Putting the sauce on top of the cheese sounds like a backwards way to make a pizza. But for Chris Cuddihy, it all comes down to the joy of eating. “It’s about the texture,” says the owner of Salvatore’s Pizzaiolo in Halifax’s Hydrostone Market. “When the sauce is on top, it just has a nice feel. When you take a bite, the toppings don’t all fall off.”
Cuddihy is in the basement of the restaurant, the “dough room,” demonstrating pizza prep techniques to a small group of people on the Open Kitchen Tasting Tour. Organized by Local Tasting Tours, the walking tour visits four North End restaurants, gleaning food-prep ideas, recipes and local history along the way.
“Our pizzas take 15 minutes to cook but we put the toppings on at different times,” Cuddihy says. “Veggies need just seven minutes, pepperoni and salami go on the last minute or two. We use a dry-cured pepperoni from Sweet William’s, which has less water than regular pepperoni, so it’s a much shorter cooking time. Tomatoes go on last when the pizza comes out of the oven.”
Emily Forrest, owner of Local Tasting Tours, says the Open Kitchen tour is a unique way for families to explore local food, and see the nitty-gritty details of how food is prepared and served. “It’s something fun people can do with their kids, especially young mothers, where they don’t have to worry about finding a babysitter,” she says. “It’s a way to see behind the scenes of a restaurant, to see those giant ovens in the kitchen, and to talk to kids about local food.”
Forrest’s company runs six food tours around Halifax. “It’s an opportunity to explore different neighbourhoods in the city, places you’ve heard about but haven’t had a chance to visit,” she says. “It gives people a venue to do so. About 50 per cent of attendees are locals.”
The Open Kitchen tour is one of two tours that operate year-round. With a background in cooking, Claire Gallant leads the tour with her six-month-old daughter Polly strapped to her chest in a baby carrier. “The focus is on finding local food for your kids, so people can bring along their young kids and babies,” she says. “And having the tours take place in the kitchen connects to the family.”
The casual nature of the tour lets people check out each place, chat with staff and sample food. “This is my neighbourhood and it’s rapidly expanding with all these new places opening up,” Gallant says. “This is an easy way for people to learn about them.”
Highland Drive Storehouse is another stop. Bought last spring by Getaway Farm, the butchery and shop on Kaye Street sells local meat, produce, preserves and more. On the tour, guests sample pulled pork and watch the butcher cut a hock off of the shoulder of a pig carcass.
Manager Cynthia Kennedy says locomotive muscles are not great for grilling but are perfect for smoking and braising. “We use the hock, the upper portion of the leg, for our pulled pork. We’re a whole-animal facility and this is a part that’s not very popular with customers.”
The company’s pork is darker than conventional pork because the pigs are pastured and eat a diverse diet, which lends the meat a richer flavour (think “pig terroir”). “There is more blood flow because the pigs get more exercise,” says Kennedy. “You can taste what the pigs have been eating in their fat.”
Another stop on the tour is EnVie, a chic vegan restaurant on Agricola Street. Cory Urquhart and Diandra Phipps opened the eatery in 2013, following a successful stint selling vegan dog treats, salad dressings and dips at the Alderney Landing Market in Dartmouth. About 90 per cent of the menu is gluten-free. The restaurant also hosts vegan cooking classes with local chefs.
The tour group dig into slices of EnVie’s Blueberry Vanilla Cheesecake—a decadent raw, gluten-free dessert. Phipps makes the crust with raw almonds, coconut, cocoa powder and almond butter. The filling is soaked cashews blended with lemon juice, agave nector, vanilla bean and coconut oil. It’s garnished with a blueberry coulis.
Across the street from EnVie, Claire Gallant points out Smith’s Bakery, a North End landmark that’s operated since the 1920s. (Back then, it was on Gottingen Street). The bakery still uses the same Hobart mixer (a large, commercial mixer for baked goods) from that era. “All of the white cake comes from that same machine,” says Gallant.
Further down Agricola Street is the final stop: the Agricola Street Brasserie. It opened in November 2013 and specializes in French cuisine. Restaurant manager/sommelier Peter Goneau says the restaurant partners with food distributor Jason Pelley to supply fresh produce from local farmers. Chef Ludovic Eveno and his team make much of the restaurant’s items on-site from scratch, including charcuterie, cured meats, sausages, breads, desserts, jams and preserves.
On the day of the tour, a huge pot of head-cheese stock is simmering on the stove (essentially pig brain in pig stock that they use for charcuterie). Guests taste Toulouse sausage (a mild, smoky sausage) served with grainy mustard, and paired with a glass of oaky Spanish red wine. “It’s a great flavour profile for the sausage,” Goneau says.
He says the Brasserie is fostering teamwork. “Everyone in the kitchen has to touch the plate when we’re putting something out,” he says, adding that the restaurant also serves two meals daily for its staff. “There’s not that front-versus-back culture you see in some other restaurants.”
Middle Sackville resident Meggie Spicer is on the Open Kitchen tour with her husband Matthew and their infant son. For them, it’s a chance to test out new places. “I like that you get to try out a bunch of local restaurants before having to commit to a full night out,” she says. “When you have a baby, you want to make sure you make a good choice.”
Forrest says that’s what makes the tour unique. “You get to have a conversation with the staff, taste the food, experience the ambience,” she says. “You see the quality of the food and a get a good feel of the place.”
Ultimately, she says the tour gives people a chance to see another side of a restaurant. “You get to hear the backstory about a place and meet the people behind the businesses,” she says. “The chef comes out and will tell you about a sauce he’s created or where the scallops in a recipe came from. You get a little bit of inside info that makes you feel privileged—it’s a special connection to the restaurant that you’ll remember.”