This article originally appeared in Salty: The Island’s Food Digest on November 1st, 2016.
After four years of cooking up a storm in Twillingate, Newfoundland – Chef Megan Beairsto is back on the scene in Summerside, Prince Edward Island with a fresh twist on some of her grandmother’s best recipes and some modern creations of her own. I had a chance to catch up with her and learn more about the award-winning restaurant, OpenEats, and Chef Megan’s journey through the culinary world to date.
How did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
I graduated high school and had almost no idea what I wanted to do afterwards. I was accepted into a journalism program, but in August of that year I panicked and was afraid I would hate it. I took a job as a line cook, with almost no experience – and ended up being good at it. Well, good at the motions of line cooking. Terrible at actually creating food. But I thought that if I was good at the “doing” part of it, I could learn the other parts at school. I got accepted into the Culinary Institute of Canada the next year, put on a half-confident face and dove in without any real idea of what I was getting into.
What was your culinary school experience like?
Culinary school is typically a pretty motley crew. There are mature students who have ran restaurants before but want the diploma. There are 17 year olds fresh out of high school who see the trendy, tattooed chefs on the Food Network and liken it to a rockstar lifestyle.
There is a huge spectrum of students, with all kinds of different previous experiences in the industry and cooking styles. I had nothing but positive experiences at culinary school, largely in part of the great connections you make with the other students. I learned a whole other set of skills from my classmates apart from the skills that were taught. I learned creativity and teamwork from my classmates. There was a real sense of camaraderie among the students that you get from spending so much time with and learning from each other.
And wine class at 9 am is a pretty awesome thing too.
What are some other restaurants you’ve worked with since beginning your career?
I did an internship at Domaine de Grand Pre winery in Wolfville, that’s one of my favourites. I loved my time there so much because it’s where I first really learned how to get a random order in from a farmer in the morning and turn it into something awesome by service that night. Some interns got stuck in a corner peeling potatoes all summer, but the family I worked let us be creative and learn amongst ourselves.
I worked at the Island Stone Pub in Kensington for a few years, then I met my partner, Edward (he was the executive chef at the Loyalist at the time) and we flitted off to Twillingate, Newfoundland on a whim to run the restaurant of the Anchor Inn Hotel that his aunts had bought and were starting to reno. We loved Newfoundland and lived there for almost 4 years, but when we found out we were expecting our son we decided to move home to be closer to family.
What do you do to stay on top of new food trends?
I don’t really think we are necessarily trendy. Maybe to look at we are trendy, but when it comes to the food we make, my philosophy has always been simple is better. However, my sous chef, Bre, is fresh out of school and always has quirky, trendy ideas – she keeps me inspired!
The OpenEats menu clearly demonstrates you’re commitment to buying locally. What is the motivation for doing so and what have you been able to source locally.
I’ve always felt very strongly about supporting our local producers. All of our cheese, charcuterie, beef, seafood, and almost all of our produce is from PEI. It keeps our friends and families working, it feeds our own. And, of course, the quality is immeasurably better when it only has to travel a short distance to you.
Also, we don’t have a kitchen or a walk-in fridge of any kind – we do all of the cooking and prepping right along the bar with a few induction burners, two lowboy fridges and an oven. With such limited space, we rely on our farmers to bring us fresh stuff every couple of days! So for us, it HAS to be local.
What’s one of your favourite personal creations to date?
We got a little famous over the summer for putting a lobster ice cream on the menu as part of the GoLobster campaign. That was a lot of fun – the idea started out as a joke amongst the staff, but then as we thought about it, we thought “hey, we could make that delicious…”. Then CBC, CTV and the Canadian Press ran stories about it and we spent the entire month of July making batch after batch a day with our tiny ice cream machine.
What drew you to OpenEats, or how did you learn of the position there?
I responded to a random ad on Facebook, that said something along the lines of “open concept bar and kitchen looking for foodies!” I cautiously emailed my resume and a few days later met with Alex at the restaurant which was still under a little construction. He didn’t look at my resume or portfolio, he just asked if I could come in the next weekend and do a test menu. Then he started introducing me as the chef, and I’ve been loving it ever since. He still hasn’t looked at my resume a year later.
How would you describe the community’s reaction to OpenEats?
Very positive, very supportive! We spent the first several months that we were opened not even with a real menu, just testing out set menus to see what we could get away with. We figured out pretty quickly that Summerside was ready for something a little more modern and quirky.
Is there anything new and exciting coming up at OpenEats that you’d like to share?
We are getting ready to do some renos in the fall, which is super exciting! More wine storage so we can expand our wine menu a little, a little more room in the “kitchen” so we can play around with some new ideas.
Tell me a little about who owns OpenEats, and their role in the restaurant.
Alex Clark is the man behind the vision. He does everything from managing the social media, to marketing, to bartending, to shucking oysters, to washing dishes. He’s the most involved owner I’ve ever been lucky enough to work with – but I can’t say much more than that because it’ll go to his head. Another owner is Scott Brown – he owns the building, does renos, hooks up equipment, fixes whatever breaks down, gets in the dishpit – also plays a very important role for us.
Is there a chef that you admire?
I admire the chef parents of the industry. This industry is mentally and physically exhausting, and when you add raising a child to that mix you’re faced with a whole other set of challenges. The mothers and fathers working in kitchens every day pursuing their passions and then going home to feed more mouths are the real MVP’s.