JONATHAN GUSHUE, THE BERLIN, & THE DELICATE BALANCE OF MENTORING
by Chris Tiessen
‘I’ve heard that as many as one in four residents in Waterloo Region either live on a farm or have family who do,’ remarks chef Jonathan Gushue as he takes a tiny break from dinner prep at his downtown Kitchener restaurant, The Berlin, to chat with me. I’m star struck. Soaking it all in. Reveling in the experience of watching the internationally-renowned chef and his team of young cooks envision and create – seemingly spontaneously – the menu for that night’s service. (I’d soon come to discover that my assumptions about their spontaneity isn’t far off the mark, since Jonathan and his team change their menu each night.)
When I say ‘Jonathan and his team’ I am thinking of what his business partner Ryan Lloyd-Craig spoke of, when we first met, as one of Jonathan’s primary mandates for The Berlin: to create a space where young cooks would be mentored and where they would flourish before finding careers in cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. ‘Jonathan’s proven himself in some of the best kitchens in the world,’ Ryan said. ‘What drives him now is his role as mentor’ – a role that’s evident if you’re lucky enough to see, as I did, Jonathan’s kitchen in action.
But Jonathan is speaking to me about something else that drives him. ‘There’s a uniquely strong culinary tradition in the region,’ he says. ‘An intimate connection between people and their food. Where it’s grown. By whom it’s raised. How it ends up on our plates. In the eyes of local folk, these factors can contribute to a phenomenal food experience.’ And these are factors that Jonathan and Ryan take very seriously. ‘There are well over four thousand registered farms in our region,’ says Ryan. ‘Local businesses that help complete a robust regional food eco-system. It only makes sense that we work closely with them.’
‘Having said this,’ adds Jonathan, ‘our commitment to cooking with regional ingredients isn’t what defines us, and it’s certainly not our differentiating factor. In my mind,’ he goes on, ‘every quality restaurant should be using local as a baseline, or starting point. What sets us apart, then, is our devotion to simplicity – to letting these great regional ingredients speak for themselves.’
Over coals. With fire.
Indeed, the hearth is central to everything Jonathan and his team do at The Berlin – a restaurant Jonathan describes as ‘ingredient-focused in the Modern European style’. Poultry. Fish. Meat. Vegetables. Fruit. Bread. Very few ingredients escape the live flames of Jonathan’s kitchen. Flames that keep the ingredients – and the chef – honest. ‘In the hearth everything’s simple. There are three options for cooking: raised above the flames, closer to the flames, or in the coal.’ And the dishes that emerge sing with subtle hints of a regional terroir released in the delicate smoke of cherry, peach, apple, and oak.*
Dishes that are ever-changing. Spider Crab and Daikon radish. Coal Roasted Hen of the Woods with Mushrooms, Cauliflower and Smoked Trout Roe. White Asparagus and Seaweed Butter. Goose Dumplings and Butter Beans.
This brings me back to my evening in The Berlin kitchen, mesmerized watching Jonathan – and his team – create absolute magic. Of seeing Jonathan the mentor as well as Jonathan the chef. And being invited to have a taste.