After experiencing a superb Brewmaster’s Dinner at Toronto’s Saint Tavern, we sat down with resident Chef Jesse Vallins to speak about beer and many other things…
Good Food Revolution: So we just enjoyed a fantastic Brewmaster’s Dinner at The Saint Tavern… When did you end up at The Saint and what brought you there?
Jesse Vallins: I’m glad you enjoyed the dinner so much, thank you. I’ve been at The Saint since April 2013. I had been on parental leave from work for almost a year and was looking to get back into the industry. A friend of mine introduced me to Rob Gentile, one of the owners of The Saint, they were looking for a chef and it was a great opportunity.
GFR: And that beer dinner with Amsterdam was the first in a series right? Please tell me a little more about those…
JV: The first of many, hopefully. For this first one, I got together with the Amsterdam brewmaster, Iain McOustra, and we had a chat about what we wanted to do from both the food and the beer sides. We were very much on the same page and over a few weeks, fine tuned our ideas into a menu. We were both very happy with how the whole thing turned out.
At The Saint, we’re looking to get one together every few months with a different brewery and do similar events. I’d like to start doing themes, like beer and sausages, beer and seafood, beer and game…..the sky’s the limit. I think this is an exciting time for beer in Ontario. I mean, when I first was getting into beer, about 15 years ago, a lot of Ontario beer was a study in mediocrity.
There were some great breweries who were doing good things, like Black Oak, Denison’s, and The Granite. For the most part, though, most people weren’t educated about beer, and because of that, most of the breweries that were around were only as good as they had to be. Now there are over 100 breweries in the province and people are really getting into it, again, it’s an exciting time for us for beer. There’s a great scene going on and we want to embrace it.
GFR: Now I had no idea that you were a certified Beer Cicerone… I mean, I knew that you enjoyed your beer, but that is some next level stuff. How did that come about?
JV: Well, I’ve always been a bit of a drinks geek, for sure, but beer is my main playground. The Cicerone Certification Organization is an independent body who tests people’s beer knowledge covering everything from beer history and brewing to food and beer, draft systems and liquor laws. There is no class to take to prepare, it’s basically all self study. I had been reading, studying, and tasting beer for years and wanted to do something constructive with a hobby. It ended up being one of the most intense tests I’ve ever taken, but very rewarding to pass.
GFR: And how do you enjoy incorporating beer into your dishes? Those dishes you served the other night were most impressive, especially the beef shoulder and smoked sausage…
JV: There was actually no beer in the beef and sausage dish, or most of the menu for that matter. The only dish from that dinner which incorporated beer was the carrot and IPA soup, where we used a small amount of beer to knock some of the sweetness out of the carrots, and used the citrus and piney flavour in the hops as a kind of seasoning.
It may sound a bit strange coming from someone who likes beer as much as I do, but I don’t really like cooking with beer. The way I see it, the only time you should ever be cooking with beer, is when beer is your first liquid of choice for the specific dish. If you’re only adding beer to say you did, or as a gimmick, in my opinion, you’re doing a disservice to the food and the beer. I’m much more into the pairing aspect of beer and food. Especially with cheese.
GFR: How have you changed the menu around since you arrived at The Saint? How would you describe it to the uninitiated?
JV: Since coming on board I’ve changed the menu a few times. I’ve kept things in the same spirit of the restaurant, but tried to make dishes that are more my style, and that are unique to The Saint as best I can. I always find it difficult to describe my our style of food. We’re a tavern, so I suppose you could just call it “tavern food”, but there really isn’t a set definition of what tavern food is.
I’d say have a look at the menu on the website. I will say that as a tavern, we need to be welcoming to everyone, and that extends to what we offer on the menu, so even at our most creative everything is familiar and comforting. Oh, and we make great sausages, which are a specialty of mine. And we have the best burger in the city.
GFR: I’d love to hear your thoughts on the current Ossington strip’s dining scene? Have we reached saturation point as of yet?
JV: I think there’s a great scene and I love the variety. I don’t get out in the area that often, but I love Bellwoods and Get Well for a drink and I think The Grove is one of the best restaurants in the city. So long as there are guests to fill the restaurants the saturation point is a matter of personal opinion. I’m fine with it.
GFR: Are there any current menu trends that you feel are at the end of their tethers?
JV: I’m not really sure. I try not to pay attention to trends and just focus on what I like.
GFR: And what would you like to see more of on Toronto menus?
JV: Bacon, I guess. That and I’d really like to see at least one restaurant in Toronto offer proper cheese service from a trolley. It’s my favourite way to end a meal, and to my knowledge, no one in the city does it. I’d love to be wrong about that, though.
GFR: Where can folks go to find out more about the upcoming Brewmasters’ Dinners?
JV: Follow us on twitter. @thesainttavern
GFR: Thanks for your time Jesse.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he’ll certainly be attending a few more of these beer dinners.