Photo: Alex Stead
Gabby Peyton Pens a Love Letter to Canadian Restaurants and Cuisine
In ‘Where We Ate,’ the St. John’s food writer explains how immigration shaped our palates and why Greeks own so many pizza joints / BY Kim Honey / June 9th, 2023
Food writer and critic Gabby Peyton fell in love with restaurants when she started working at the now-defunct St. John’s eatery called Get Stuffed, and tried foie gras and sweetbreads for the first time, learned to pop a cork and cracked black pepper over many a plate. After getting her master’s in art history, Peyton started writing a blog in 2021 about dining out in Halifax, where her husband was doing a law degree. A gig writing about iconic regional food for the Canadian Food Bloggers of Canada piqued her interest in the social and economic context around food and restaurants, so, in 2017, she started researching what would become Where We Ate: A Field Guide to Canada’s Restaurants, Past and Present.
Half the fun comes from its table of contents. As your eye travels down the list of eateries – organized by decade, beginning with pre-Confederation and ending in the 2010s – be prepared for a stab of recognition, followed by a tsunami of nostalgia, as you travel back in time to relive your first blintz or plate of chicken balls smothered in red sauce.
In a phone interview from her home in St. John’s, Peyton explains how she chose the 150 establishments featured in the book, why Greeks own so many pizza joints and how ginger beef was invented.
Kim Honey: You know the East Coast food scene, and especially the Newfoundland and Labrador scene, inside and out. How did you research the rest of the Canada?
Gabby Peyton: The idea when I first pitched the book was for me to travel across Canada and visit all these places and interview people face to face, but, sadly, the pandemic happened. I signed the book deal in the summer of 2020, so I ended up spending hundreds of hours on Zoom instead. I really wanted to make sure that I got an accurate snapshot of every province and territory. That was really important.
KH: How did the book come about?
GP: I started writing a column for the Food Bloggers of Canada website on iconic Canadian foods, so I did stories on how the donair came to be and how poutine was invented. That really got me thinking about food history and restaurants in Canada, and how every story was so similar, where [an immigrant] moved here, they opened a restaurant and adapted dishes or their cuisine to suit where they were living. That’s why donairs exist, that’s why ginger beef exists.
KH: I’ve been to Montreal so many times I had never heard of Auberge Saint-Gabriel, which has been serving food and drink since 1769. Have you been there?
GP: I wish I had, but no, I interviewed the owner about it. That one stuck out because it was so old. I wanted to situate Montreal as having restaurants for hundreds of years.
KH: I got stuck on the table of contents, flipping back and forth, identifying restaurants I’d been to and reading about them. It was very nostalgic. Why are restaurant meals such a powerful prompt for memories about our lives? And why don’t I remember what I ate?
GP: Restaurants are so much more than the food that we ate. For many people, they are where we go to celebrate all those big milestones – a first date, Thanksgiving with your parents, an anniversary or a birthday. They are places people look at very fondly. The atmosphere – the music and the lighting and the decor –contribute to that sense of nostalgia, and it really transports people. And that’s really what I wanted to do in the book. I really wanted to be able to grab a snippet from time and transport people back to places they have been to and loved, or places where they haven’t been before.
KH: So, you’re not offended that I spent so much time with the table of contents?
GP: No, I love that. In my proposal I had 400 restaurants, and my editor said absolutely not. That was probably one of the hardest parts of the whole process, narrowing the restaurants down and picking the 150 that are in the book.
KH: How many have you eaten at?
GP: When I started writing, there were 85 open. I think 12 of them closed because of COVID-19 in the three years that I was writing the book, which is really sad. So, I’d have to go back and count. I don’t actually know.
KH: You have six restaurants in Newfoundland and Labrador. Obviously, you’re eaten at a lot of restaurants there. Was it hard not to favour your home province?
GP: I tried to be as objective as possible when it came to choosing the restaurants, because I wanted to put ones in there that really had impacts on the dining scene – the Raymonds and the Mallard Cottages – but also the ones that were incredibly influential, like Chess’s. I mean, fish and chips is an iconic dish here.
KH: Tell me your story about not liking cod as a child.
GP: In Newfoundland, they would dry and salt it on the beach. So that, or the smell of it being cooked in the house, was not something I ever liked. When I lived away and then would come home, my husband’s family would have fish and chips. That’s when I really started to warm up to it, in addition to making cod au gratin, which is what my Chatelaine article was about. It’s basically a base cod dish with a lot of cheese. I love fish now, but it took a while.
KH: Lots of people have tried to answer the question: What is Canada cuisine? Why did you take a crack at it?
GP: In the book, I show there is no one canon, and that’s the beauty of Canadian cuisine. There is this amazing patchwork quilt of all these different people who have come from all over the world and created this unique cuisine that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. And that’s really evident in the regional foods. It’s so multicultural.
KH: So ginger beef is one of those dishes adapted to incorporate whatever the spices were available?
GP: When I spoke with the owner of the Silver Inn Restaurant in Calgary, first of all, he wouldn’t give me the recipe, which was hilarious. He said it was an adaptation from chili beef, because people coming to his restaurant didn’t like very spicy things. He had spent some time working in British pubs before he came here, and he learned [Westerners] like things with sauce on it and things that are deep fried. So, he opted to deep fry the beef and then put a thick sauce on top.
KH: Why do Greek Canadians own so many pizza joints?
GP: Chain migration – where a lot of people moved from the same town – was pretty heavy in the Greek Canadian population compared to other ones. It was, ‘Okay, my bud is doing it, so I’m just gonna do it, too.’ They were already in that sphere and could give each other a leg up. When you think about culinary history in Canada, a Greek founded Boston Pizza, invented Hawaiian pizza and invented the donair. They have made a giant contribution that I think people don’t necessarily always recognize. They also invented Fat Boys in Winnipeg, and any place that claims they invented the Fat Boy is owned by a Greek person who worked at the other person’s restaurant at some point.
KH: Do you feel you have succeeded in writing a love letter to Canadian restaurants?
GP: I think so. I felt it was a story that really hadn’t been told in a comprehensive way. I wanted to be able to give a face to all the people that invented poutine and invented donairs – all those mom and pops across Canada. I wanted to give them some love and talk about how much I love restaurants, so I feel I did.
KH: You organized this by decades. Was that because you wanted to talk about waves of immigration happening at the time in the introduction to each decade?
GP: Every chapter has an essay that talks about the socio-political [reasons for] the immigration wave that would’ve happened in and around that time. Restaurant trends in Canada and immigration is so connected, and that is the reason why so many of them exist. If you think about the explosion of Chinese restaurants in the forties and fifties after the 1947 Exclusion Act was [repealed], I think you’re able to trace why we eat what we eat, depending on different waves of immigration.