Chef Jesse McCleery on Forgetting All the Chaos and Cooking Wild

Photo by Jarusha Brown.

It’s been nearly two decades since Jesse McCleery, co-owner of Pilgrimme Restaurant, traded the prairie life for an Island one. We recently spoke with the chef who reflected on the early meals of his memory and life on Galiano Island.

You’ve been in BC for a couple of decades now but you grew up in Winnipeg. You went from big sky and flat land to a tiny bit of dirt, rock and forest surrounded by the ocean. That’s a dramatic change. What was it that told you it was the right move?

I moved to Tofino from Winnipeg in late 2000, I think. I tend to just do things without thinking too much about it, which can be a good thing and a really bad thing. I just jump in without testing the water. My sister had been in Tofino some years and I had been plugging away in some restaurants in Winnipeg. One place I loved working in, Panic Cafe (part avant-guard restaurant, part art gallery), closed suddenly as the owners packed up and moved back to Toronto. I was kind of bored with the monotony of the food scene after Panic closed and I just made a move without thinking about it too much. I had no idea I’d live three summers on a 100-year-old tugboat named the Ivanhoe.

What aspects of coastal life are you still amazed by?

I’m still amazed by the power of the elements on the coast. It’s like any place on earth, I suppose, but here the winds and waters and forests are living beings that are so unpredictable and beautiful — calm and serene one moment, unforgivingly powerful and bigger than us the next. Wildlife and plants will never cease to amaze me. Coming across a pond on a hike and just sitting and observing small ecosystems that carry on in their own little world is calming and therapeutic to me. They seem so harmonious and it’s beautiful to watch and forget even for a short while all the chaos of our world.

Are there any wild ingredients that you can find in Manitoba that you have never had the opportunity to work with but would like to try?

There’s a lot of fireweed in Manitoba. It grows all across Canada but I know it’s quite abundant in my home province. It has so many uses in the kitchen, but it’s also medicinal. I’d like to play with it more. I also daydream about going home and immersing myself in the Manitoban wilderness in winter — ice fishing and hunting…not seeing a soul for a winter; only animals and the sounds of wind through the trees. A winter of solitude and contemplation. One day!

What was your relationship with food like as a kid?

I grew up with two pretty different and separate backgrounds. On my mother’s side is my Papa who is Chinese. He was a chef who owned several Chinese restaurants before I was was born. These were later lost in Mahjong games and circumstances in the 1970s, or so I’m told. He kept working in kitchens until he was basically forced to retire in his late 70s. My grandmother, who is a huge mystery to everyone, seems to have a Polish background which may explain the jars of fermenting cucumbers I’d find under the bed as a child and eating pierogies so often. My sister and I spent a lot of time as kids at their small apartment in the rough area of downtown Winnipeg. I remember my Papa working a lot and eating braised pork hocks and rice all the time and I’d be amazed at him eating all the skin and fat, leaving nothing. My father’s side couldn’t be more different, coming from Belfast in Northern Ireland when he was a kid. This is where I’d have strong tea with milk and soda bread coming home from school, and Irish stews at his mom’s.

I credit my mother with giving me a love for food and cooking. She is an amazing cook and it comes very naturally to her. I have memories of her candying flowers and making intricate desserts when they had friends over in the 80s; smelling those funky cigarettes they all shared at their dinner parties, ha ha. It was the 80s, when everyone hosted parties trying to one-up their friends, it seemed, so there were lots of things to watch in the kitchen. My mother still cooks up storms; Sundays are for Chinese dumplings. I wish I could swing over every Sunday still to nap on the couch and wake up to steaming ginger and green onion coming from the kitchen, or her legendary pot roast.

How do you think childhood memories of food and mealtime shape your craft today?

Sitting down as a family for dinner in the traditional sense was so early in my childhood and it didn’t last long. Families fall apart and change. Most memories are being dropped off at my papa’s and grandma’s where my sister and I could basically do what we want; wild child’s playing in the alleys on Balmoral Street. I think this now gives me a deep appreciation for the ritual of sitting with family and friends and being grateful for such opportunities. There was that part of my life and then the other, going to my Irish side where forks and knives were crossed when resting and still eating then laid parallel when finished. “May I please be excused from the table?” was mandatory if needing to get up. These two very opposite upbringings maybe gave me a sense that being at ease in a casual atmosphere was more comfortable for me. But there are still rules, and etiquette is a virtue.

Do you remember the first time you ever pulled something from the ocean and ate it? Where were you and what was that thing?

When I moved to Tofino from Winnipeg and started work at the floating Clayoquot Wilderness Resort. I was blown away by the sea vegetables. I guess this was in 2001. Our neighbours around the corner were artists who built a floating house and gardens. Katherine would bring us sea plantain, samphire and various seaweeds in exchange for bringing in supplies with our orders from civilization. Having never eaten these things or even knowing they existed was a big game changer. That year, while working in Clayoquot Sound, I stumbled on some sea plantain on an excursion with the staff and I remember recognizing it as the salty plant that Katherine would bring us. This is when I began to take notice of where these plants grew.

Do you remember the first thing you picked in the forest and put in your mouth? Where were you and what was that thing?

