From Aquaculture to Kitchen Culture

Chef Stephen Hunter shares his journey through some of PEI’s popular food destinations

What got you into cooking?

I travelled, tasting cuisines from different countries. Then I found myself in Vancouver with $120 in my pocket. So I got a job in my field, aquaculture (salmon farms). I wanted to enjoy all of the flavours I had tried, and couldn’t afford to go to the restaurants in Vancouver. I started cooking because I wanted to eat restaurant food, basically. And I used the 4 blocks around Granville Island Market for inspiration.

Then I moved to PEI and started training at the Culinary Institute.

How long have you been an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Canada?

For 5 years. I teach the à la carte practical program. I’m the Chef Instructor for evening dining at the Lucy Maud Dining Room.

Where were you before instructing at the Culinary?

I was the first chef at the Merchantman [Queen St., Charlottetown], at Piece A Cake [formerly of Grafton St., Charlottetown], the PEI Preserve Company [New Glasgow] as the evening chef.

I opened and ran Sandfire Enterprises, brokering local, organic market garden produce to Island chefs and kitchens for two years. I brought some game and specialty meats, too.

Then the Victoria Village Inn became available, and I bought it in 2001. Mostly for the 30-seat restaurant, less about the rooms. I sold it in 2016 and now I’m exclusively at Holland College.

What’s it like to instruct?

Fun. I learn from my students. Because I teach an all hands-on course, it’s like training a kitchen crew every so many weeks. As a chef, you’re always training new employees, so it’s a natural transition to a school setting. I enjoy seeing my students hired to chef positions all over Canada.

It’s very rewarding.

What is the weirdest ingredient you’ve ever cooked with?

Sea cucumber. You split the cucumber and fillet the strips of meat. We were dredging it in seasoned flour and quickly pan-frying it. It’s almost like calamari, a bit more delicate, mild. Not as sweet as a scallop, but in that range.

You were recently in China teaching. What was that experience like?

I was teaching restaurant management and marketing, food and beverage cost control. The Chinese restaurant culture is very established. They’re interested in learning how to cater to western-style tourists.

Chinese restaurants are very different. Pacing is so fast, when they’re taking your order they’re texting it to the kitchen who’ll start sending food out (starting with cold preparations) within a few minutes. Also, socially it’s very different to western restaurants because most dining is family-style, and in private rooms. In a 200 seat restaurant, maybe 140 are private dining and only 60 are open dining like westerners are used to.

Also, when the food’s gone, you’re gone. People don’t linger over a meal the way we do here.

What’s the kitchen culture like inside the Culinary Institute’s Lucy Maud Dining Room?

I get to meet very talented and passionate young people. It can inspire us as instructors, too. For me, their passion, newness, seeing things for the first time re-ignites my creativity constantly. All chefs go through a phase of wanting to “get out of the industry”, at some point the thought crosses their mind that there has to be an easier way to make a living. I had mine before I started teaching, but now with the energy in the kitchen and watching the keenness of the students, I’m glad I didn’t.

 

What’s important for students to know about upcoming food trends?

I like to stay current, follow trends like molecular gastronomy. I recently made foie gras ganache, starting with foie poached sous vide [cooking vacuum sealed portions in a temperature controlled steam or water circulator]. In fact, now it’s commonplace, every kitchen has a circulator.

The most important thing I can teach my chefs isn’t a trend, but to choose their ingredients wisely. You can’t make great food with poor ingredients. Support your local producers, or they won’t be around when we need them. And that goes for diners — support the restaurants that support the local market as much as they can. That’s not a trend, but a shift in the market over the last 10 to 15 years.

I’m lucky because there’s a real support at Holland College for local purchasing whenever possible. It can never be 100%, but we are really encouraged to select local when we have the opportunity.

What’s the coolest project a student has done in your classroom?

I’m constantly impressed by students bringing back basic preparation of ingredients, old school skills. I had a student gathering seawater from a well, cooking down the brine and making their own sea salt. Another student made all of their butter from scratch.

Holland College is starting renovations on the Culinary Institute this summer. What are your plans?

This will be the first summer I haven’t had to be in a kitchen since I started cooking. I think I’ll be taking some time to sail the Bras d’Or Lake, and maybe a bike tour around Gaspé.