A brain tumour, a weekend with a celebrity chef, and 2 well-decorated chef brothers reuniting in, of all places, Portugal Cove, Newfoundland. These seemingly unrelated events have blended together to cook up what might become greater St. John’s greatest new restaurant. You can go be the judge of that yourself when they open June 2nd.
The Partners are Partners in Real Life Too
Paul Alexander and Cindy Hann are partners in The Angry Urchin, and partners in real life. Fittingly, it was food that brought them together as a couple, years before it brought them together as business owners. “Cindy was the better cook when we first met,” Paul jokes. “I was a guy who’d heat it up out of the box and call it supper. We would eventually start cooking our meals together, open a bottle of wine, and make a night out of it. That turned into every night, and we found ourselves making three courses a night for supper, and spending our time in front of the stove instead of the TV.”
They Got Into The Restaurant Business by Circumstance
Six years ago Cindy was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was put on an extended medical leave from a job that she could never return to. “This forced us to reevaluate what was important in life,” Paul says, “and how we could live.”
By answering the age old question of, “If you won the lottery and didn’t have to work, what would you do?” they settled on opening a café to keep themselves busy. “So we did that,” he says, “minus winning the lottery.” And minus the café too. They bought the Wild Horses Pub in Portugal Cove – and its view to die for. It sits right where cars line up for the Bell Island Ferry, a stone’s throw from where Atlantica used to be. They ran the place for a few months as a crash course in the industry, then shut it down for renovations, a rebrand, and a rebirth a The Angry Urchin.
It’s a fitting name for a spot whose co-owner has an urchin spike permanently lodged at the base of his thumb. Paul fished for a living for a few years, and managed to swipe an urchin the wrong way one day.
Landing Their Head Chef Was a Total Mistake
Despite being decent chefs in their own right, the duo knew they needed a proper head chef to run the kitchen. And by a total mistake they lucked into Jesse Woodland – a recent winner of the Canadian Food Cooking Championships in the seafood category.
From there he went on to represent Canada at the World Food Championships in Alabama – it’s the largest food competition in North American, with prizes totalling hundreds of thousands of dollars, and winners enjoying fame and celebrity chef status. Jesse’s team placed 10th, which is remarkable given that hundreds of teams from all over compete in the event.
The dish he won with in Canada was one of the highest scoring dishes in the entire competition, across all categories.
“I accidentally applied for the job,” Woodland says laughing. “because I didn’t read where it was located.” He was flipping through Indeed (a job bank) looking for head chef positions in his hometown of Edmonton. “I had my area set to Edmonton, so I assumed all the results would be in Edmonton. I saw Paul’s post and applied, and next thing I know I’m getting an email saying, ‘Great resume, but what are you doing applying for a job in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland?’ One thing led to another and now I’m here.”
Woodland’s Brother Happened to Be Working In NL
and Will Join Him at The Angry Urchin
Jesse’s brother Cody was already working in Newfoundland before his brother’s arrival. Cody was the former Sous Chef at Newfound Sushi in Corner Brook. He says the experience there was “really, really fun, but I got it streamlined to the point where I was more or less not a necessity anymore.” He was looking for a new gig when he found out his brother was Newfoundland bound.
But Cody won’t be in the kitchen – he’s been hired as the bar manager, and is overseeing the drink list through the lens of a chef. It won’t be the first time the siblings worked under the same roof, and they even completed their red seal chef designations together.
The Siblings Are Literally a Champion Team
The brothers have done a few cooking competitions together, including the big win at the 2016 Canadian Food Cooking Competition, and their solid performance at the World Championships where they represented Canada together. “It’s my name on the paper and everything,” Jesse says of that win “but he was part of the creative process and there with me every step of the way.”
“We were a couple of kids from the prairies going down to compete in seafood county,” Cody says. “We didn’t think we’d place at all.” They wound up in the top 10, despite the challenge of sourcing ingredients in a place they weren’t accustomed to. “On my signature dish, in Canada, I had edible flowers. But everyone I talked to at the competition was like, ‘edible flowers? What are you talking about?’”Jesse says. “I had to spend half a day searching and calling florists. I found one who knew what flowers were edible, but they were located two hours away, so I had to wake up at the crack of dawn and meet them, on the morning of a competition, so, it was an extra level of stress, but it was fun.”
