Actinolite: A Bright Light on Ossington

Have you ever noticed that neighbourhood spot on Ossington south of Dupont on the east side, always looking so warm and welcoming? This is where Chef Justin Cournoyer and his wife and partner Claudia, use Actinolite Restaurant to share their life lessons, creating very unique experiences at one of Toronto’s best hidden gems. I sat down with Justin recently to talk about the journey to get the restaurant to where it is today, the successes and failures, and lessons learned. It is always fascinating to get a peek behind the curtain, and Justin believes in leaving it wide open. This is how you grow, according to the 40-year-old chef, who is from the same eastern Ontario town as his restaurant’s namesake.

  

It is always fascinating to get a peek behind the curtain, and Justin believes in leaving it wide open

The biggest impact we can have on our community, and on our region is to connect with the people who grow our food, and it isn’t hard, this we can both agree on. “Cooking is a journey and a commitment; you need to bring well-grown food to your plate, don’t overcomplicate it, make it a priority, and be healthier on a daily basis,” states Cournoyer emphatically. “Everyone has to adjust his or her priorities, especially we chefs,” he concludes.

Greenhouse effect: Choosing regionally grown ingredients is Actinolite’s key

The focus on improving the economy and our ecosystem by making simple changes in our daily habits, including cooking more at home and making healthier food, with better but less proteins, is something we are both so passionate about telling the people we interact with.

Cooking is a journey and a commitment; you need to bring well-grown food to your plate, don’t overcomplicate it

We connected instantly, on a blisteringly cold day in January, with the sun shining in the window of the restaurant, and his staff bustling around us, once in a while stopping our conversation to draw on the knowledge of their general as they got ready for a busy evening service.

The gathering: Actinolite Chef Justin Cournoyer (Bottom Right) and his crew share a meal at the restaurant

The data collection system at the restaurant, which is very thorough, has allowed them their success, and is helping to create templates by which the restaurant and surrounding community can benefit from such an insightful chef and team; it’s one of the most impressive things about Actinolite.

This fascinating use of resources is a big part of what they stand for, through the conservation of said resources and using as much or as little as

Keeping it fresh: Foraging for lichen and other seasonal ingredients

possible when creating food in the kitchen, and working with things at the peak of their seasonality.

This means fresh or many preservation techniques like fermentation, which the chef is a big fan of. This also means using the radiators and pilot light on the stove to dry and dehydrate food, reusing water from the circulator they sometimes cook vegetables in, using the pilot lights to keep it above room temperature to use less energy for boiling when prep for the day begins, and so much more.

What they do at Actinolite Justin calls ‘Regional Canadian’, using Canadian ingredients with internationally influenced technique, calling on lessons he and his cooks have learned throughout their lives and careers, to create something so very special.

This is evident on the menu, when you see items like miso created with local ingredients, foraged mushrooms, or walnut milk with locally foraged nuts.

Fresh fiddleheads are part of Actinolite’s familiar philosophy

You will also see fish and oysters that are in season from Canada’s three coasts, and meat only at certain times of year that make sense to the chef. But you will also find pepper, lemons, coffee and chocolate in the restaurant because maturity breeds understanding that flexibility is ok. Balance is key to Cournoyer, and making intelligent choices.

This evolution has also imparted the knowledge of when and how to serve things at their peak, which makes his style of cooking so fascinating.

 

Balance is key to Cournoyer, and making intelligent choices

I told Justin he should write a book, and he is, kind of. His involvement in the community stretches to the classroom, where he is involved in his sons’ school; he wants to teach the kids about food, which is sorely lacking from the modern curriculum, and he is also writing a manual for the restaurant, which he hopes to share with the community to further the messages he wants to teach. We both agree that societal priorities need to change and that the hospitality community can be part of the solution, but really it is those at the top, meaning government and administrations, that need to be shown what we are doing wrong. To a lot of us this is all common sense, but we are part of the 1 per cent of food, and are hugely outnumbered.

…Societal priorities need to change and…the hospitality community can be part of the solution

Thankfully attitudes are changing, slowly but surely.

Vision often provides clarity, taking into consideration where you come from and the perspective that vision has given you. Question what you do on a daily basis, and only put good fuel in your body. Place value and priority on proper nourishment, only taking what you need, connect with food and culture. Evolve and celebrate, and be better as a community. Don’t reinvent the wheel, but look to the past for lessons on success.

Place value and priority on proper nourishment, only taking what you need, connect with food and culture

Simple is best, and you can visit Actinolite to taste what all of these things mean to Justin and his team by trying their carefully crafted loving plates.

