A festival in seven courses

Roots, Rants and Roars is a social dining experiment

Published on September 27, 2012
(Left to right) Patty Wells, Lewis Fearon, Mary Fearon (hidden behind Lewis) and Emily Fearon relax on Sandy Beach in Elliston while enjoying some of Chef Chuck Hughes' cuisine. The party had just set out on the food trek - one part of the larger Roots, Rants and Roars Festival - but decided a bite on the beach would be a great way to enjoy their fare before legging it to the next station. 
Ross Mair Photo

A traditional seven course meal consists of an appetizer, soup, salad, sorbet, meat (white), meat (red) and finally a dessert.

Elliston's Roots Rants and Roars Festival - now in its third year - featured a food walk this past Saturday in which participants treked to six food stations spread out over five kilometres.

The seventh course, however, as many on the walk agreed, had to be the surrounding scenery.

While dozens, and eventually hundreds, of foodies lined up at the park grounds to collect their tickets and proceed to the first station, buses arrived to haul others to the various checkpoints along the path - to prevent congestion, the organizers decided this would be a less-structured jaunt through a gastronomy lesson rather than a formal sit-down affair.

Appetizer

Station one was manned by the indomitable Chuck Hughes; television chef on the Food Network and kitchen boss in Montreal.

While he prepared three large slabs of pork on a charcoal barbeque, he barked orders to his crew, sending the early signal that although this is a fun experience, it's also a professional one.

Cooking students from the College of the North Atlantic (Bonavista) were assisting the chefs for the day, and on more than one occasion chef Hughes had to remind them to keep their feet moving.

"We decided to go with pork because we knew no one else was using it," Hughes told the Packet between brazing the hunks of meat and shucking and deep-frying oysters.

After 20 plus years of working kitchens, this is Hughes' first time at Roots, Rants and Roars - although not his first time in province - and it would appear the always-in-motion chef will be back.

"I love it, I mean, it's Newfoundland."

Just beyond the station lay Sandy Beach provincial park, and there sat the first wave of patrons, including Justin and Lindsey Peddle of Conception Bay South.

"Connecting the food to the local flavors and scenery, it's amazing," said Justin, perched on a beach rock.

"And we're huge fans of Chuck Hughes," beamed Lindsey, "he's really good. This is so much fun and such a treat for us."

Soup

Soup is an interesting way of thinking about what Chef Todd Perrin at the second station was serving.

Deep-fried capelin, with coriander and a spicy mayo were on tap in front of a backdrop which included small islands, root cellars, fenced-in gardens and entrepreneurial seabirds.

"How's everything so far," Perrin bellowed to the crowd, which was followed by a resounding "mmmmmm' mmmmm."

When the Packet inquired if they were local capelin, a CNA student confirmed indeed they were, and that was the reason the crowd enjoyed them so.

When a traveling documentary crew asked chef Perrin about Roots, Rants and Roars, of which Perrin is one of the lead organizers, he replied, "It's an event we've been organizing for a couple years now, Newfoundland food in a Newfoundland environment. A meandering hike with a little beverage, and you drink in the scenery with your eyes," and with that, he darted away from their cameras and back to the prep table.

Salad

Elements of salad were on display at the third station - manned by Chef Martin Juneau - along with a bacon-enhanced piece of halibut served with blended kale.

Clarenville councillor Bill Bailey, wife Gina, and their friend Shirley Reid were remarking on how delicious the bacon made the dish when the Packet arrived on scene.

"Most who cook with bacon overpower, but not the cook here," said Gina, who mentioned it was their second time on the food trek.

Shirley commented that's what happens when you bring in chefs of this caliber.

"When you bring in these names, it makes a difference."

"Par excellence," confirmed Gina.

The economic effect of the festival is having was not lost on them either.

"Every hotel is booked from Trinity to Bonavista, which goes to show, if you offer it, people will come," said Shirley.

Fishing his last bit of bacon, Bill noted, "Look at the license plates around, it's fabulous."

And with that, they were off to the next station, but not before Bill introduced this reporter to three ladies, each from somewhere else, all together here in Elliston.