Fun, but educational too. Both brothers are adamant that you learn more from cooking in these competitions than you do in the kitchen of a restaurant. “Hour for hour I learn way more competing than I do in the kitchen, “ Jesse says, “I am very detail oriented, and the level of planning that goes into a dish for these competitions is immense.”
Before even thinking about his lobster thermidor recipe he “learned every single thing there is to know about lobster … I can tell you precisely where the brain of a lobster is located, what’s edible on it, where different species come from and how that affects taste, and different things like that, whereas working in a restaurant, you’re just taught what you need to know in order to execute that restaurant’s dishes.”
Cody adds, “The pressure is different too. When you’re in a restaurant, the pressure is on, obviously, but you’re doing the same dishes repeatedly, in a space you’re used to, and you have a lot of other people to have your back. If you screw something small up, someone will catch it.”
In the contests though, “You have an hour, to do everything perfect, or you’re out, and you just wasted the last 6 months of your life. You learn to handle pressure on a whole other level.”
Celebrity Chef Michael Smith’s Role in it All
The Woodland brothers weren’t the only competition-crushing chefs Paul and Cindy have brushed shoulders with on their route to launching The Angry Urchin. Well before Jesse accidentally applied for a job at their restaurant, a weekend with celebrity chef Michael Smith set them on their course.
“Smith was the first chef we really got into,” Paul says. “We watched his show, Chef at Home, daily, and I credit him with starting me on the path to cooking. Rather than just giving recipes, he was a well of information, explaining why, how, and just what happens when ingredients get together.”
Sometime after, he and Cindy took a summer trip through the Maritimes, and while in PEI, they wanted to eat at his Inn at Bay Fortune, but found out there was a 3 month waiting list. Bummer, almost. A week after they got home from that trip, Paul saw an Air Miles contest to win a stay at his Inn, “so for fun I entered,” he says. “A few short weeks later, I was announced the winner and we were on our way back to PEI. We got to spend the weekend with our TV teacher who walked us through his amazing property, where close to 70% of his menu is grown on the grounds of the Inn, (including bacon)!
“We shucked oysters that were caught right across the street of the Inn, cut the top of a bottle of sparkling wine with a sabre, and Chef Smith personally prepared a meal for the evening with me and Cindy seated at the head table.
“It was one of the most amazing weekends, and to see a place that was almost completely self sustainable on sixty acres of land, made us wish we could have a place like that of our own, on a much smaller scale. One year later we would buy our spot in Portugal Cove.”
So Loyal to Local They Won’t Even Use Lemons
Jesse, Cody, Paul, and Cindy all share the vision of sourcing local and serving farm to table from as close as possible to their restaurant. A local cheese maker, Adam Blanchard of Five Brothers Cheese, gave them all the contacts they’d need to do so, from forager Shawn Dawson (of the Barking Kettle) to various purveyors of local meat and veggies, right down to Wild Mother Provisions for Newfoundland Beer Vinegar.
All of their produce will be locally sourced, even in the winter. “I’m going to plan for the winter,” Woodland says. “I’m not going to be able to get a lot fresh then, so a lot of it will be pickled and preserved in some way. Doing so has some challenges, but that’s how you learn, and that’s what makes menus cool and unique, right?”
Paul adds that “all our meat is coming from the Conception Bay area, from Craig Taylor and those guys.” Apparently local beef has a gamier taste than the Alberta beef we’re accustomed to here, which they say doesn’t make it better or worse, just different and local. It’s shocking to think most Newfoundlanders don’t know what local beef tastes like, having never tried it.
Paul says it’s like a cross between moose and cow, and Jesse says it’s important to serve local meat on the same dish as local veggies, because it’s what the animal ate, so the plate’s more connected and full circle on the palate. “It makes it a perfect pairing as cows naturally, very subtly taste of what they eat.”
