Queen’s Marque, a $200-million, six-acre multi-use development is an integral part of the sensational transformation of Halifax’s Historic Waterfront. And home to five-star Muir Hotel, the first Autograph Collection hotel in Nova Scotia.
When Scott Armour McCrea, CEO of The Armour Group, responsible for the development, construction, and management of Queen’s Marque was seeking the ideal person to lead his vision for Drift, the hotel’s restaurant, he gave the nod to chef Anthony Walsh. “I wanted someone who understood the renaissance Halifax is experiencing and who shared our vision for what is possible here,” he said. “I knew Anthony could redefine Maritime cuisine the way he redefined Canadian cuisine at Oliver & Bonacini’s Canoe restaurant in Toronto.”
As corporate executive chef at O & B, Walsh has opened restaurants across the country, but never in Atlantic Canada. During his career, he has received accolades and awards galore, including gold medals from Taste of Canada, Black Box, Salon Culinaire, and the Ontario Hostelry Institute. He was the first chef to represent Canada at the World Gourmet Summit in Singapore in 2000 and has been a featured guest chef at New York’s James Beard House. In 2016, he was named Chef of the Year by Foodservice & Hospitality Magazine as well as one of Toronto Life’s Most Influential People. Walsh spoke with Vacay.ca about his new endeavour and how his view of Canada is expressed in his cuisine.
As creative culinary lead for Drift, Walsh will be onsite for several weeks leading up to and following the restaurant’s opening, and frequently, moving forward. At the same time, he will continue to oversee O & B’s national portfolio of restaurants, while maintaining his home in Toronto.
Vacay.ca: You have had a stellar 25-year career in Toronto and a significant job with Oliver & Bonacini, one of the country’s top culinary groups. What was the motivation to give this up for a new venture in Halifax?
Anthony Walsh: In addition to Drift, I will still be affiliated with O & B. In my heart, I have always been — I guess “jealous” is a good word — of the east coast and what they are blessed with. As chefs go, we are attracted to the bounty of different areas. For me, Nova Scotia’s stand out is the coast and the ocean and everything that comes out of it. It’s fair to say I am a seafood fanatic. I also love the pristine quality of the landscape there and the produce from farming and foraging, which is so much in vogue. I have eaten chanterelles around the world, and in my opinion, the best ones come from Cape Breton. Dishes such as hodge podge and blueberry grunt — which are uniquely Maritime — I get excited just thinking about updating these classics.
Vacay.ca: You will be carrying a huge workload. How do you juggle your work life and your personal life?
AW: It’s tricky. But I am super organized, which is why I can keep so many balls in the air. And I have the support of my family. My wife, Susan Arevalo, is Argentinian. She is a feisty South American who owns Gaucho Pie Co. She understands the demands of this business. So do our three go-go-go kids, one who works for O & B. Family time is everything for us and gathering around the dining table is a huge thing. When we are at home, we cook together.
Vacay.ca: When and how did you become interested in cooking?
AW: Like a lot of chefs, I tip my hat to my mother. I come from a large Irish family of six kids. The food I grew up on was simple but very good. We always looked forward to meals together. When we were still young, my dad urged my mother to finish high school and go on to college to get a degree. While she was doing that, at age 12 or 13, I picked up the slack, cooking dinner for the whole family — largely because I didn’t want to do the dishes. My mum taught me the art of the possible. When I moved to Toronto to study Classics at the University of Toronto, I continued to cook, on weekends, as a hobby. I didn’t take it that seriously but a good friend, a Brit, with contacts in London, asked if I had ever thought of becoming a chef? No! But he kept on pushing me. One thing led to another and as luck would have it, I got an introduction to Michael Bonacini who came from England to Toronto to run the Windsor Arms Hotel. After three interviews, he hired me. Here is where the light went on and I knew I had found my calling, and then I travelled for a couple of years.
Vacay.ca: And when you had seen the world, what then?
AW: I returned to Toronto, joined Oliver & Bonacini in 1996 as a saucier at Canoe and worked my way up to exec chef, then to corporate executive chef, overseeing all 28 properties and event spaces in the O & B portfolio.
Vacay.ca: What is your goal for Drift?
AW: Scott Armour McCrea and I have the same vision. While Drift is in a hotel, this is not a hotel restaurant. This is a place where locals will flock to, knowing it is a welcoming, convivial, happy environment. It will be beautiful. It will be about fantastic food and great service. Technically, it will be very accurate cooking, with the story behind the food. Intent is such a huge thing and we are committed to offering five-star hospitality.
Vacay.ca: What are your thoughts on the current state of fine dining?
AW: I believe the days of hoity-toity dining, stuffy, stuffy type of service are over. We are in the hospitality business and being hospitable is what it is all about. We have to walk the walk and keep looking in the mirror to see how we are doing. Welcoming guests to Drift will be such an uplifting experience after what we’ve been through with the pandemic. Think casualness rather than pretension.
Vacay.ca: What do you love most about what you do?
AW: I love the food part but as my career has evolved, dealing with people and learning from new cooks and veterans on a daily basis is what has kept me going. My mental blades have to be super sharp if I want to be relevant.
Vacay.ca: Did you have a mentor?
AW: Chef Jamie Kennedy. He was truly nurturing. He made a meaningful imprint on me in terms of what Canada is and the bounty of Ontario. He was way ahead of his time doing farm-to-table. When the tomatoes were just so, boom! we would be preserving and displaying them. He is a gentleman with a brilliant brain. He told me if you be yourself, people will follow. He exposed me to new dishes at a young stage. He convinced me about the importance of vegetarianism and that it’s okay to put black pepper on white fish. Jamie will always be my boss and I, his cook. He has been a huge supporter that I can still look to when I need a friend to talk to.
Vacay.ca: Who and what inspires you?
AW: My inspiration comes from the land and sea and also the history of the area as it connects to food. As for people, Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius and a lovely man. Argentinian Francis Mallman’s cuisine and his take on things is amazing and inspiring. Josh Niland, an Australian, has taken sustainability and fin-to-gill cooking to another level. My mother was a great cook, but my mother-in-law is a serious professional to whom the Toronto O & B restaurant, Leña, pays homage. She has taught me a lot — particularly how to make great Spanish tortillas.
Vacay.ca: Where are your favourite places in Canada to visit?
AW: Haida Gwaii because of its wild beauty. Rose Bay, on Nova Scotia’s south shore is a beautiful spot. I have a sibling there. Locally, Northumberland County, Ontario where we have a farm. We got to know the community of Warkworth, which is idyllic and up-and-coming. The landscape here is pristine, hilly and rugged. You could be in Burgundy. I would live here full-time if it wasn’t such a drive to Toronto.
Vacay.ca: What is your favourite meal of the day and your favourite food to cook?
AW: That’s a tough one because I love them all. I would probably go with dinner with the family because being together at the table is so important for me. From a cooking standpoint, it’s all about fish. I get giddy with something as simple as sardines or squid or snails and what you can do with them.
Vacay.ca: What would you like to be remembered for?
AW: That I was a decent person who could cook like an angel.