At Clayoquot again, and pretty much like the plantain: the fir and spruce tips that were foraged for us by our neighbours. “I can eat these? They’re everywhere!”

It takes time to build up the knowledge required to go foraging for wild food. How did you educate yourself about what to look for, when to gather it, and how to responsibly harvest? Did you rely on teachers, books, trial and error – all of those? Tell us a little about how you went from a rookie to where you are today.

I am by no means an expert. I’ve learnt from people like Katherine in Clayoquot Sound…and from books, to be sure. Back then the internet was nothing like what it is today. Books were valuable but nothing compared to the knowledge of the First Nation communities I’ve been fortunate to interact with, like the Ahousaht community near Tofino and Hartley Bay in the Great Bear Rainforest. The knowledge and traditions of these communities is so important. I’ve never tasted more incredible seaweed than the dried Kiel which Hartley Bay harvests annually to dry in the sun along with halibut near the fires.

Photos of Jesse by Michelle Sproule.

Where you are with your foraging knowledge, you must find yourself in the position of teacher from time to time, what is the single most important thing you communicate to a novice forager?

One very important thing I always say to someone who is excited to go out or has found a patch of something is to never take more than 10% of the given area or what you need. It would be so easy to wipe out a small community of a plant. Learn about the given organism, how it grows, how it reproduces, how it spreads, the best way to harvest it.

What does autumn taste like at Pilgrimme?

This is the time of year when we are saying goodbye to so many vegetables and bringing in the winter squashes, heartier herbs and warmer flavours. It’s also when we start incorporating the flavours and textures of our preserves, ferments, pickles, dried fruits and vegetables, adding the memories of spring and summer into fall and winter.

What is one ingredient or technique that you are most looking forward to experimenting with over the next few months?

We use a lot of grains and legumes at the restaurant. In summer you’ll find we sprout quite a few. Lately we’ve been malting these grains for syrups and playing with their sweet, earthy and slightly bitter flavours by adding kelp or wild ferment vinegars for glazing vegetables or meats.

Pilgrimme is close to being off-grid. From ingredient sourcing or repairing a broken dishwasher to trouble shooting blackouts, water shortages or garbage disposal, how do you stay on top of the day-to-day problems (that your city dwelling counterparts don’t even have to think about) and still find the resilience and inspiration to make some of Canada’s most interesting and regionally emblematic food?

When we have a new cook in the kitchen the first thing I say is, “You’re not in the city anymore. We need to really think about our water use, what’s going down the drain and how much is going in the bin.” Being extra cautious of water usage is huge. (We learnt the hard way our second summer when we opened an extra day.) We do all of our own recycling and waste in Saanich at Hartland (who are amazing) and we have it down to one bin bag a week of waste for the whole operation. Storms and ferry cancellations are out of our control, so that’s really just rolling with the punches, and there are lots going into the winter. If the power goes out mid-service we can usually finish the night, but if it’s out during the day – before we’re done prep – it’s almost impossible and I prefer to call it. This means what little water that’s in the pipes and toilet bowls is what we have left for bathroom use for guests and hand washing all around, let alone the prep. In a lot of ways I love these little things. I hope it makes cooks stronger and more conscious of what and how they’re doing things. Creating less waste and conservation. This, I’m afraid, will come in handy in our near future when water restrictions are more important than ever.

Is there a soundtrack in your kitchen?

Ha ha! Yes, there definitely is! It’s the soundtrack to my life, basically, and the dining room guests get the same tunes. I can almost guarantee you will hear some Nick Cave, Bill Callahan, PJ Harvey and every thing from Bob Dylan and Neil Young to Stereolab and Black Mountain. Before we open I usually put on some heavier Swedish Psych or something like that to wake everyone up!

Your fellow chef David Gunawan tells us you love cult band Songs: Ohia. Why does this music resonates with you?

Tough one. I first heard Songs: Ohia’s “The Black Album” shortly after finishing high school. I had already been cooking full time and balancing the last year with work before graduating. I guess Jason Molina’s music came at a really formative time in my life. I was venturing out on my own, saying goodbye in a lot of ways to people and really just discovering who I was. The music was mysterious, dark and moody. It’s often described as ‘depressing’ by people who just hear it in passing, but it can also be incredibly uplifting and beautiful in its nakedness. Molina was a real blue collar type, an everyday man who wore his emotions on his sleeve. It came through in his music, where he seemed to exorcise his demons. I was lucky enough to meet him a couple times and even pass him his guitar once. Unfortunately, his demons got the better of him.

Ok, last question: your personal Instagram account is pretty loaded with images of moths. What’s your deal with the winged critters?

After being on Galiano for some time I kept stumbling upon some crazy looking moths. Late at night, while closing up, they’d be quietly finding their place on doors and exterior walls; or early in the morning, when I came down to open, they’d be in their resting places so still and blending in with their surroundings. I started noticing how intricate and symmetrical their patterns were; how incredibly beautiful these creatures were that go unnoticed for the most part. Some are the size of small birds. Reading into their life cycles and different species, I’m excited to take up “mothing” in my old age.


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