Cody adds that “as much as possible behind the bar will feature locally sourced ingredients too. There’s not a drink on the cocktail menu that doesn’t have something foraged by Shawn Dawson in there,” he laughs.
Cody says it’s not that difficult to be so fresh and local, if you have the motivation. Especially since everyone here in the food industry is so supportive of each other. Luckily for him there’s even a local source for gin, vodka, and other spirits, from places like the Newfoundland Distillery Company and Rock Spirits.
Anyone who cooks might be surprised to hear they won’t even be using lemons and limes – kitchen staples for adding acidity to the balance in food and drinks – but as they say, “I’ll put lemons on the menu when you show me a lemon tree in Newfoundland.”
While they admit serving things like oysters without lemon juice and whiskey sours without oranges is a challenge, they say it was a fun challenge from which they learned a lot about local forageables. “We’re figuring out ways around it. And in the end it means our stuff is not the same thing you’ll find in any restaurant.”
There’s no doubt that doing so will give the place its own flair and unique menu. As an example, Cody’s take on a whiskey sour, the “Whiskey in a Jar,” is going to substitute citrus with local, sour red currants. “They’re native to Newfoundland, and if you pick them when they’re over ripe, they have a sour flavor to them that works perfect.”
Supporting local extends to the restaurant itself, down to its décor and cookware. “Everything is from as close to this place as we can find. Even the wood is Newfoundland hardwood, even the soap is from here. And the view of Bell island is quintessentially Newfoundland.”
All the wood work, like the tables, bar top, and shelves is from Out of the Woodwork NL, a new local operation: The Angry Urchin is its first big job. And Paul knew a guy who could build him a custom smoker too – so expect a tantalizing smell wafting from the place next time you’re lined up across the street for the Bell Island ferry, or if you choose to sit outside the restaurant on their patio.
Paul jokes, “Wine is going to be a struggle, we’ll have to go off the island for that for now, otherwise, everything is from as close to our restaurant as possible. We’ll make it if we can’t find it.”
Jesse adds, “We’re not doing this local focus because it’s trendy right now, we’re doing it because it makes sense. And it also means almost all of the operating costs of the restaurant is going back into local communities. There’s no reason a place like China and Japan should be making money off salt or seaweed used in Newfoundland restaurants, when this island is surrounded by sea salt and sea weed, you know?”
“What got me the most excited to come out here was Paul saying he wants a menu that’s fun and whimsical,” Jesse says. “Good food and restaurants don’t need to be stuffy. Like, I have a dish called ‘The Three Little Piggies’ that is pork three ways.”
The menu came together by looking at what’s available locally. “I’m in Newfoundland, so I wanted the menu to be half seafood. The other half is half vegetarian, and half meat-centric.”
Their blood sausage deep-fried in a Port Rexton Porter batter was a surprise hit during the menu’s creation. It’s one of the 3 items in the “Three Little Piggies” dish. People who thought they hated blood sausage “absolutely loved it.”
Jesse says “The Cloud Nine” was fun to create too. “I was trying out different ways to make meat, which is a very dense, heavy thing, feel light and fluffy and resemble a cloud.” He says forager Shawn Dawson tasted it before the Savour Food & Wine Festival and without knowing what the dish was called, said, “It’s like eating a little cloud of meat!” Mission accomplished.
Another flagship item will be their signature drink, which is quite literally mysteriously good. It’s called the Sea-sar, and it’s a blue, local twist on the Caeser. What makes it blue, they’ll never say. All they’ll concede is that it’s natural, not dyed, and totally organic and vegan-friendly. And no, it’s not blue liqueur. A more conquerable secret, they say, is what makes the shimmer of gold if you swirl their drink, “The Mermaid’s Song.”
Jesse’s favourite dish on The Angry Urchin menu is a blend of food and drink: The Mussels. While flipping through a traditional NL cookbook, he came across a recipe for molasses beer. Housemade molasses beer is now a key part of their mussels. It’s just another “something unique that’ll make people want to make that drive out to Portugal Cove.”