One of the first memories I have of meeting Chef Chris Velden is him carving up a 93-pound halibut outside of a church for a Slow Food Nova Scotia annual general meeting. Within the span of a year, I found myself standing in a damp barn at Ironwood Farm watching him carve up a whole pig over the course of a day, turning it over into sausages and future prosciutto, bacon, pancetta—you name it. Not only that, I’ve seen him do this twice now. And just this past summer, I trailed around after him in the mud for about six hours for his inaugural, and now slightly famous, “Dining on the Ocean Floor” experiment at Burntcoat Head Park, where he served up a multiple-course meal in a race against the impending tide.
You simply can’t miss him. Tall with some girth and a thick German accent, and when you least expect it, a most infectious chuckle. On this particular day, I’ve finally arrived at his latest venture, The Flying Apron Inn & Cookery, which he opened with the help of his wife, Melissa, and family in Summerville, Nova Scotia, in August 2014. I’m late to this dinner party.
As I walk into this warm, inviting space, Chris and Melissa are giving a talk to about 50 students from Mount Saint Vincent University. “We do local,” says Chris to the crowd. “No, really, I put it on our t-shirts,” he says with a giggle. The room responds with befitting laughter.
His commitment to local and place is steadfast. This spot is the quintessential community hub, complete with the local post office, a second-hand bookstore, an inn with four nicely-appointed rooms, a cookery school, a small retail store with homemade goods, a licensed restaurant with a garden patio, a gallery that doubles as a yoga studio, and a happy little train of locals dropping by all day.
Everyone talks local, and everyone has a different business model—check your olive oil, citrus and salt at the door. It may appear out of the way, but taking cues from legendary Chef Michael Städtlander’s model of Eigensinn Farm in Ontario, Chris likes to think that if you build it, they will come. “You can make it in rural Nova Scotia, there’s a lot happening here,” he says.
Chris first started coming to this particular part of Nova Scotia when he was the chef at Ryan Duffy’s and had struck up a fast friendship over vegetables with farmer Rupert Jannasch from Ironwood Farm. On his days off, he would drive out to volunteer on the farm, and now he raises his own lamb and pigs there and still buys his vegetables from Rupert to this day.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, back in the days when you were able to specialize early on, Chris hit a literal fork in the road at the age of 15. He had an uncle who was a mechanic and an uncle who was a cook. Thus began an apprenticeship that has him marking his 40th anniversary of cooking this year. It’s been a long and varied road with many milestones to get to where he is today. In no particular order, he’s cooked his way through parts of Germany, Switzerland, Vancouver, Calgary and more, leaving an apron or two flapping in his wake.
Of particular note, while in Hamburg he worked in Sänger’s Restaurant, where the staff simply consisted of him, the owner, one server and one dishwasher. There were 30 seats, and under his watch they earned one Michelin star.
In the mid-90s, a quick vacation to Vancouver sealed his North American fate, and within six weeks he applied for papers and arrived on Salt Spring Island. It was there he opened his first official restaurant, Stars The European Café. The ebb and flow of island life—where 22,000 vacationers overtook the place in the summers, versus mass southern exoduses in the winters—just didn’t quite fit what he was looking for. He hung up the apron on Canada and made tracks for a job in Dayton, Ohio, where he and Melissa met, fell in love and eventually, through a little dance with the border, made their way to Canada together.
Back to Vancouver, where Chris served as an instructor and eventually as Culinary Director at the Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, where he overhauled the curriculum, refocused the pastry program and helped it become the first Ocean Wise-certified school in Canada. The two finally ended up in Halifax, and Chris continued to chalk up some notable cred at Bish, The Westin Hotel and Ryan Duffy’s while simultaneously getting their side business, The Flying Apron Cookery, off the ground together. For a time, it was frozen prepared meals sold at markets and private cooking classes and catering until they took the big jump.
