LE CAVEAU - A look inside one of Nova Scotia's BEST local eateries
I can come up with a million reasons why you would want be in the culinary epicentre of our province. Le Caveau Restaurant at the Domaine de Grand Pré Winery is one of them.
There’s something special about this place in the approach; the landscape shifts to dykelands, fields and settlements on hillsides. Steeped in regional history—Grand Pré is a UNESCO World Heritage Site—the area was first established by Acadians in the late 1600s. As you walk onto the property, you’re kind of smacked with an old-world feel combined with new-world flair, and then it’s up to the tasting room and retail shop, the main house, and, finally, the restaurant. Founded in 1978, this was the first winery in Nova Scotia, and parts of the vineyard overlook the Bay of Fundy.
Once inside, light pours in through large windows, yet you can still tuck into a cavernous bank of seats. Cracking open that wine cellar door and delving a little deeper, I begin to discover what I knew to be true: a tightknit family with an underlying, life-long love of food and community. They’re not just passionate about the award-winning wines they’re pumping out here; they have a united outlook about the place they’ve chosen to put down roots, in spite of all the personalities in the mix. They’ve set the stage for our burgeoning wine and food scene in rural Nova Scotia, and until very recently Le Caveau was the only winery in the province that offered a full wine-and-dine experience.
When Hanspeter Stutz first came to Nova Scotia from Switzerland, he had a vision, not a dream. “I saw opportunities,” he says more than once throughout our discussion, only shifting when describing the present. “I see opportunities.” I’m not sure there’s much that can stop him when he’s on a roll.
“When my father first purchased the property in 1993, I really had no idea what he was doing; he was always about fifteen steps ahead of us,” affirms his daughter and manager of Le Caveau, Beatrice Stutz.
Three factors came into play when Hanspeter considered the transatlantic move. At the time, there were no real Nova Scotia wines, just a thriving rum and beer culture. Secondly, coming from Switzerland, where there is a Michelin-starred dining option every twenty kilometres, he found that level of fine dining didn’t exist outside of Halifax. And finally, he saw a huge potential for tourism. While he admits this is no Majorca, he was profoundly touched by the beauty of Nova Scotia, from the South Shore to Cape Breton to the Valley, each location with its own unique face and regional specialties. But one thing he knew for sure: he couldn’t do it alone. He needed his family to come with him.
“You’re gonna need all day for my personal history,” Beatrice says as she laughs while simultaneously counting on her fingers. “This is the sixteenth season for Le Caveau! How’d that happen?” This also marks the ninth running the restaurant with her husband Chef Jason Lynch.
Beatrice has an enthusiasm that is downright infectious. In fact, I can’t recall a moment when she didn’t have a big smile on her face in every encounter we’ve had through the years. Her path into this place with her family was not a direct one, but it has inimitably come full circle.
She has fond memories of growing up in a household that loved to entertain, with her father cooking, her mother hosting and her own self-assigned role serving guests. You read that right; from the time she was about eight years old she remembers setting up their living room as a restaurant, happily interacting with imaginary customers. Hanspeter reinforces his continued love of cooking by hosting a men’s cooking club—something he’s done for fifteen years—whose members include the likes of Pete Luckett. Slow Food Nova Scotia was founded around his kitchen table.
Beatrice and her brother Jürg grew up in Grabs, a predominantly German part of Switzerland. When she graduated at nineteen from a four-year drugstore apprenticeship, she scored a full-time job and salary, coupled with a case of wanderlust and an incessant desire to work in the culinary world. She moved to Lucerne, where she landed a job in an Italian restaurant with absolutely no experience. It was here that she flourished, and customers loved being served by someone Swiss who obviously loved what she was doing. She admits the passion for it was inexplicably always there, much to her father’s chagrin.
A year in, tragedy hit the family when they lost their mother to a battle with cancer, and Beatrice moved home to help out. However, Lucerne still beckoned, and she was able to return, promising her father that she would not work in restaurants but continue her pharmaceutical pursuits. She mostly held true to this but still filled her extra time with restaurant backshifts.
By this time, her brother Jürg was well into his studies in winemaking, and Hanspeter’s vision of a winery in Nova Scotia was jettisoning into a reality. It was hard for her to imagine her role in the project until she married her then chef boyfriend, and her father, recognizing this synergistic moment, officially invited them to Canada to open the restaurant. Both siblings and their young families made their way to Nova Scotia together to join him.
