“It’s really good for you, I hope you like it,” our waiter says earnestly, as we listen to his recitation of ingredients from cattail hearts to carrot-fed cricket granola, and dishes from stinging nettle spaghetti with spherified sunflower milk, to walnut foie with sprouted ancient grains, cranberries and orange. This is intellectual cuisine, concerned with the function of cuisine, but it doesn’t demand anything from us except to appreciate and admire the colours, the textures, the design, nuance and care of every single ingredient. It doesn’t challenge us so much as it invites us to participate. We completely trust this kitchen.
Dehydrated flax-based okara crackers with carrot and orange are served to us raw to preserve the nutrients inherent in them, and accompanied by cultured cashew butter and pro-biotic crème fraiche. Quail from Quebec is enlivened with savoury pear butter, dessert apples and an essence of smoked tea and pine tips. Ontario lamb is tenderly cooked for 13 hours with Moroccan spices, and presented with a meticulous arrangement of vibrant colour, flavour and nutraceuticals. The kitchen is like a lab. “Everyone here is driven more by their heart than their skill set,” shares chef/owner Jacob Sharkey Pearce. “The defining characteristic in assembling the right team is ultimately, “do you have the love and appreciation for the people around you?” Because we can teach you the rest.”
It’s about the integrity of the process from preparation to presentation, portion size and maintaining optimal nutrition. This is not a restaurant ahead of its time; this is a restaurant doing exactly what it should be doing at precisely the right time.
Sara Waxman: Something new is happening to cuisine in our city, but there is no one else doing what you’re doing. I have never seen anything like it before except, perhaps, in a California health spa. How did you create this food style? Did you study it somewhere?
Jacob Sharkey Pearce: It’s in vogue for people to say they’re local, and they talk about sustainability, and then they put a nasturtium leaf on a plate and call it high cuisine. One of the biggest defining pieces of our equation is that there is a genuine purpose, a reason behind all of this. We have a farm up north, we slaughter our own animals, we grow everything on the roof, all of our dairy is done in-house from scratch. We make soymilk and tofu from scratch.
I started a company with my brother doing diet and nutrition work for professional athletes. I learned there was a real function, and for a decade or more I had been cooking for thousands of people, and working with a lot of intelligent doctors and trainers, and I realized the importance of the connection between what you eat, when, why and how, and the health and vitality of it.
Why do I use fresh turmeric all the time? Turmeric is one of the best known anti-inflammatories. Internal inflammation of the digestive system is one of the leading causes for the majority of illnesses and diseases that are plaguing North American societies. Why do I make strawberry kamboucha with the ceviche? Kamboucha is good bacteria, and has a positive effect on internal inflammation. It increases the growth of good bacteria to aid digestion. We should only be eating so much red meat, and we should not be eating more than four ounces of it, so we’re exploring alternative proteins. I could put a grasshopper down in front of you in a form that would make you sing. I’m trying to breakdown that barrier.
SW: You have a unique, distinct philosophy, point of view, and menu. How did you get from there to here?
JSP: As a young cook not knowing what I was going to do up to now, there was a natural progression. To be completely honest, there was
always a yearning and a drive and a want to help something or somebody. Originally, I wanted to be a nurse before I wanted to be a chef.
SW: Your original respect came for the body, and then you created the cuisine.
JSP: 100 percent. How we write a new menu or sit down to write a new dish is not about what cool protein can we find and then start putting things on top of it, it’s about what’s missing from the menu. If someone were to have a tasting menu right now, is there enough pre-biotic fibre? Is there enough pro-biotic? Is there enough raw food? What’s the ratio of grain to vegetable on the plate? It’s a discussion about that first, and then it’s about what is seasonal.
SW: Your menu asks something of us. It asks us to be aware of what we are eating, marvel at how beautiful it looks, and enjoy how it tastes. It’s unique. If you were in New York City, your restaurant would be lined up. It is unusual that you are so little known in this city, because it tells me that while everyone is saying we are world class, we are still quite provincial in our habits.
JSP: The goal is for anybody at any moment to have that guttural reaction to what’s in front of them. If you come in here without any prior knowledge it can be a little overwhelming. The layperson needs to be prepared ahead of time for what they should expect. The vegan and vegetarian communities who are always looking for something a little nicer, a little more intelligent, maybe, as opposed to the standard fare that they do get, they love to come here, and are big supporters. So, we’ll do a five to seven course vegan tasting at the drop of a hat.
The task is, if you’re not going to leave people with that belt bursting association of being full, then value for money has to mean something more important.
In the kitchen with Jacob Sharkey Pearce
Quebec Royal Quail Ursa 924 Queen St., W., Toronto (416) 536-8963 www.ursarestaurant.com