For the past 20 years, Swiss-born chef Chris Aerni and his wife, Graziella, have owned and operated the Rossmount Inn in St. Andrews, an idyllic community that’s a favourite seaside getaway in New Brunswick. The 18-guestroom manor house, originally a private home, now renowned as a Canadian culinary destination, is part of an 87-acre estate located between Camcook Mountain, the highest point in the Passamaquoddy Bay area, and the ocean. Guests come to hike through the woods, climb the mountain to enjoy breath-taking views, or stroll through the organic garden where a chat with the gardener is always about the food. And what food it is!
Vacay.ca: You were born and educated in Switzerland. What roads brought you to New Brunswick?
Chris Aerni: I met Graziella in Zurich. We were working at the same hotel. We wanted to travel and we decided to head to Australia. That was 41 years ago. We were there for five years and absolutely loved it, but we felt we were too young to settle. As a young chef, I wanted more experience and we came to Mövenpick restaurant in Toronto for what we thought would be two years. The business took off and 14 years later we were still there. Our dream was that eventually we would have our own country inn in a beautiful location where food would be foremost. We spent three years looking from coast to coast for the ideal spot, before finding Rossmount.
Vacay.ca: What was it about Rossmount that ticked off all the boxes for you?
CA: The location was beautiful, the local foods were awesome and abundant, it was a natural tourist destination that would draw people and I knew we could write a sensible business plan around it, despite the fact the inn was run down and in need of a lot of work. April 2, 2001, we bought the property and the rest is history.
We’ve been able to create an experience destination which even in COVID-19 we had a good year.
Vacay.ca: So, it’s fair to say that the inn has lived up to your expectations?
CA: Basically, the business was non-existent when we bought. We’ve spent 20 years building and renovating. We wanted to create an experience for both locals and visitors from across the border. It was the beauty of the land and the products that brought us here. It is the people that have kept us here. The most important thing is that New Brunswickers totally embraced us. To be recognized by locals is our biggest accolade.
Vacay.ca: It has been rumoured that you have said if you walked into a seafood restaurant advertising fresh fish and found a laminated menu, you would immediately leave.
CA: I’d be guilty of making a statement like that! Living by the coast, you know there is weather out there. You don’t go fishing every day. You have to be flexible. So, it’s impossible to have a laminated menu and honestly say that you can serve fresh fish every day. I prefer a blackboard menu approach that you can erase and reprint on the spot. If you are committed to building your menu around local products and cooking in lockstep with the season, you must roll with the seasons. Our menu changes daily, depending on what is available.
Vacay.ca: With your emphasis of sourcing ingredients locally, where do you go for them and who are your suppliers?
CA: I know all my suppliers personally. I can tell diners not only where their lobster was caught, but the name of the fisherman and the location of the lobster trap. We harvest our own vegetables and herbs from the kitchen garden. And I forage for things like fiddleheads, high-bush cranberries and mushrooms in our woods.
Vacay.ca: Who inspired you to become a chef?
CA: As a little guy, I grew up around food. I spent a lot of time on my grandparents’ farm where everything was organic. We milked cows by hand and we knew as well as the barn cat where cream came from. Everyone had a kitchen garden and fruit trees and we ate what was in season. I knew the difference between average food and very good food at a young age. My mother started an organic garden in 1958
ahead of the trend. She was a creative cook and I always wanted to cook.
Vacay.ca: Who inspires you today?
CA: As a chef you never stop learning. Products and markets inspire me. When we travel, we go with open eyes and we try everything. Quite often the best food is street food. Over the years, you learn from other cooks, from cookbooks and today you can jump on the Internet. Sometimes it’s the people who come to work for you. We are very open-minded in our kitchen and everyone can be part of the creative process.
Vacay.ca: Besides your travels across Canada in search of your Shangri-la, what are special destinations for you?
CA: There are many around the world. We loved Australia and just before the pandemic, we visited Tasmania for the first time. When we visit a big city, we try to check out the best restaurants. San Francisco is a great food town and we make a point to visit there when we go to British Columbia. This is a place where you don’t have to go to the 10 best restaurants to eat really well. I’ve always wanted to go to St. Sebastian but haven’t got around to that yet.
Vacay.ca: What do the restaurants that you like best have in common?
CA: The really great places focus on local products, in season.
Vacay.ca: How has the pandemic affected you in your business and how will you be different when it’s over?
CA: When it’s over, we’ll all be happy to get back to travel. We were lucky that the province shut down early and New Brunswickers bought into the concept. We were able to open up a month later with a pandemic operational plan and locals turned up because they couldn’t go farther, but they still wanted to travel.
Vacay.ca: What do you consider is your greatest achievement?
CA: I think doing what Graziella and I do together and with our team. We are only as good as the last meal we have cooked. A lot of our success has to do with consistency and the pride we put into it everything we cook.
Vacay.ca: The inn is open for nine months a year. How do you spend the remainder of the year?
CA: We spend January at our cottage which is in the woods by the sea, 10 minutes from here. It’s nice to shut down and enjoy a quiet time, having friends for dinner. February is our travel month. Usually, we follow the sun.
Vacay.ca: You and Graziella have worked together in a high-stress industry for 41 years — not only working together but enjoying huge success. How do you make it work?
CA: It’s not going to work unless you have a strong relationship. We always give each other some room to do some things on our own.
Vacay.ca: What would you like to be remembered for?
CA: I am a guy who lives today. In our industry it is now. I would like to be remembered as the chef at Rossmount where you could go and have a really good meal and an enjoyable time.