Sorbet

Brenda Morrow, of Burlington, Ont., Barbara Albirtton, of Tulsa Oklahoma and Kim Hix, of Chicago Illinois sat together at the same picnic table Bill, Gina, and Shirley had occupied just a moment before.

There they sat with a total stranger and shared their story.

"You don't just plan for Roots, Rants and Roars," began Barbara before Brenda cut in, "Oh, it's awesome."

It turns out Kim and Brenda go way back, and they met Barbara on Friday morning at Chef Todd Perrin's restaurant/inn in St. John's. All had planned to attend the event, but they were also open to new things that came up; that was the point of the food walk, they insisted.

"It showcases a place that a lot of people wouldn't know about," said Barbara.

"And I keep coming back to it..." added Brenda.

"...Like a dirty sock," quipped Kim.

The three remarked on how the place itself, coupled with the imagery, made the festival more than just an experience, but something else entirely.

"I think it all goes beyond words. The people are so friendly and the scenery is amazing," said Brenda.

"It's almost like no place, but it's like home, it is home," replied Barbara.

To which Kim said, and all agreed, "It's like the culture of my childhood."

The point they wanted to drive home, was that although the world changes, some things have not, or at least some things remind you of what it was like before they changed, or perhaps some things wash away what you think has changed, like a good sorbet should.

Meat (white)

Chef Grant Van Gameron, grilling chocolate blood pudding at the fourth station, had his own little experience at Roots, Rants and Roars the night before.

After attending the evening's events, on the walk back to his hotel, Van Gameron stumbled upon a porcini mushroom.

As a huge fan of foraged food, the find thrilled the chef. He grilled the fungi the following morning and served it to his crew.

At the end of the anecdote, one of his sous chefs chimed in, "And it was delicious."

This was Van Gameron's first time east of Montreal, but in his words, "(Newfoundland) is probably the most beautiful place I've seen, and I just spent the last two weeks in Europe."

On being the only chef who decided to serve a dessert-inspired dish, "I wanted to challenge myself, not that being here isn't a challenge enough, but I wanted to use my skill to come up with something different."

And the experience has obviously made an impression.

"Totally, I'll be back. I'll be more prepared."

Meat (red)

Nearing the end of the trek, the roads splits and loops around a place called Maberly.

The lower portion of the loop dips down to the coast and where Chef Van Gameron's station was serving, but on the upper portion, where the fields abound and the first of the fall flowers bloom, Chef Jonathan Gushue was basking in that atmosphere.

His dish, cold-poached cod with wildflowers and buttermilk, couldn't have been served in a more appropriate location.

"This event is about sense of place and I wanted to serve something true to that," remarked the St. John's chef, taking part in his first Roots, Rants and Roars.

While explaining the significance of buttermilk - a childhood favorite - and mentioning the wildflowers came with him from St. John's, a patron, so inspired by the flowers in the dish, presented Chef Gushue with a glass of white wine from his own reserve.

After the encounter, Gushue said, "I think it's really important to get people thinking about where food comes from, but it also get chefs thinking; it's good to get them out of the kitchen."

Dessert

And what meal would be complete without a touch of criticism, a mention of where the improvements could be found?

Fortunately, professional critic, judge of gastronomical talent and certified personal chef Karl Wells was on hand to offer to the Packet his insights on the day.

"First and foremost, I understand they want to be biodegradable, but they need something bigger than this," said Wells as he held up the toothpick-inspired fork they had given patrons.

To be fair, there was a larger fork, but it was only on offer at the first station.

Wells found the only other problems with the festival to be a lack of signage, both to illustrate more clearly who was serving what, and more directly on how to get to the festival from the highway.

He mentioned how he had gotten lost driving to the event and, when he decided to turn around, he noticed a procession of vehicles had fallen him.

"It was like the blind leading the blind," he chuckled.

Beyond that, however, Wells had nothing but praise for the day and what it offered.

"I think it is a great idea, especially in a rural setting; you're not only getting the food, but an experience. This is the perfect place for it.

The leisurely pace of the day also impressed him.

"I think the social aspect of it is probably most important. You can tell by standing in line, and hearing the laughter, that people are really enjoying themselves."

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