Cooking has remained a constant force for change in Chef Arron Carley’s life. He has overcome obstacles with his determination to become a chef. An early experience that drove him to become a chef was taking part in a cooking competition when he was in 9th grade. He says, “We faced off against three other schools and we won gold which was awesome. I’d never won anything before in my life.” His mother was encouraging about it but his step father told him it didn’t matter as he wasn’t going to amount to anything. That experience became a motivation for Carley to defy that criticism and make something of himself.
Canadian Chefs in Conversation: Arron Carley, Stratford ON
Chef Arron Carley takes an approach to food and cooking that emphasizes Canadian cuisine, as much hyper local product as possible and a respect for the environment at The Bruce.
Chef Arron Carley
A turning point in Carley’s culinary evolution came after a long stint working in casual dining restaurants. He was going through a difficult divorce. He used the crisis to drive himself forward so he accepted a job offer in fine dining. He set two goals for himself at that point - to work in the world’s best restaurant and to become a sous chef at Canoe in Toronto - and in time he acheived both of those goals.
The first goal was met when he got the chance to cook at Noma in Copenhagen. He says, “It changed me as a person, it changed how I am with people, it changed my thoughts on my kids and it changed my thoughts on food and the planet.”
After working for Oliver and Bonacini for two years, they told him that he was being promoted to the sous chef position at Canoe. It was another crucial experience for him and Carley explains, “It helped me understand more about Canadian cuisine. It showed me the impact you could make on people’s lives. Seeing all of those people smiling and enjoying themselves is just amazing.”
The approach that Carley and his team at The Bruce are taking to food is to try and define Canadian cuisine. This has been a challenge for many years but Carley says, “We look into our past, we look at what the earliest settlers and the native people ate. We look at what grows comfortably on the landscape.”
He continues, “Bananas don’t grow comfortably on the landscape here, lemons don’t grow comfortably here. We don’t use lemons, black pepper or olive oil in our kitchen.”
Ontario Peanut Chicken: Iron seared chicken breast, garlic broccoli, roasted cauliflower puree, fried wild rice, peanut
This new mindset has become ingrained in Carley’s kitchen. He says, “We’ve learned that black pepper just makes food taste like black pepper, they’ve learned that lemon juice isn’t the only thing you can season with and they’ve learned that there’s so many alternative oils that are amazing.“
The Bruce has it’s own garden in the back of the hotel, Carley and his team practice responsible foraging and they’re about to start a composting program. All of these measures are rooted in Carley’s desire to reduce environmental impact. He says, “I want to have as little a carbon footprint on the world as possible. It costs money but it’s the right of our children not to inherit a planet that’s messed up.”
Working with producers who share his ethos is something that Carley values highly. He consults farmers about what they can grow that sits comfortably on the land. He relies on their expertise to guide his choices. Eventually Carley hopes to grow most of the produce that he uses for himself to reduce his carbon footprint.
A good example of finding producers that fit into his ethical framework is the meat supplier that Carley uses. He says, “We’re using Blackview Farm. They practice polyculture farming which means that all the animals hang out together. There’s a barn they can go into if they want, they eat as much grass as they want and they eat the grains that they want.”
Food isn’t merely a canvas for creating deep flavour for Carley, it’s a way to engage with the world and ask deeper questions. He uses two dishes that he’s created to illustrate this point. The first dish was called “Life and Death” and consisted of cooked wild rice on the base with three different mushrooms prepared in three different ways. It also had micro greens and wild flowers with it and was served with a koji and ginger broth. Carley says, “The dish excited all of the senses. It looked pretty, smelled good and had tons of different textures.”
However, the dish also had a deeper meaning for Carley. He explains, “My mom passed away and I was trying to deal with my emotions. I didn’t know what to do so I buried myself in cooking. I was questioning life and death so this dish argued that question. I had the flowers and herbs that grow from the mushroms and that was a way for me to express myself.”
Fish Fritters: Sea buckthorn, gribiche, radish, pickled shallots, dill cucumber.
The second dish is called “Spuds in Dirt” and is still on the menu. It came about when Carley and his team were experimenting with making edible “soil” out of different ingredients. At the same time, they were thinking about creating a dish that referenced the iconic poutine but as Carley puts it, “You can’t just put potatoes and cheese on a plate, that’s not fine dining.”
The dish used new potatoes cooked sous vide in beer. They were accompanied by a blue cheese pudding, peanut-roasted onion “soil” and a jus made from burnt rosemary and thyme. The dish was garnished with “cowder” which was powdered dehydrated beef. The chef adds, “With this dish, we’re trying to remind people that potatoes don’t come from a bag. They come from a farmer and they come from the earth.”
The days of chefs who shouted and abused their staff are fast disappearing in Carley’s opinion. He acknowledges that some people like that still exist but says, “I hope that chefs have woken up to the fact that screaming at someone all the time just makes no sense. It doesn’t teach anyone anything and people don’t enjoy their jobs. When I got into cooking, half the time you were scared and you didn’t want to go to work. I never want to be part of that. I want to be part of something that people enjoy!”
On the other hand, Carley believes that some standards are necessary in the kitchen. He struggles with the image of some modern chefs who are extremely informal in their personal presentation. Carley says, “I think that this is a profession and therefore you’re a professional. I’m not saying that you want to look like a lawyer but I like to have a nice clean chef’s coat on. I want to feel like a million dollars when I’m in the kitchen.”
The motivation to succeed comes from many sources for Carley. His father passed away when he was four years old. Although he never met his father, he says, “He told my sister to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be. There was always that feeling that I wanted to become something. I want the people around me to grow and prosper as well.”
Another strong source of motivation was the difficult upbringing that Carley faced. He grew up around a lot of drug and alcohol abuse and violence. Most of his friends and family unfortunately succumbed to that environment but he says, “I don’t want to succumb to the nature of the beast. It’s a reminder that every day, you have to push yourself not to fall into the negative pitfalls.”
After his mother passed away, Carley struggled with her loss. He says, “I’ve never had something so intensely taken away from me before. It reminded me that you have a short window of time on earth and to make nothing of it is such a waste. I think about it every day and remind myself that I can't fall by the wayside and forget about life."
Beet Tarte Tatin: Beet mousse, roasted cocoa sorbet, sweet puff pastry, white chocolate and beet cream, salted caramel
This interview with Arron Carley was conducted via telephone and recorded on April 19, 2016.