Island chefs think outside breadbox

Shane Ross
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PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND - The first few deals went down out back at the Merchantman Pub in late ’90s. They tried it once, on their fish maybe, or hamburger, and were hooked. They kept coming back. They needed a fix.

The chef would hand him the baggie. The man would open it, hold it to his nose, smile, and nod. Ahh, the good stuff.

“It was almost like a weed deal,” chef Guy LeClair joked.

Demand was so great for LeClair’s blend of herbs, spices and other ingredients that he decided to package and market it professionally. The dime bags were replaced by snazzy, heat-sealed pouches. More flavours were added, although the most popular remains the Blackened Cajun Blend.

By June, he expects to have his products — Chef Guy’s Blendz — in more than a dozen local stores.

It’s just one of many examples of Island chefs who are thinking outside the bread box. They are no longer simply cooking your supper, hidden behind the swinging doors of the kitchen.

“With the economy the way it is these days, chef roles are constantly evolving and taking on more responsibility,” said LeClair, who estimates chefs on P.E.I. typically earn in the $40K to $60K range.

“Chefs take on many roles such as budget managers, customer service managers, purchasers and negotiators. We are office managers and even play a human resource role.”

Some, like chef Michael Smith, have become an international media celebrity with his books and TV shows.

Some are turning the meal into a tourist attraction. Chef Ross Munro has launched what he calls a “culinary adventure,” where clients can see where their seafood is caught, beef is raised or vegetables grown. He then helps them create a meal from their harvested bounty.

Chef Jeff McCourt is creating a “culinary mecca” on his farm in New Glasgow. Visitors can sample cheese as they see how it is made. Everything grown on the site — vegetables, apples and even pigs — are offered on the café’s menu.

And Marc Brunet, at his Olde Towne Orchard, takes the apple-picking experience to new heights.

Others, such as chef Ilona Daniel, have used social media to develop their culinary brand. She said she enjoys engaging friends and clients on Twitter who “who aren’t sure how to prepare something, which oil to use, or how to ripen an avocado.”

Daniel is the executive chef for the lieutenant-governor, but also teaches cooking classes at the Superstore and writes a food column for G! Magazine. She has been filmed for TV shows and, if she chooses, has the passion and personality to follow Smith into world of media chef celebrityhood.

Daniel is excited to be part of the chef evolution.

“To be a chef today has limitless directions,” she said. “We will always need to eat, and how we as chefs fill that need is what keeps us captivated and ever inspired.”

LeClair, meanwhile, after decades of working at restaurants such as The Merchantman, Dundee Arms and the Pilot House, recently moved to the newly created position of hospitality manager for Northumberland Ferries. He will oversee everything related to customer service, including the menu development.

But that doesn’t mean he’s out of the kitchen for good. He’ll continue to develop the Blendz business, and his wife has informed him he’ll be keeping his skills sharp at home.

“You are never truly out of the game,” he said. “A chef never stops creating or having new ideas.”

Organizations: The Merchantman

Geographic location: New Glasgow

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