The Explorer Chef

Chef John Horne discovers new ingredients and invites you on a wild culinary adventure.

“For me, wild game and foraging are very much about the connection to the land and others,” he says. Horne didn’t realize how essential these ingredients were to his craft until he became the executive chef at Canoe in Toronto. Under his guidance, the restaurant earned a coveted four-star review from Chris Nuttall-Smith and The Globe and Mail.

Chef John Horne, Photos by Cindy La

Chef Horne has garnered many awards and accolades, including top honour at the prestigious Gold Medal Plates competition, appearances on In the Weeds TV show and the documentary Before the Plate.

“Trying to figure out what Canadian cuisine was, I really wanted to find ingredients that were grown here but also, at the time, relatively unknown,” says Horn. “To do that, I turned to foraged ingredients. If it came from a bog, meadow, wooded forest, tundra, or ocean, and I could use it, I would, and it elevated the dishes.”

At one point, he had met foragers from Quebec who had jars of ingredients he had never heard of or seen before. Horne loved the excitement of experimenting in the kitchen with these rare ingredients to see how to best extract their flavour profile.

Chef Horne often uses local ingredients in his cuisine. In this dish, he uses only ingredients from Ontario. Photos by Cindy La

Horn has “endless stories” about foraging, from urban foraging in Toronto to exploring a farm in Scotland, where the chef is from. He remembers sitting by the ocean in Scotland with other chefs and thrill-seekers trying out different seaweeds that they had just foraged.

“Each one had its own unique flavour profile to go along with the salinity of it, and we enjoyed trying to figure out what we would use each one for,” he says. “One tasted like a truffle, so we put it into a wild venison tartare. It was unreal how much the seaweed raised the flavour of the venison.”

Horne didn’t grasp the importance of wild game until later in his career, “especially after my father’s heart attack,” he says. “It’s not just about the amazing organic free-range meat, it’s about the whole journey in [hunting] it.”

Organic ocean sablefish. Photos by Cindy La

By spending so much time out in nature, Horne has become especially attuned to the seasons. Now that it’s colder, he begins to crave certain foods, such as French onion soup, roast chicken, or aged duck cooked on the crown.

For Horne, the one constant in nature is change. Nature constantly adapts, balances, and remains one of the chef’s best mentors. “The best is when I get something I have never tasted before, and my brain starts to identify flavour profiles that taste or smell similar.”

What his time spent outdoors hunting and foraging “really boils down to is learning from others, listening to their experiences, and applying that into my cooking or next adventure to acquire ingredients.”

Photo By Cindy La

Maison Selby’s French Onion Soup

Makes 8 servings
Cooking time: 6–8 hours

Ingredients:
1½ lbs butter
20 large onions, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced root to tip Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup red wine
1 cup port
1 cup cognac or brandy
1 sachet of thyme, rosemary, black peppercorns, and bay leaves 6 litres dark chicken stock
½ cup demi-glace

For garnish:
Toasted slices of croissant Finely shredded Gruyère Thyme or parsley leaves

Preparation:
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter over medium heat.
Add onions, stir, and season generously with salt and pepper.
Lower heat and continue cooking, stirring regularly, until the onions completely caramel-ize—about four to six hours.
When the onions have caramelized, stir in the tomato paste and cook for at least 30 more minutes.
Pour in the wine, port, and cognac or brandy, and toss in the sachet. Reduce mixture to one third.
Add the stock and demi-glace, and allow to simmer for one hour.
Remove from heat, allow to cool and chill overnight.
To serve, reheat soup gently, add a splash of brandy, taste, and adjust seasonings. Serve in oven-proof bowls. Top each serving with toasted croissant slices and Gruyère. Place under broiler until cheese is melted and browned. Top with fresh thyme or parsley and serve.

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