Gathering at the Table

Culinary studio in New London invites guests to fall in love with Island food over intimate culinary experiences.

Derrick Hoare understands the power of commensality. He’s mastered the art of transforming a simple piece of furniture into an opportunity for perfect strangers to become fast friends over a shared culinary experience. The result of Hoare’s genius is a magical place in New London, Prince Edward Island called The Table Culinary Studio. Now open for its second season, The Table offers a standing invitation to learn, eat, laugh, and converse with others that share a love for local food. And, of course, there are the hugs.

“The first night we had a class [last year] when our guests were leaving they were hugging us, that’s when I knew we had something here,” Hoare tells me with a smile. I smile back, though it takes a few moments for me to appreciate the magnitude of what he’s just shared. My first thoughts are something akin to “hugs…come on, hugs?” But then I cast my mind back to some of the most memorable restaurant experiences I’ve ever had and it dawns on me – none of them ended with me giving hugs to the chefs that had just gifted me with an unforgettable meal. It just doesn’t happen when the chefs are tucked away in the kitchen, completely removed from the dining room they are serving. The Table, however, is an altogether different proposition.

It’s a cool day in early May when we arrive at The Table, which is housed in a converted church (built in 1953) on Graham’s Road, just off its intersection with Route 6. Laura, Salty’s publisher, has come along to do the photoshoot while I interview The Table team.

The Table Culinary Studio is located in New London, PEI.//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

We’re about fifteen minutes early, but as we pull up to the church, a young, blonde-haired man waves at us from the yard where he’s tending to a fire and smoke is billowing into the grey sky. I recognize him immediately as chef Roark MacKinnon, who was at the helm of the kitchen during The Table’s inaugural season. This year he’s back as the in-house fire monger I quickly learn after we share greetings.   

“I’m most excited about the fires, really taking people back,” MacKinnon says.

We’re immediately given a tour of the outdoor space, MacKinnon pointing out various fire-breathing cooking apparatuses that range from the very simple (a fire pit dug from the red clay) to the old-school (an old cast-iron woodstove) to the innovative and homemade (a pit pan, as MacKinnon describes it). As we stand there marvelling at the newly-constructed outdoor kitchen, the spectacular backdrop of rolling red fields, and the large, majestic trees that grace the foreground Hoare drives up and joins us. He chuckles and makes reference to  “Chef Roark’s glossary” of cooking implements the 25-year old has brought to The Table.

Fire-breathing apparatuses.//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

We make our way inside to escape the cold. And there it is, the table upon which this culinary enterprise revolves, sitting where once there would have been rows of pews. It’s an inviting piece of furniture, a long plank of warm wood adorned with place settings that are unpretentious—the kind you’d imagine finding at a friend’s dinner party. At the back of the church where the pulpit once stood, is an open kitchen that looks like it jumped off the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. A large island is the only thing marking the boundary between the dining area and kitchen. It turns out the island is where a lot of the interaction takes place, where The Table’s chefs share their secrets with the earnest students that have come to learn and eat.

In the kitchen we find the rest of The Table team. There’s Christine Morgan, the event coordinator and (I surmise) organizer-extraordinaire, chef Michael Bradley, back for his second season at The Table, and chef Laura Woodland, fresh off her first year at the Culinary Institute of Canada and ready to immerse herself in the internship Hoare has offered. In fact, each of the chefs has come to The Table through the Culinary Institute of Canada.

“The Table was my first choice for an internship…the opportunity to get out and learn,” Woodland tells me. 

The 2017 Table team. (L-R) Christine Morgan, Laura Woodland, Derrick Hoare, Michael Bradley, Roark MacKinnon.//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

For Bradley, the choice to intern at The Table last year wasn’t quite as cut and dry. In fact, Bradley had his sights set on interning in New York, but challenges obtaining a visa sent him back to square one. Fortuitously, at the same time Bradley was trying to find a plan B for his summer internship, Hoare and MacKinnon realized they needed an intern to join The Table for its first season in operation. After a lightning-quick interview between Bradley and MacKinnon (I’m told by MacKinnon that when he called Bradley for the interview, the 20-year old was sleeping, but within 15 minutes he’d arrived at the Culinary Institute dressed sharply and ready for his interview), The Table team for 2016 was complete.

“Susan Shaw, the internship coordinator [at the Culinary Institute] told me a really nice man, a GQ sort of man, had just bought The Table[…]I called Derrick and within a 12 minute conversation we realized we were on the same page,” MacKinnon says, sharing how he came to be Hoare’s first chef hire for The Table during its inaugural year.

