James Learie has found a way to intertwine his love of the outdoors with his passion for cooking. When it comes to working with food, Learie sees a lot of opportunity in the backyards of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We are lucky to live in a place that has such an array of wild foods. Food security in our province is such a growing concern, I feel that it’s more important than ever to develop the skills to be able to sustainably harvest what the land offers. Wherever possible I try to cook what the land provides. Seasonal and local cooking is very important to me, things that are in season together just taste better together,” explained the chef. “Creating dishes from the land provides a level of connection to food that just doesn’t exist with other ingredients. Wild mushrooms and game are just one example of this. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we are very fortunate to be able to process and serve wild game in restaurants, and the ability to pair ingredients that come from the same season and the same ecosystem is really a unique thing.”
Learie started cooking when he was 16 years old. What started as a part-time job, soon became a full-time gig is high-end restaurants. He was a souls-chef in some well known local restaurants and eventually offered the executive-chef position at the now-closed Bacalao. He then spends some time as a sous-chef for Mallard Cottage and now works as a sous-chef at Terre.
Learie captures a lot of his work on film, featured as pieces on his Instagram page. During the pandemic, while the restaurants were shut down, His adventures in baking could be found on display through photographic posts.
“Like what seems like the rest of the world, I realized that this could be a good time to improve my baking. After a few days bread was coming out how I wanted it, so I approached my friend Will, who owns the Newfoundland Sausage Company, about selling sourdough through his shop. I was only away from work for about two months but that time certainly was valuable for improving my baking.”
During the lockdown, Learie’s instagram was filled with aesthetically pleasing portraits of freshly baked bread – a talent he managed to improve with his unplanned free time. He had always enjoyed baking bread and a few years ago took a sourdough workshop offered by the St. John’s Tool Library.
“That workshop provided the building blocks that I needed to kind of understand how to make an acceptable loaf of bread. After that, I only baked sporadically with ok results. Once the pandemic happened I had a bunch of time to figure out what I was actually doing,” said the chef. The two biggest pieces of advice I could offer to people starting out baking bread are that bread needs time so don’t rush, and to be prepared to fail a bunch of times before you succeed.”
Aside from baking, when he is cooking for himself, Learie enjoys making a variety of dishes.
“At home, I really enjoy making fresh pasta. It’s time consuming and kind of tedious, but it’s really relaxing at the same time. In a restaurant setting, I prefer working with seafood. The variety and quality of fish that we have access to here are unparalleled. When it comes to what I like to eat I have to say that pizza is probably at the top of my list.”
A lot of Learie’s dishesdo not stem directly from traditional Newfoundland recipes as he rather take a step outside of that area to explore new flavours and tastes that come directly from the land.
“Newfoundland traditions haven’t had a huge impact on my food, more often the traditional ingredients find their way into what I’m doing. Traditionally we have a history of overcooking everything, if you look at any old Newfoundland cookbooks most things are boiled, baked, or roasted for hours. This isn’t saying that traditional Newfoundland food is bad, just not what I’m going for. But with that said I try to use as many traditional and local ingredients as possible,” he explained.
“Most of my free time is spent outdoors and often that time is centred around food. Usually, if I’m out I’m foraging, fishing, or hunting. This really has impacted how I create food partly because of all of the different ingredients that are able to be found, and partly because it helps to forge a connection to those ingredients. It’s easy to take certain ingredients for granted, but when you actively search for them and work hard to procure them it really puts things in perspective.”
Follow Learie on Instagram @jameslearie
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All photos were submitted