How did I not know that you were on a path to being a cartographer?” I wonder aloud as I sit across from my friend, sometimes mentor and local chef extraordinaire, Craig Flinn. Often when you’re in the thick of events and social happenings, you never give pause and ask certain kinds of questions — you just advance to a level of camaraderie, friendship and comfort in the moment without sweating the details.
Writing food features for Local Connections Halifax has been an unexpected joy these last couple of years. If you’re a regular reader of mine, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to get lost in personal family histories and the unique places chefs find their inspiration. I’m not a restaurant critic in any sense; never want to be. I am keen to hear what drives people to do what they do and remain in the intimate culinary scene here in Nova Scotia. I like finding ways to put you in their stories and lives, elevating the best elements of their businesses (and dishes!), unlike many of the negative stories and social media moments out there. I’m pretty tired of reading that kind of rhetoric day in and day out. Truth is, the business of being in the kitchen, no matter how successful you appear to be, has extremely tight margins; you’re just one power outage, one cancelled reservation, one gas leak, one bad review, one sick staff member away from the proverbial edge. It’s damn hard work.
Craig admits that when he first opened the doors at Chives Canadian Bistro 15 years ago this December, the extent of his social media campaign was walking from the kitchen to a customer’s table to chat. These days he feels the pressure — the distraction of photo shoots, hashtags and incessant online chatter it takes to build your brand in this realm. Now three businesses strong with 2 Doors Down (2DD) and Temple Bar joining the fold, multiple published cookbooks and European culinary tours under his belt, and an impressive pedigree as a chef in Canada, Switzerland, London and New York, he often finds himself pulled in a few directions. But recently his focus has been shifting. It’s now about family, a healthier lifestyle, laying down roots (he’ll marry his sweetheart, Jacqueline Ruck, this summer) and ensuring that the proper people are in place to continue growing his legacy along with him. Good thing he found those people a while ago.
We’re putting the focus on 2DD for this article, and when you picture the comforts of food and home, I don’t think you can find a menu in Halifax more steeped in home while also meshed with a truly global flavour profile and, remarkably, not tied to one specific region or cuisine. When Craig approached the now 2DD Chef de Cuisine Andrew Farrell with the idea for this new restaurant, it was all about making the food they wanted to eat at home or cooked for staff meals. He knew Andrew was up for the challenge and in it for the long-term, and that the style really suited him.
Andrew Farrell is just plain funny. You can often find him visiting customers tableside, sporting some kind of a ninja headband with a wisecrack poised on the tip of his tongue. Born and raised in Pictou, Andrew first started working on a biology degree at Mount Allison University before he wised up to the fact that his at-home cooking experiments were actually overtaking his academic calendar. Then the harsh realities of a “year off” set in after he served as a Tim Horton’s donut delivery guy to 11 locations in Pictou County. If that isn’t a come-to-Jesus-figure-out-what-you-want-to-do-in-life moment, I’m not sure what is. Andrew laughs, as the one time he was actually caught for speeding by the cops the van was empty.
So, it was out of the Maritimes and into the culinary program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Wanderlust struck, and he was off to Vancouver and France before settling in rural UK. It was here that he became quite taken with notion of local and seasonality like never before. Andrew describes this period as “where rustic and posh intersected,” playing out like an episode of Downton Abbey where, over the course of a couple of years, he was that guy who inhabited the room above the kitchen in both a 13-room boutique hotel in a Georgian manor in Austwick, North Yorkshire, and again in a 15th century thatched country pub in Leebotwood, Shropshire. On the last day of his visa, he moved to Halifax, landing his first job at The Coastal Café and subsequent jobs in a number of Halifax hotspots — Jane’s on the Common, Fid Resto and finally, Chives. These were formative years, and he was fortunate to fall in with a great group of people at the right time.
2 Doors Down officially opened its doors in May 2013, and today the three businesses are separate — yet together — run jointly by Craig and longtime friends who are also now co-owners, General Manager George Davis and Operations Manager Darren Lewis. The division of labour has them all touching in and out of the three restaurants-in-a-row. On average at 2DD, they’re doing 200 to 350 covers a night, and lunch will see about 90 to 120 people. The kitchen teams share space, prep side by side and barter jovially with fresh ingredients.
The menu, with its distinctive three-column split of meat, seafood and vegetables, is a collaborative effort between Craig and Andrew. In the beginning, it was a constant seasonal overhaul, but today it has evolved into a simpler seasonal menu built around established customer favourites like buttermilk calamari and kale Caesar salad. Craig continues to pull inspiration from his travels in Europe and cooking at home with his family. Andrew is plugged into new producers and products from Nova Scotia. Both of them are jazzed about the diversity in the kitchen right now (try the butter chicken, fried chicken), including a new sous chef from India. Not to mention Andrew’s recent win for the country’s best mac and cheese as part of a Dairy Farmers of Canada initiative. His dish — “Crispy Greens Mac n’ Cheese” with crispy broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, That Dutchman’s Gouda and Urban Blue cheese — has been on the menu since the big win.
I have to admit, when I’m in for dinner my tendency is to order the “Old School Cheeseburger.” I just can’t get past it. When the two of them developed it, they both approached it with their own particular pop culture perspective. Craig wanted a classic Jughead Jones burger ripped from the pages of an Archie comic. For Andrew, it was a cross between his obsession with Shake Shack and a double quarter pounder with cheese. Either way, they now have a roster of mind-blowing burgers, and Andrew swears the consistency hasn’t changed from day one. Craig reckons they go through about 600 burgers a week, and for an item the average consumer considers cheap and fast, this is anything but. The amount of work that goes into one burger before it hits your plate is phenomenal, and not particularly fast or cheap when you account for the sourcing; butchering; hand grinding and hand forming of a special combination of chuck, brisket and short rib; grilling; and preparing condiments and accoutrements from scratch like the creation of an imitation processed cheese slice that melts just so. This time around I try one of Craig’s favourites: “The Smokehouse Cheeseburger” with smoked Gouda, barbecued chorizo, crispy shallots, bacon, onion jam and chipotle aioli. I know, I really stretched it there.
The industry is facing a collective challenge: there’s a limit to what people will spend on a night out. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to produce quality dishes from scratch, while the costs of labour and food continue to rise. But there’s no arguing with the basic concept here — the one 2DD’s team are holding themselves steadfastly to — and that’s simple food done well. There’s a world of flavours out there, and 2DD is a platform that allows for this fun, authentic experimentation.
So, a cartographer and donut delivery guy walk into a bar… I’m serious, they really did. And it just so happens that they became chefs and now just make really good food together. Trust me, order a burger.