It may be Canada’s smallest province, but when it comes to the food scene, Prince Edward Island punches above its weight, earning its well-deserved title, Canada’s Food Island. Visitors flock every summer for more than the sandy beaches and Anne of Green Gables. The culinary scene is a huge draw.
Inquire about the best place to eat on PEI and you’re likely to be told, “Blue Mussel at North Rustico.” This little off-the-beaten-track café sits dockside in the picturesque fishing village on the north shore of the island, a 25-minute drive from downtown Charlottetown.
Asked how he accounts for its popularity, Stephen Murphy, who co-owns the property with with his wife, Christina McQuaid, glibly says, “We don’t really know, but it works, so we just keep doing it.” In a more serious tone, he adds, “It has a lot to do with Jamie Power, our executive chef. He has created an elevated food experience, which is unexpected in such a relaxed, casual setting.”
Vacay caught up with Power at the beginning of the island’s tourist season.
Vacay.ca: Your reputation is PEI-wide for creating fine dining in a generations-old fishing shack. How have you accomplished this unusual achievement?
JP: Attention to detail on every step of the process. I like to add extra levels of flavour to comfort foods. With some dishes, I serve several sauces. And you can’t overlook the freshness and quality of the ingredients. The surroundings and our friendly staff add to the casual experience.
Vacay.ca: Tell us about the route that led you to where you are today.
JP: I grew up in Charlottetown — big families on both my mother’s and father’s side. Food was always important. At every family gathering, there was always lots of it around. When I finished high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was already working in a kitchen and my mother suggested I go to culinary school. I enrolled at the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown in 2005. After I graduated, I worked at various restaurants around Charlottetown and got my Red Seal in 2012. Stephen and Christina moved from Toronto to Charlottetown in 2014. They bought the Blue Mussel on a whim, with no restaurant experience. I was their first hire. I thought, ‘Won’t this be fun!’
Vacay.ca: And you have been there since then?
JP: I stuck around. I like to think I helped them through the growing pains, and we grew the business together. I feel lucky to be here.
Vacay.ca: Did Hurricane Fiona, which blew through the Maritimes in 2022, hit hard?
JP: Big time. The property was devastated and the kitchen was a write-off. The little peninsula was under four feet of water. All the kitchen appliances and equipment had to be replaced. Totally. We started refurbishing as soon as the waters receded and the winds died down to be ready for May long weekend, the opening of the tourist season. Before Fiona, we worked between two inefficient kitchens. I had input into the re-design. Now we have one large kitchen and we like to joke, saying it feels like a real restaurant.
Vacay.ca: You are open seven days a week throughout tourist season. It must get hectic.
JP: We have 100 seats. Between 11:30 am and 9 pm on a summer day, we will serve 700 people. At any given time, there are 30 people in the little building. The first year, we served 4,000 diners. Last year the number had risen to 80,000.
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Vacay.ca: How would you describe a seafood experience at Blue Mussel?
JP: Nice. Particularly sitting on the deck, overlooking the water, you can see the fishing boats coming into the harbour. Some people like to say, ‘There’s my halibut coming in.’ We like to say, ‘Boat to table in an hour.’ Or they ask where we get our oysters and we point to the buoys right there. It doesn’t get any fresher. We don’t take reservations. You can put your name on a waiting list and we text you when there’s a table. Sometimes it’s a two-hour wait. But you can go down to the wharf, walk along the beach, explore, collect seashells, or fish off the wharf. It’s a total seaside experience. Our vegetables are local and equally fresh. They come from exceptional farms a little farther inland. Soleil Farm, an exceptional organic vegetable farm produces for us.
Vacay.ca: Apart from blue mussels, what are your signature dishes?
JP: Pan-seared halibut and creamy chowder made with fresh haddock, salmon, scallops, mussels, and PEI potatoes. Seafood Bubbly Bake has been a menu favourite since 1994. We bake lobster, halibut, and scallops in a rich cream sauce topped with a cheddar grattinee.
Vacay.ca: I understand there is no deep fryer in your kitchen. Yet one of your popular dishes is poutine chowder.
JP: Anyone can throw French fries on a plate. I like the food to be as light and fresh as possible. It’s a cleaner, healthier option where the seafood stands out. We use sheep’s-milk cheese from Ferme Isle Saint Jean in North Rustico and roasted PEI potatoes. Then we smother it in our award-winning seafood chowder.
Vacay.ca: Where does your passion for seafood come from?
JP: I fished a lot as a kid. But to be honest, I wasn’t a huge seafood fan. When I started cooking professionally, I cooked seafood as someone who didn’t like fish. It has worked.
Vacay.ca: With Blue Mussel open for six months in tourist season, what do you do for the remainder of the year?
JP: Four years ago, Steve and Christina purchased Slaymaker & Nichols gastropub in downtown Charlottetown. Just before COVID-19 hit. It’s smaller than Blue Mussel but it is open all year. We’re lucky to still be here. It’s exceptional for a new restaurant to survive a pandemic like that. We did a lot of bake-and-take and oven-ready meals.
Vacay.ca: Is the menu similar to Blue Mussel’s offerings?
JP: No, it’s quite different. It’s high end. I have been working with the team there to develop a menu with a focus on world flavours such as Japanese fusion and influences from South American and Caribbean countries.
Vacay.ca: When you are not cooking, where is your favourite place to travel in Canada?
JP: Montreal. Not just for the food. I am a huge Montreal Canadians fan. But I’ve travelled all across Canada. My wife and I like to go to Cape Breton for a quick get-away.
Vacay.ca: And worldwide, do you have a favourite ?
JP: I like warm spots, particularly the Caribbean. Steve and Christina spent winters in Roatán, Honduras. One year they decided to open a restaurant there. They decided to focus on Canadian cuisine because of all the ex-pats wintering there. When they asked if I would like to set up the menu, I said, ‘Put me on the plane.’
Vacay.ca: What would you like to be remembered for?
JP: Prince Edward Island is truly Canada’s Food Island. I’d like to be remembered for doing its food justice.