A new knife in town: This TV-famous chef is slicing into the St. John's dining scene
An outsider's take on the rapidly growing culinary world in Newfoundland
Chef Lucy Morrow has impeccable timing.
Just over a month ago, she pulled up in front of No. 4 Restaurant on Cathedral St. with her U-Haul to a metaphoric red carpet. It was 6 p.m. and the whole kitchen staff was waiting on the curb to unpack and move her in next door in a matter of minutes, just in time for dinner service.
At 27, Morrow has already been the executive chef of two restaurants and was runner-up on the most recent season of Top Chef Canada. You could say she is Canadian culinary famous.
The day we met up for a (socially distanced) coffee, Morrow wore a plaid shirt, her iconic backwards, slightly askew, baseball cap and a big smile. We chatted about her recent move to St. John's, Top Chef Canada and muscle memory in the kitchen.
Bringing home the bacon
To say farm-to-table dining is in Morrow's blood is an understatement.
She spent her childhood in the woods of Lunenburg County, N.S. "I grew up on a hobby farm," she said. Her family has chickens, horses and goats. They raised and butchered their own pigs.
Morrow didn't shy away from it. "I remember going to the abattoir. I requested to go there," she said.
From a young age, Morrow was outside working on the farm, butchering pigs and smoking bacon in the smokehouse her stepfather had built.
"Farm to table has always been something that's a part of my life," she said.
Morrow had always idolized culinary school, but felt the societal push toward a more typical trajectory: pursuing a university degree. So off she went to Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., to kick her way through a math degree on two scholarships playing soccer for the university team.
It didn't last long.
"I couldn't picture myself doing anything that was going to require me to sit down all day long for the rest of my life," Morrow recalled. She put down the pencil, picked up the knife and headed to culinary school at the renowned Holland College in Prince Edward Island to undertake its two-year culinary arts program.
Morrow's chef "a-ha" moment happened in the last semester of her second year — thanks to her skills on the soccer pitch.
"I was cooking from muscle memory and realized, 'This like sports. This is like soccer. If I practise and get the muscle memory down, then I can become really good at this.'"
Trial by kitchen fire
Morrow started working at the Row House Steak & Lobster Co. in Charlottetown in 2014, the day after she graduated from culinary school. She became the restaurant's executive chef within a year. She was 21 years old.
"I was wildly unprepared for that," she laughed. After a year in the role, she was cut loose, but doesn't look back at the experience with any hard feelings. "It wasn't that surprising. It happens a lot in this industry."
After parting ways with Row House, another Charlottetown restaurant — the nationally acclaimed Terre Rouge — snapped her up quickly. But it wasn't all sunshine and roses in the kitchen. She felt disrespected, "and I took his job seven months later."
Taking over as head chef was the only way she knew how to stick it to him. But despite getting the ultimate revenge on her former boss, Morrow doesn't like to spend much time and energy figuring out her "place" as a woman in the male-dominated restaurant industry.
"I haven't felt it a whole lot. I know a lot of people have felt it in worse ways. I try not to focus on it, so maybe I don't pick up on more slights," said Morrow.
For Morrow, focusing on sustainable hiring practices, creating relationships with local vendors and a commitment to a greener kitchen is her contribution to balancing the inequalities in the industry.
"I do find that the women do take a little more of a proactive step with ethical hiring, because they've felt the slights and understand it's their job to make the space a little more welcoming for everyone," explained Morrow.
She does, however, get a lot of inspiration from other female chefs across Atlantic Canada, and while she admits they probably don't get the exposure they deserve, she's upbeat about it.
"I think we're going to have our time in the sun. I'm lucky enough to know a lot of women who are excelling in the industry like Stephanie Ogilvie [co-runner-up on her season of Top Chef Canada] and Renée Lavallée [chef-owner at the Canteen in Dartmouth]."
Morrow doesn't feel the need to constantly prove herself as a female chef.
As head of Terre Rouge, she cooked for the prime minister and a Fortune 500 conference, and went on to Top Chef Canada, where she took second place.
For Morrow, the transition from one Atlantic island to another was pretty easy. She discovered a shared philosophy with the crowd at No. 4.
"Farm to table, seasonal, organic, just what feels right in the world. Not too many imported products. Make the most out of what you've got and use every part of it," said Morrow.
The new Newfoundland cuisine — a forward-thinking blend of new Nordic and traditional salt-of-the-earth cooking — fits right in with Morrow's mentality, but there were some skeptics about her coming to the Rock in search of culinary evolution. She knew they were wrong.
"People were like, 'Really, Lucy? You work with a lot of fresh ingredients and wholesome stuff. Newfoundland doesn't have that!'" she recalled.
"But the foraging! The variety of berries is crazy."
In the past decade, she said, St John's has drastically changed what it brings to the table — literally. There are fewer spots with fish and chips and more with scallop ceviches and fancy moose masalas.
"The scene in St. John's is just insane. P.E.I. right now is dominated by pubs and the Murphy Group, and you can't get a good bite unless you're going to somewhere where there aren't white people in the kitchen," she said.
"Here you can get anything you want, all across the board."
Eventually, she hopes to move back to P.E.I. and bring a taste of the St. John's trajectory with her.
But for now, she's keen to keep up the muscle memory right here in town.