Look out for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) coming soon, where Justin is partnering with some of his farmers to bring good food to his community, and support these farmers when they have extra produce. Sustainability means supporting your community and eating from your region, this is what Justin and Actinolite stand for, and I would really appreciate you stopping in for a meal to learn more. I think, like me, you will fall in love instantly.


In case you tuned in expecting the usual Q&A, here it is below:


Meating Chefs with Justin Cournoyer of Actinolite Restaurant

 

What is your first food memory?

The family garden with green peppers and corn on the cob, frogs’ legs and fishing pike. Rabbits and partridge, too, and hunting and killing your food was very special at a young age. Visually I can feel the soil, plating potatoes in the shaded garden, it is very tactile. Just really simple garden vegetables.

 Who and what motivates you when you are creating new dishes for the restaurant?

It’s always about the product, honour and respect to whoever grew or raised it. Respecting the land and the farmers, and cultural influence.

You define the style of your restaurant as Regional Canadian, what does that mean to you?

Follow the land and the farm, build your pantry and be committed to regional food because of our seasons, cook within season and utilize the cultural influence of those who have immigrated here to tap into their right culture and history and apply it to our local ingredients. Pick your battles. Use things at their peak where they are available from that is a comfortable circumference to you, and for me that depends on the season. We forage not only in the back alleys and parks and in our neighbours yard, north of the city, but also back in Actinolite near Tweed.

Are seasonal and sustainable intrinsically linked?

Yes, as I said as a chef it is most important to eat from your region. Sustainable and organic are also linked, because a good farmer who is growing proper organics or biodynamics is using their ecosystem to create amazing and healthy soil. Don’t take too much, and always give back through diversity of ecosystem.

You are in your sixth year, what do you identify as the “ah hah” moment that showed you the path that the restaurant would end up on? 

In the beginning I was cooking European food that was taught to me by chefs and my wives family, and while I knew I was a good chef it was my first time having my own restaurant, so I fell into a familiar rhythm. I then started to question and utilize better ingredients I stated to cook differently. Honour, respect and control how we use things in the restaurant became the focus. I came to the conclusion that if we were taking such care to gather our ingredients we have to utilize them at their peak, and right away. The idea came to me from this that we had to move to a tasting menu. Drawing on my experience working at Susur, and motivation from what was happening at restaurants like Faviken and Noma abroad, to find our own comfort with our menu and use of ingredients. When we changed the concept of the restaurant we lost about 97% of our customers, and if we didn’t own the building we would have closed. Then we took the time to experiment and live in an uncomfortable place, it was the only way we could find success and the right path. I had no idea what I was doing, and didn’t have the answers to a lot of questions I was being asked, and I’m an honest person. I felt like I was staging in my own restaurant, and that was a very hard time for me. I truly believed I was doing to right thing, and then 3 years ago the bells went off. It clicked, what now has become Actinolite’s regional Canadian cuisine. Document the growing season, and have relationships with the farmer and community, log it all and learn from the patterns of information.

To help best respect the ingredients and their freshness, and to avoid the loss of a product because someone didn’t chose it on the menu, we had to change. Instead of giving people what they wanted I was taking control and through my menu demonstrating to our customer what I thought they should be eating.

It’s about the what, when and how, but there are no rules. Gather data to develop systems to allow for creativity.

If you could source anything locally that is not found in Canada, what would that be?

Avocado

What is your favourite of the 4 seasons, from an ingredient perspective?

I just get excited about the next season. Winter is exciting because there is less to use but more you can do with those ingredients.

What is your favourite cut of meat to cook?

Right now the whole (beef) blade. We age it for three months, encased in beef fat, and then start to put it on the menu. We have an amazing dish on the menu right now from this summers beef; raw chopped beef, fermented black beans, and pickled Jerusalem artichokes marinated in fermented soya from last years beef trim, and our house pickles and an celery herb oil.

What’s your favourite staff meal?

I let the staff all take turns, to impart that cultural influence on the kitchen. So, right now, Korean food from Kwan, or Jorge’s taquitos and Mexican lasagna are also a huge favourite.

What is your edible guilty pleasure?

Cheese and pickles late at night. Or potato chips tossed in pickle juice, which makes me feel like absolute garbage the next day, but it’s worth it.

What was your favourite job, to date?

Right here and now with this restaurant, because no one can tell me what to do. If I want to serve goat brain, and I have, then I will.

If you could give one piece of advise to the cooks of tomorrow, what would it be?

Question everything you do, how you live and how you cook. Don’t follow what’s been told to you, question and make it your own and fit in for you. Try to look at things in a different way. Cook what you know, use your strengths and always know why. If you don’t know why you are doing something you shouldn’t be doing it.


Photo credit (this page): Arash Moallemi

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