As Hoare and I talk about the upcoming season, I watch the three chefs huddled in the kitchen, discussing something that’s no doubt beyond my culinary expertise. (Did I mention they were preparing a seafood feast when Laura and I arrived?).  It quickly becomes clear that The Table is a special place, not just for the guests fortunate enough to discover this gem, but for the chefs-in-training that have the chance to spread their wings in this unique venue.

“If you’d met me last year at this time, you wouldn’t have heard a peep from me,” Bradley says,“now you can’t keep me quiet.” Evidently, it was the bread-making that brought Bradley out of his shell. He found his rhythm with the bread and his confidence interacting with the nightly guests continued to rise along with his bread-making prowess.

Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

As Hoare tours me around the church, I find myself awestruck by the fact that each night this team of five serves up an intimate three-hour dining experience for 14 guests, (at a price tag I’m hesitant to share, lest all their seats suddenly get booked up before I make my reservation). Most days of the week, The Table also offers four-hour interactive and small-sized culinary classes with enticing names such as From Hive to Table, Bounty of the Sea, and Say Cheese!

“[We were] shocked by how much people want to learn,” Hoare tells me.

“I now know more about mussels than I ever thought I would,” Morgan says.

When Morgan, who had worked with Hoare in the corporate world, learned of his transition from healthcare executive to proprietor of a culinary enterprise in rural PEI, she knew she wanted to be a part of it.

For Hoare, it was the Island itself that proved to be a magnetic force for him and his wife, who’ve lived here part-time for the past 15 years. “[There’s this] sense of community, people help out, and no one’s keeping tabs,” he says. “As chef Roark always says ‘if you weren’t a kind person you didn’t make it through the winter.’”

“I’d been in healthcare for over 30 years,” Hoare says, “[I] started playing with food and people kind of liked it.

“My wife said ‘stop talking, start doing’. I quickly realized I didn’t want to a restaurant where people just came in, ate, and then left.

“When Patti, the real estate agent, drove me out, I was thinking ‘what the heck are you doing to me?’, but the minute I walked inside I knew it was right.” Indeed, when he bought the property in New London it had already been lovingly restored and repurposed by Annie Leroux, who had previously offered culinary classes under the name Annie’s Table. Hoare tells me he’s changed next to nothing in terms of the interior design and expresses gratitude for the care and attention to detail Leroux gave the space.

Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

“The first year was about taking my vision and bringing it to life,” he says. “Figuring out where it made sense and where it didn’t.”

One thing that made sense from the beginning was the focus on hyperlocal sourcing of ingredients.

“Everything we get is within a 10-minute drive—sheep’s cheese, duck, honey, vegetables, seafood.” He rattles off a list of folks that supply The Table with food and/or are part of the culinary excursions including Sandy MacKay, Isle Saint-Jean Farm, Al Picketts of Eureka Garlic, and Sharon Labchuk.

As much as the local ingredients are key to the culinary experience at The Table, it’s the infusion of local personalities that elevates the experience to a whole new level. Which brings us to George.

“George, my neighbour, comes over and shucks oysters from New London Bay most nights of the week,” Hoare says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. Apparently George is “a typical Island fisherman”, big and burly, but with a gentle soul. Over the course of our visit, Hoare mentions George at least four or five times. He’s clearly a fixture at The Table, just like the rest of this small team, each with a unique personality they share with guests nightly.

Laura and I are invited to sit down with the team for a seafood feast that Bradley, Woodland, and MacKinnon have prepared. A big platter filled with lobster tails, mussels, and clams sits in the centre of the table, along with platters of colourful vegetables that have been cooked to perfection, and a breadboard with Bradley’s famous bread and a black garlic butter that’s even more amazing than it sounds.  

As we eat our way through this divine lunch, it’s easy to imagine sitting around this table, drinking wine, and savouring a three course meal as the sun sets on New London. Sharing laughs with old friends or making new ones over the shared experience of gobbling up Bradley’s roasted beetroot chocolate cake.

Roasted beetroot chocolate cake.//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

“The best compliment to receive is when a guest says ‘it felt like we belonged’,” Hoare tells me as we pass platters of food to one another. I’d say that’s a very fine measuring stick for this small-but-mighty culinary enterprise that’s carving out a niche with its intimate food experiences, eclectic personalities, and enduring commitment to creating unforgettable memories for its guests.

As we say our goodbyes to our hosts and chefs, I’m compelled to hug each of them. It just feels like the right way to say ‘thank you’.

 

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon oversees all content creation for Salty and may be ‘slightly’ obsessed with proper apostrophe usage. When she’s not writing about food, she’s either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a holistic-nutritionist-in-training and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

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