Can you describe the concept behind Liberty Commons?
Liberty Commons is a proper Canadian gastropub in the heart of Liberty Village. We try our best to work with local farms, Canadian fisheries and other farms across the country. We serve seasonal, humble yet well-thought-out food that pairs great with Big Rock Brewery beers made in our in-pub micro brewery. All this is combined with stellar service. If you’re stopping by for a pint of craft beer, a pre-game burger or a sit-down dinner, you’ll go home feeling satisfied and well taken care of.
Liberty Commons is big on two things — great beer and great, hearty food. Is this an amalgamation of your own personal approach to hospitality?
Definitely. Growing up on the south coast of England and living in London, I would find myself popping down to the pub with my mates to have a couple cheeky pints and some good pub grub. Great food doesn’t have to be accompanied by fancy tablecloths, wine and dress shoes. Some of my favourite food memories are of drinking English cask ales wearing a hoodie and a pair of Converse, so I definitely believe in “great beer and great, hearty food.” That being said, good pub food isn’t easy. It takes a lot of maturity to serve humble food, and paying attention to the little details and to the quality of your ingredients matters. This is something I try to instill in my sous chefs and cooks.
We hear that you love cooking with vegetables, at home and at Liberty Commons. Can you tell us more about that?
Not all people know this about me, but I enjoy eating vegetables more than meat and fish. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not a vegetarian, I just enjoy the flavour and seasonality of veggies more. My dad tells stories of when I was a baby and my mum shoveled mashed swede and carrots in my mouth, so maybe that explains it! And growing up, my parents and grandparents would always serve us lots of vegetables and we had no choice but to eat them.
Sunday lunches always consisted of meat, gravy, Yorkshire puddings and around seven vegetable side dishes. Roasted parsnips — my favourite vegetable in the world — Nan’s roast potatoes, mashed swede, stewed carrots, cauliflower cheese, peas, leeks, broccoli… The list was always changing. We always eagerly anticipated Grandad’s home-grown runner beans in the summer, which inspired me to use lots of vegetables both in the pub and at home. Working in multiple fine-dining restaurants in the UK and at Canoe here in Canada only made me love preparing vegetables more. Always my favourite part of the dish!
How do you integrate vegetables into a pub environment?
At the pub we use vegetables in lots of different ways. Our salad station is probably features the most. Our salads are full of roasted, charred, raw, pickled, preserved and fresh vegetables. I also use veggies to help elevate meat- or fish-forward dishes. I also like using vegetables to lighten up a dish — like adding acidity with a pickle, body or creaminess with a purée, or just adding a few shaved vegetables for colour and freshness.
Chefs are great drivers of change, and we’ve been seeing the plant-based movement emerge over the last couple years. What are your thoughts on that?
I think chefs are trying to take more care when cooking with plant-based foods. I don’t think it’s going to overtake the meat gluttons’ desires anytime soon, but chefs are becoming more creative with fruit and vegetable preparations. I wish everyone would eat a few more vegetables and a little less meat every day — not only for a healthy and balanced diet, but so that the meat production industry can put more energy into ethically raising and creating tastier meat. Canada has an abundance of amazing vegetables, fruit and grains. The more we try to eat local and give constructive feedback, the more information and resources farmers have to produce tastier and more nutritious foods for us.
What are your favourite vegetable-focused dishes to serve your guests at Liberty Commons?
I have a couple. Some of my cooks and I got to go to Norfolk County last summer with 100km Foods to visit a few farms. As a corn lover, Welsh Bros. corn farm was really cool, but the highlight for us was Round Plains Plantation. The farmers down there grow many vegetables, but at the time we went they had just planted sweet potato and peanuts side by side. Apparently they both like to grow in the same soil. This little fact inspired us to create a new dish at Liberty Commons a couple months later: slow-cooked sweet potato tossed in Pristine Gourmet sunflower oil and smoked with Tamarack Farms applewood, and served with Round Plains peanut putter, spiced peanuts, Osprey Bluffs honey, radishes and mixed spicy greens from the New Farm. It was amazing.
Another vegetable-focused favourite is our Saskatoon Lentil Biriyani. As an Englishman I love Indian food. This dish uses spices and rice from India mixed with Canadian lentils, cauliflower, onions, tomatoes, celeriac, carrots and rutabaga. It’s served piping hot in a stone bowl similar to bibimbap, and garnished with fresh cilantro, a fermented lime pickle sauce, raisins and almonds. Wow! Suddenly we’re eating delicious, nutritious vegetarian — even vegan — food without needing a huge slab of animal protein to fuel us through the day. That’s why I love vegetables.