DREAMING OF GOATS - Geir Simensen’s long path to opening Halifax’s first true gastro-pub
Like it or not, when you’re the child of an entrepreneur, you grow up in the family business. This was certainly the case for Geir Simensen, co-owner of The Stubborn Goat Gastropub, whose mom, Unni, first opened a catering business in her home when he was 11 years old.
Simensen’s first after-school job was ironing napkins for five cents apiece at his mom’s first restaurant, Scanway. Eventually he worked his way into the kitchen at 16 years old. Simensen never left kitchens after that, though he did leave Halifax at 18, and it was quite some time before he came home. “My youth was always about leaving Halifax and where I was going next,” he says. “The leaving was essential. People who grow up here don’t always appreciate how awesome the city is until they go away.”
Geir’s Great Escape
When Simensen left Halifax for the first time, it was to take an apprenticeship at Mövenpick’s prestigious downtown Toronto location. “I got my Red Seal there when I was 21, which was pretty young,” he says. While working at his mom’s place, he’d found that he had a knack for pastry, and so he became a specialist. Moving to Vancouver, he worked in the pastry department at the Four Seasons hotel for two years, then came back to Halifax before deciding to move down to the Cayman Islands, where he was pastry chef at the Hyatt Regency in Grand Cayman.
Prepping gourmet desserts in the Caymans was challenging, but Simensen says he has always loved a challenge, and that’s one reason he loves catering as much as he does. “That was an interesting experience doing chocolate work when it is 35 degrees outside and you have to find a way to get it to the executive villas,” he says. “We’d make these fun little chocolate sculptures for the rooms, put it in the freezer, then put it in a glass dome covered in towels and have the golf cart ready outside to get it over to the rooms before anything melted.”
After the Caymans, Simensen turned 30 and realized that everything he thought he’d wanted was right back where he started. “I bought a house, decided it was time to stay here and start laying some roots down,” he says.
Throughout his years of wandering, even as a rebellious teen, he never strayed from the idea of being a chef. Well, apart from a brief spell “trying to do the military thing in Norway, but that didn’t work out.” As a kid he didn’t know that he had a career plan. “One day I realized that I enjoyed what I was doing and I didn’t need to look for anything else.”
Weddings and Other Challenges
When Simensen talks about the most challenging situations he has had to deal with in his life with food, most stories come from his catering gigs. (There was the time when he chopped the tip of a finger off in one of his restaurants and an employee threw the dismembered flesh into the garbage so that it couldn’t be reattached, but that was less of a logistical challenge than crazy accident.)
“Catering is really challenging and incredibly demanding. People will come to you and say, ‘We want to have our wedding in a tent in a field, and there’s no power or water but we want it to be four courses for 120 people.’ You glaze over for a moment where you think, ‘How am I going to pull this one off?’ and then you find that solution,” he says. “There’s always a solution, you just need to find it.”
That wedding in Cape Breton proved to be especially tricky thanks to an uninvited guest in the form of a tropical storm. “We had our cooks working in rubber boots; it looked like a battle zone, but you stepped through that flap in the tent to where the guests were, it was bliss,” he says. “The table settings were incredible, and you could barely hear the rain over the music. It was utterly surreal to have this chaos in the back, but from the customers’ perspective it was the most beautiful event ever.”
As for how he handled pulling off such a huge and wonderful event in the middle of nowhere, Simensen says that he moved his kitchen crew to the field in a 30-foot RV for a few days and set up a kitchen in the back of a massive tent that had been specially erected. He rented a Greyhound bus to bring 18 servers from Halifax and then home again after the event, while his team stayed to make brunch the next day.
One of Simensen’s funniest challenges came while boiling up a load of lobsters outside for a dinner at a high-end home in New Glasgow. “It was a busy night, it was raining, and the outside light had burnt out. My mother decides that she is going to give me a hand by cutting the elastic bands off all the lobsters, so each time I had to reach in there to grab them it was a little game of roulette to see how many times they’d bite me,” he laughs.
A History in Restaurants
Simensen’s family has had numerous restaurants over the years. You can’t live in Halifax and not have been aware of at least one of them. Besides Scanway, which has been in various locations and currently exists on Grafton Street, they’ve catered at the Waegwoltic Club in Halifax for 16 years and owned Sweet Basil Bistro on the waterfront, Unni’s on Dresden Row, Cheapside Café in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Saege Bistro on Spring Garden Road.
When asked about Saege Bistro, which closed two years ago, Simensen starts by stating, “All those places had their time; we had a lot of balls in the air.” He goes on to say that although Saege had some wonderful qualities, it was confused. “The vision and the concept need to be true, that needs to be clear to your clientele so they know what they’re getting, and Saege really didn’t have that.”
He also says that Saege never really felt like it was who he was, or where he was. The Stubborn Goat, however, is exactly him, he says.
Coming up on three years old, The Stubborn Goat is loved for both its great selection of local craft beers and the fantastic food that is served up with them. “It’s everything that I dreamed a pub should be,” Simensen says. “We didn’t have any pubs in Halifax that did great food, and I wanted to have restaurant food in a pub environment because that’s where I am. I’m not a nachos-and-deep-fried-pepperoni guy; I don’t like eating shitty food that I know isn’t good for me.”
A Star is Born
A chance meeting helped Simensen take his idea of starting a gastropub and turning it into reality. “I was walking down Argyle Street one day, saw ‘Mr. Hospitality’ Joe McGuinness standing outside of Durty Nelly’s and we started chatting. Kyle Drake was brought into the chat, and we started talking about doing something together. And that’s what we came up with.”
The partnership has worked out well. “I have great business partners. The three of us are optimistic people who try and create a positive experience, and by doing that we’ve managed to surround ourselves with remarkably talented and happy staff,” says Simensen. “We’ve created an environment that talented people want to be a part of, and that’s what makes The Stubborn Goat successful.”
If you’ve eaten at The Stubborn Goat, you know that yes, the food is excellent, but it isn’t fussy. This brings its own set of challenges. “Doing simple food well is a lot more difficult than doing complicated food. You can’t hide anything,” says Simensen. “You can’t take a shitty product and mask it in so many different flavours and sauces to make it tasty. If you only have four or five ingredients on your plate, they all need to be superstars to make it work. It’s not enough to just be local; it has to be good local.”
The concept has been a clear winner for Halifax, and this year they expanded, opening The Stubborn Goat Beer Garden on the waterfront. Visitors can expect the same fantastic food and locally brewed beers — and lots of them. You can order up everything from ceviche, to tacos, to Norwegian fish cakes, not to mention all sorts of delicious items done with sausage. “There are our pogos made with bratwurst from The Pork Shop, and our Hawaiian dog, which is wrapped in Oulton’s bacon served with a pineapple salsa. Then there’s something that we call a Hali-dog, which is made with a Rose Lane Farm’s Euro-Weiner, and we also do a chili dog with that too,” says Simensen. “It’s a surprising menu to make out of that trailer. Let’s see if we can pull it all off!”
Though quite obviously head-over-heels in love with everything going on at The Stubborn Goat, Simensen hasn’t forgotten his first love, pastry. The new Scanway on Grafton is now two years old, and this year he is planning to launch a self-serve ice cream service there. The ice cream mix will be made from scratch with local strawberry preserves, and, of course, there will be a whole bunch of great toppings. “I take every chance I have to make ice cream; it’s just fun,” he says with obvious joy. And besides, it is the sweet treats that impress his two children the most. “My kids are just pretty excited about the fact that dad makes donuts,” he says.
Frankly, the rest of us are excited about pretty much anything Simensen serves up, and very glad indeed that he chose to come home and stay.