They knew they wanted to be on the ocean—and for a while it wasn’t clear to them which coast—but after zigzagging across the country a few times, Nova Scotia won the official bid in 2007. After looking at almost 20 potential properties over the years, they were finally able to buy the hardware store, The Avon Emporium, that Chris drove by on the way to Rupert’s farm for years. It had been on and off the market at an exorbitant price point. After 10 weeks of renovations, they were able to get the doors open in July, just in time to welcome their first guests for a local music festival. And talk about Nova Scotia music glitterati: Joel Plaskett, David Myles, Christina Martin and friends officially christened the inn. The full complement, including the restaurant, opened the very next month.
The restaurant’s food is 90 per cent local year round with a surprisingly extensive menu that turns over weekly. The beverage list reads like a who’s who of the Nova Scotia wine and craft beer scene. They only use organic and spray-free fruit for the restaurant and products they make to sell in their store. Some years, if a crop or a product suffers or has a low yield, it simply doesn’t get made. And life has come full circle, as often Chris is on his own in the kitchen servicing a full restaurant.
Then there’s the cookery school that runs classes about four times a month minimum for every age range. I’m annoyed, as I’ve just missed a German intensive the week before (#schnitzelsayswhat). “The whole idea is to show people how easy it is to get back into the kitchen,” says Chris. This education streak doubles back into the restaurant again where they host “Meet Your Farmer Dinners” about four times a year. Fifty people come together for a meal where they get to hear from local producers directly, thus connecting people with their food and the people growing it. “The consumer has the power to change the food system, the course of their own food . . . you can change the course.”
For Melissa, it’s been: if you draw it, they will come. I’m referencing a drawing that she made many years ago that scratched out their ideal set-up—a restaurant with an inn nestled in the country with children, chickens, bees, raised beds for herbs, a pond. She even scribbled a division of duties between them on the back. Well, I’m sitting in it now and giving her a hard time about why that very drawing isn’t framed above the bar. Melissa is inclusive, a real sweetheart with the big picture in mind. She just, in fact, coined the official new name for this part of Nova Scotia with our tourism agency: “The Rising Tides Shores.” “What was it called before?” I query. She smiles. “The Shore.” We both laugh, as there’s many a place throughout Nova Scotia referred to as “The Shore.” All joking aside, Summerville is nestled in Hants County along the Kempt and Noel Shores, just one hour from Halifax.
They’re surrounded by a growing, close network of like-minded individuals and businesses—Abundant Acres, Moon Fire Farm, Meander River Farm & Brewery, Avondale Sky Winery, Sustainable Blue and people like Keltie Butler, the executive director of Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia, who is moving down to farm there over the summer. Officially, they’ve developed the “Trio of Taste,” Nova Scotia’s newest agri-tourism loop along with Meander River Farm & Brewery and Avondale Sky Winery. They were often promoting each other’s businesses and including elements in stay packages, cooking classes and right in the restaurant. “We’re going to make ‘Hants County Kicks Ass’ bumper stickers!” Chris chortles.
And you’d have to be living under a fossilized rock to not have heard of the Dining on the Ocean Floor series that they hosted for the first time last summer. It’s a progressive dinner that includes foraging, hiking and multiple hyper-local courses paired with wines and beers. Let me tell you, it’s a stunner of a location, especially as the sun sets on the Bay of Fundy. After last year’s short but sweet run, they’re returning with four more upcoming public dinner dates in July, August and September. The amount of buzz and excitement generated over this unique idea increased the annual visitation to the park by 700 per cent in one season, even beating out the iconic Peggy’s Cove on the Tourism Nova Scotia website rankings. People are booking private dinners behind the scenes from as far away as Toronto, Texas and the UK.
In the future, we may see an Oktoberfest or even a Sauerkraut Festival pop up, because there’s simply no shortage of ideas between the two of them or willingness to carry them out. And thankfully, the only place you’ll see that apron flapping in the breeze is on a clothesline behind the inn, as these two aren’t going anywhere soon. They’re finally living out a dream they’ve shared for some time. And we’re all the better for it.
DINING ON THE OCEAN FLOOR
Join Summerville’s Flying Apron Cookery at the Bay of Fundy’s Burntcoat Head Park, home of the world’s highest recorded tides. Forage for ingredients, feast on a multi-course meal oceanside at low tide, finish with a stunning sunset.