A month ago, in the days leading up to Christmas, fire broke out at Domaine de Grand Pré near Wolfville, Nova Scotia. It’s the oldest winery in Atlantic Canada, with an enviable position overlooking the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Basin and Grand Pré’s Acadian cultural landscape that became a UNESCO World Heritage Site last summer. The bad news is that the damage to the vineyard’s Le Caveau fine dining restaurant is extensive. The good news is that chef Jason Lynch and his kitchen team were there to see the smoke and sound the alarm.
In an interview only weeks before, Le Cordon Bleu-trained Lynch, head of the restaurant since 2007, talked about his plans and hopes for Le Caveau. The native Nova Scotian had grown up just down the road from the winery, “back when it was a bit of a shambles,” he says. But in the ’90s, Swiss businessman Hanspeter Stutz immigrated with his family to Wolfville with the goal of turning the winery around. Over the past 20 years, Stutz’s influence has been a major impetus in developing the now burgeoning wine, cuisine and tourism industry in the valley.
Five years ago when Grand Pré approached Lynch, he says he found the idea of running Le Caveau, a restaurant in a local vineyard tying mainly local products in with local wines, very appealing – an unusual opportunity, but it was not without its challenges. “I am a promoter of all Nova Scotian wines,” says Lynch. “That was a little hard to explain to the Stutz family at first, but when we’re building a restaurant that should be world class, we need to have an international list and a representation of what I feel are the best Nova Scotian wines.” He was thrilled at the success of a recent seven-course meal he served based on local white wines. “Coming in, guests didn’t know which winery’s Tidal Bay they liked the best or why. Just to see the look on their faces when I delivered each plate matched to just the right wine, that was great.”
Le Caveau’s cuisine also needed to transform. “The restaurant here has gone through quite an evolution, since day one,” says Lynch. “It was a great restaurant when they first opened it. It was geared towards northern European food, that’s the family’s background. When I took it over I wanted to turn it into one of the best restaurants in the province and to have people talk about it in that regard. I’m a classic French cook and I do what classic French has always done – basically deal with local product and pull a little bit from wherever I’ve travelled that I liked. I really enjoy Moroccan food, Indian, some of the Asian influences. I also felt that Le Caveau needed to meet the calibre of the wine and the property that the family had built. But it’s hard to recreate a restaurant with the same name. It takes time. I would say 2010 was really when Le Caveau was getting enough media that it started to be recognized that way.”
That’s also the way Lynch would like to keep it. “Every restaurant that is built around a star chef inevitably fails because that chef leaves. Never would I want to put this business in a position where if I left, the restaurant would fail; and I’m getting old, as far as the industry goes. I’m at the tail end of my career.”
Forbidding his team to call him head chef, Lynch leads the kitchen based on his experience, but insists that he’s still learning just like his staff is. His high standards tend to weed out the cooks who don’t share his vision, which is to provide the whole dining experience: “immaculate staff with knowledge of menus and wine lists, and no matter if it’s the chef or the sous chef in the kitchen, it’s exactly the same, every day,” the same total package Lynch finds in his favourite restaurants. This quiet style of promotion, through the food, through the people he serves, is to what he credits Le Caveau’s success. But then the fire.
Manager Beatrice Stutz says Le Caveau will be rebuilt and open again in a few months, hopefully in time for its annual May opening. Jason Lynch and his team are waiting.