“This is fucking cold, mate!” Mark Best exclaimed in his thick Sydney accent as his feet touched the tarmac. The Australian chef was right. Although it was almost May, it felt like we’d landed somewhere on a crisp winter morning. We were in Newfoundland, for the conclusive part of a journey through Canada that had taken us from Toronto via Montreal to the easternmost tip of the North-American continent. The final destination was Raymonds, a restaurant located in St. John’s and run by Canadian chefs Jeremy Charles and Jeremy Bonia, where Mark Best eventually was going to cook a dinner. “Ah, the Jeremies!” our taxi driver exclaimed as we left the airport. “Everybody knows them here. Good boys.”
“This is fucking cold, mate!”
Fast-forward three days and I’m standing next to Jeremy Charles on a fishing dock off Newfoundland’s north-eastern shore, marvelling at how Charles is the exact person you’d expect to find if you looked up the word “Canadian” in an encyclopaedia. His big beard, friendly eyes, and thick, woollen sweaters were bigger than reality. I realized I hadn’t seen the man wear a jacket all week and wondered if he even owned one. “Do you also want some lobsters?” a fisherman asked Charles as he held up a pristine specimen of Newfoundland’s catch. Charles looked at me and I nodded back with a schoolboy’s grin. Of-bloody-course we wanted some lobsters. My stomach imagined they would go very well with the 50lbs of giant snow crab sitting in the huge ice-bucket next to us.
We lifted our precious seafood haul on to the back of Charles’ giant pickup truck and backed up onto the road. Our destination was Old Perlican, the birthplace of Charles’ grandmother and a remote little fishing village found on the northwestern tip of the Newfoundland peninsula. Here, we would experience Jeremy’s crab-boil grand finale – a favoured past-time of the region in which friends gather on the beach to boil exorbitant amounts of fresh crab, sometimes even lobsters. “You’ll love it” Charles said to Mark and myself as we passed through the area’s arctic wilderness, watching the occasional iceberg float past on the ocean. We didn’t doubt him for a second.
“Charles is the exact person you’d expect to find if you looked up the word “Canadian” in an encyclopaedia”
“Crab is something we just started fishing a few years ago” he explained, from behind the wheel. “When Canadians hear “Newfoundland”, all they think of is cod fish and St. John’s was one of the major ports from which our cod-fishing fleets used to set sail.” As the journey progressed he told us about how, year after year, decade after decade, these huge fleets fished the (then) seemingly abundant stocks of Atlantic cod directly off the region’s coastline. “You must understand the role cod played in our community” he emphasized, “every single aspect of our society was centred around it – cod was both what people ate and what they made their living from.”
The abundance, however, turned out to be finite and with the onset of modern fishing techniques, as well as the introduction of trawling in the 1980’s, the north Atlantic fish stocks took a severe hit. In July 1992, the Canadian government took to drastic measures and banned cod fishing altogether, annihilating an entire industry overnight with a cod moratorium that meant the community’s bread and butter income was now illegal. The decision didn’t just mean the loss of 100,000 jobs, it also ended a way of life that the region had depended on for over five centuries.
The moratorium’s job losses triggered a mass population exodus out of St. John’s and its neighbouring communities. Amongst those who left was a young Charles, a true Newfie (a local name for people from the area) and someone who, as a kid, had earned his pocket money on the docks of St. John’s selling cod tongues. As an aspiring chef he didn’t see any point in sticking around though and at the age of 20 he ended up in culinary school in Montreal. There, he spent a few formative years working with celebrated chefs such as Claude Pelletier, but Charles’ biggest cooking inspiration was always his childhood and the land he grew up in. Rich in experience, and aware of his homeland’s fertile terroir with its abundance of seafood and game, he concluded that it would be the basis of an interesting restaurant experience. After five years spent co-founding the award-winning Atlantic restaurant and meeting future business partner Jeremy Bonia –an acclaimed sommelier– the two of them opened Raymond’s inside an ancient building on St John’s main street, named after both Bonia’s father and Charles’ grandfather.
“This is it, gentlemen” Charles said, as he pointed myself and Mark towards a small collection of colourful but weathered, wooden houses. “But first, we have to get some firewood.” Moments later we were picking driftwood off the beach and throwing it on to the back of the truck before lighting a bonfire on his grandmother’s lawn located about a hundred meters from the sea, all whilst Charles fired up a gas burner with a massive cooking pot full of seawater. “Chef, you’re in charge of the meat” Charles said to Mark as he threw him a couple of huge, dry-aged steaks which Best obligingly grilled to sizzling perfection on the embers of the driftwood fire. Eventually Charles started pulling out red and plump looking crustaceans from his steaming pot, dishing them out to many hungry disciples spread across his grandmother’s lawn. And so we lay there, picking the juiciest lobster and snow crab directly out of their shells with the occasional alternating slice of char grilled steak while we drank Chassagne-Montrachet out of water glasses. The only noise came from the fire and the bubbling pot.
The image of a smiling Jeremy Charles fishing giant crabs and lobsters out of a boiling pot on his grandmother’s lawn is a powerful visual enforcement of a man at peace in his own personal terroir. He’s truly at one with Newfoundland, and it’s hard not to be enraptured by his utterly genuine and humble expression of love. Later that day, as our plane took off from St. John’s and I watched the rocky outliers of the Newfoundland landscape disappear under a layer of clouds, I felt utter contentment at having witnessed this connection. It was the realest thing I’ve seen in years.