Where the Wild Things Are
Chef Jeremy Charles takes a break from cooking in the wilds of St. John’s to try mochi and explain the artistry of fly-tying.
August 19, 2016 ● 5 min read
Cassandra Landry | Illustration by Kevin Bacon
Jeremy Charles points to a pink suitcase across the street, parked innocently next to its owner, who waits for a cab.
This is roughly how far Charles can cast a fly. Not many people can do that with predictable accuracy and ease, he says. The clang of a cash register and the repeated dinging of a doormat joins the early morning bustle of the 100-year-old mochi and teahouse from which we consider the distance. For a moment, the street morphs into a quiet expanse of water — you can almost see the fish congregating where a telephone pole once was. Charles smiles into his beard.
Americans often forget the culinary prowess of their counterparts to the North, settling for an occasional anecdote about Montreal or Toronto to prove that they haven’t. But the deep North, the North where the wind speeds are the fastest the world over, where winters are quiet and dark, the North that inspired weepy maritime classic The Shipping News!—that North is a far-flung culinary paradise for the few who dare to stick it out. In a place like Newfoundland, technique is in direct correlation to the natural world, and creativity means seeing beauty in its roughest, rawest form.
In the midst of this cooks Jeremy Charles, patron culinary saint of St. John's, the world’s 16th largest island.
I spent a lot of time on ponds and stuff like that as a kid; I would spend time at my grandmother's cottage, out in the small fishing village where she was born. I remember standing up in the window with my grandfather, watching the boats come in. They would leave early in the morning, maybe 3:00 or 4:00, and then you'd see them come in on the horizon. I'd go down to the wharf with my salt beef bucket, which is really popular back home, and wait until the fisherman pronged up the fish, and then I would start cutting out cod tongues.
That's how I would make my summer money: going door to door selling cod tongues and salt beef. That way I could buy my fishing lures or my rods.
Fly-tying's always been a part of me. I remember going downstairs and seeing this light on down in the basement, where my father would tie his flies. Growing up, we spent a lot of time fishing together, and we still do — I think it's one thing that really has kept us close and in tune with each other when I'm so busy working all the time.
Charles was tying trout flies at eight years old. Once he began taking lessons from local masters, he moved on to salmon flies and surpassed his own father. When he moved to Montreal at 19, he paid his rent by tying flies, hundreds of them in a week, for a fly-fishing store. (Hard on the eyes, he says.) A good fly is one that’s well-balanced, with a tidy, properly weighted head, down by the eye of the hook. Too much bulk, he explains, and the balance is thrown off; too little and there’s no weight to send your fly across the water. It's an exercise in both restraint and unfettered imagination — not unlike cooking.
I find fly-tying very therapeutic, and a lot like creating a dish, actually. There's endless boundaries of creativity. You can put anything you want on that hook, colors or textures. You're working with your hands and it's tedious; you have to be very meticulous. Everybody can tie the same fly, but it will always come out differently.
There's no better feeling that setting the hook on Atlantic salmon. Your line will rip off, and he's just running down the river. There's nothing like it. There's a lot of fishermen out there addicted to salmon fishing; to hook a fish is a real adrenaline rush, a real high.
Raymond’s, a crown jewel in the dining universe and one of two restaurants Charles runs, is partly named for a grandfather who’d chuck a flask of rum onto a fishing boat in exchange for a few codfish, whose heads he loved stewed with a little bit of fatback pork and onions. That’s the best way to explain the soul of the place, which brought regional pride barreling onto the fine dining table and blew everyone’s socks off six years ago. The success of Raymond's is built on a far-ranging career, which includes a stint cooking at a prestigious fishing camp in Quebec and a few years spent in the American metropolis. It was his early exposure to Montreal kitchens that alerted him to a certain disparity in his chosen field.
Growing up around all this stuff, then moving to Montreal and really starting to understand and appreciate food, I realized a lot of the wonderful things back home weren’t being tapped into. Nothing was ever really showcased at the restaurants, especially 10, 15 years ago. It was all pineapples and foie gras. Everything exotic; caviar, meats from Alberta, everything from outside of the province.
When he returned to the city that raised him, he fueled his projects with the best of the region.
Tourists, from day one, loved the fact that you could sit down and have a moose ravioli, or a moose chop; something that you just can't get anywhere in the world. It took the locals a while to understand it. A lot of the Newfoundland product—partridge and grouse, all the great seafood— that's stuff that you'd have at the cabin, or your grandmother's house. That makes it very personal, but people really enjoy having that story behind the food, and it's honest. There’s no bullshit.
Over the last 10 years of being home, you form those relationships with a lot of growers, and a lot of hunters. Being around amazing hunters makes you appreciate the animal so much more; being in its environment, understanding how it lives. They're very aware of, and one with, their environment. They're very calm, very Zen. To be in the woods with people like that, you're always learning — it doesn't just happen overnight. There's a lot of Newfoundlanders that hunt and spend a lot of time in the woods, and a lot of time in the water.
Newfoundland is a wild, rugged place. To see a polar bear run down over the side of a cliff in Labrador like there’s nothing to it… or see a whale come up by the side of your boat, it makes you realize how small you are, just a speck of dust, nothing.
In Labrador, north of Newfoundland, there's a place there called Eagle River. It’s completely secluded, winding through the easternmost tip of the region before disappearing into the vast expanse of the North Atlantic. It’s a renowned salmon fishing spot, and you have to zoom out multiple times on a map before the screen fills with anything other than blue.
All you can hear when you’re out there is the river. For me, it's nirvana. It gets me through the winters, fishing...being on a river is a little touch of magic.
A crew of teahouse regulars bustles in the door, shuffling behind walkers to a symphony of fresh ding-dongings of the bell. They eye Charles's prized seat by the window, and in a swirl of mochi flour and styrofoam cups, he's borne back onto the street. The girl with the pink suitcase is gone.