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The cultivator: Dan Vorstermans

As the co-founder of Field Guide on Gottingen Street, he's changing the dining experience in the city

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HM-June15-Trendsetter2-Feature

Dan Vorstermans’ career in food started after he answered a help-wanted ad on Kijiji. It was a restaurant looking for a cook and no experience was necessary. Vorstermans applied, got the gig and worked there for six months.

“I realized immediately it was what I wanted to do,” he recalls.

He moved to Halifax five years ago and started studying culinary arts at Nova Scotia Community College, for a year while working at Chives. But he always wanted to open his own place.

So in November 2013, Vorstermans and his wife Ceilidh Sutherland opened Field Guide in a funky space on the corner of Gottingen and Falkland streets. The concept was to stay open late, and offer a seasonal menu and great service.

The menu changes often, but keeps specialties regulars love such as their traditional charcuterie board with homemade mustard and sourdough bread, donair steam buns with homemade donair sauce and pork carnitas tacos.

How did you get the idea for Field Guide?

We thought, “What’s missing from our standpoint? We didn’t look at it from a business standpoint…It was more, “where do we want to go what’s the kind of place we want to hang out in that doesn’t exist yet?” A couple of big things we wanted to do were the chalkboard menu, so it’s constantly changing during the seasons… And for the bar side of things, we wanted to focus on cocktails. We wanted a place that focused on that but that it not be a bar. And we wanted to be open late and serve our full menu late.

Is everything on the menu locally sourced?

If we can get something in Nova Scotia, we will. And we try to go outside the province for as few things as possible. With the exception of the desserts, because we use chocolate and sugar… For the savoury food, we never use citrus, we never use olive oil, or a lot of the staples restaurants rely on. And not to make some big statement or point. I want to support local food; it’s important to do that. But it also gives you something to work with. It creates boundaries and you can be creative within those boundaries.

What are the challenges of opening a restaurant in Halifax?

Before we opened, we heard a lot how Halifax is behind the times. In a way, it’s true, I think. You go to Toronto and there is way more happening with food in Toronto. But there are also three million people in Toronto. There is more money to support new things. But there is this stigma that Halifax is close-minded, which I don’t think is true at all…What people value most here is honesty and authenticity. If you put yourself out there and you’re passionate about something and are doing it well, people will recognize that and appreciate it. It was amazing how quickly we got regular customers, like it was two or three months.

What else makes Field Guide different?

The atmosphere and the service. One thing we really are constantly striving for that perfect balance between professionalism and fun. When we opened here, we wanted a place we’d like to go to. Personally, I am not a fan of fine-dining-style service. I want my server to laugh, have fun and ask me about the music we are listening to. There’s a place for fine-dining service and there’s a place for casual service, like in a diner. We wanted to have something in the middle.

What do you love most about owning this place?

I love cooking and that’s why I am doing it. I get to create the menu. But my favourite thing is I don’t know what I am going to do every day when I come in. Some days I have to fix the ice machine. Some days you have to fix the bench that ripped off the wall. Every day it’s something different and that’s what makes it exciting.

What’s missing from Halifax’s dining scene?

One thing we always talk about is more good late-night food. We said if there was a place that sold ramen and dumplings, that was open until 2 a.m., they would make millions of dollars. Every industry person in the city would end up there every night. I’d like to see more new people opening places with fresh ideas, people who have been in the industry and opening what they want and what their friends want. Those are the places that are really exciting and moving things forward. 

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