Enter Jason Lynch. You probably thought this story was about him. Jason grew up in the Annapolis Valley on a poultry farm minutes away from the winery. His love of food stemmed from hanging around his grandparents’ restaurants as a child. At fourteen, he started baking and selling his own food at local farmers’ markets, and, unlike Beatrice, his parents supported his career choice from the beginning. He left Nova Scotia to attend Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and returned to Nova Scotia to help on the family farm after his father’s heart attack. He soon found himself back in the culinary world as a chef at Acton’s in Wolfville. He joined Le Caveau’s team in 2003 and became executive chef in 2007.
When he first took over the kitchen, the menu was geared towards northern European cuisine. Fine dining was diminishing in Nova Scotia, and he felt it had an unjust reputation for being expensive and inaccessible. With that, he gutted the menu and started from scratch. Jason laughs, admitting there were a few family arguments during this process, citing the cultural differences in how restaurants are run in Europe versus North America.
Chalking up countless accolades, including being named one of the world’s twenty best winery restaurants by Wine Access magazine, Jason shies away from the word “local” and prefers to describe what he does as “seasonally-driven”; his is a terroir-based menu. Over 80 percent of the restaurant’s ingredients have been farmed nearby, with the exception of seafood, which is really not all that much farther. Quality is key, and with over twenty producers showing up at the kitchen door, he turns away product if it doesn’t meet his standards. His basic philosophy for cooking is clean and simple—let the ingredients speak for themselves. He’s managed to work in casual lunches to counteract the fine dining at night. There’s an emphasis here on wild, foraged and preserved foods; an attempt to reduce waste; and a focus on using every part of the animal by offering non-traditional cuts of beef like brisket and hanger steaks. One of his tougher battles has been moving away from a wine list that featured only Grand Pré wines to one that includes almost seventy international wines. They now sell more of their own wines than ever before. “We excel at whites in Nova Scotia from L’Acadie Blanc to Riesling—crisp, light, with the right amount of acidity to pair with our seafood,” adds Hanspeter.
On top of all of this, Jason still finds the time to work on other projects, including publishing his first cookbook, Straight from the Line; developing a line of retail products, such as bacon jam, bitters and mustards; helping to overhaul the national Red Seal certification program for chefs; running his consulting business, which includes long-term clients like The Black Spruce Restaurant in Newfoundland; and, with full disclosure, working as the culinary coordinator for Devour! The Food Film Fest.
“We need to be a little more vocal, because we have a lot to be vocal about here in Nova Scotia,” says Jason about his desire to see the culinary community grow. He has his own vested interest in place and spends a lot of time trying to promote the talent in this region. I’ve witnessed this at Devour! He certainly has the respect of his peers across Canada.
Beatrice feels like the restaurant is an extension of her home; she prides herself on delivering a level of service that is unpretentious and engages every table in conversation. They’ve been striving to strike a balance between a family of three boys at home and their business, and were only just married in Newfoundland this past summer during a hurricane.
There’s a clear division between the kitchen and the front of house at Le Caveau. One thing that strikes me as funny, and that reinforces this division, is that the only direct communication between the kitchen and the front of house staff during service is via telephone and a classic dumbwaiter. When the pergola patio gets rolling in the summer months, Beatrice often finds the servers fraternizing with the kitchen staff because they’re just not used to being in such close proximity.
The restaurant opens its doors the first weekend of May and runs to the end of October, and it also hosts special events like weddings and the increasingly popular Icewine Festival (picture après-ski in Switzerland). A team of seven service staff returned to the front of the house this year because, honestly, who wouldn’t want to work alongside Beatrice? The menu will shift with the seasons three times during this period. A little sneak preview of the kinds of dishes you can expect: roasted beet and Ran-Cher Acres goat cheese salad with pumpkin seeds and apple vinaigrette; cavatelli pasta with mitake mushrooms, leeks and pecorino; and, one I had the pleasure of tasting recently at another event that we worked on together, torchon of local rabbit with fennel salad, potato gnocchi, dried ricotta and rabbit jus.
Recognizing that it’s not easy to run a family business, it’s remarkable to watch them lead in this space. They extoll the virtues of this beautiful place, transforming a piece of history into a part of the future for generations to come—and always with the big picture in mind. This is about local prosperity and how seemingly small steps will bring this whole region and industry to the next level. They’ve set the bar high.