefully they (guests) have half as much fun as we have doing it,” he said. “People say, ‘Thanks for treating us like family’, and that for us is one of the nicest compliments. It’s fun sharing Prince Edward Island with them.”
If you go
The Table Culinary Studio
4295 Grahams Road, Route 8
Prince Edward Island
Tel: 902 886 2025