East Coast Bistro
has always been a local leader in the farm-to-table movement, showcasing the freshest New Brunswick products in its seasonal menus, but the pandemic deepened chef Kim Steele’s sense of connection in ways she hadn’t anticipated.
“It brought community and local together for us,” she says. “We came together to figure things out, and it turned our suppliers and customers into a true community.”
For Kim, the crisis confirmed the importance of local trust and contact.
“When things were up in the air, we still had a really good grasp on our suppliers because they’re all right here. And they’re all right here with us.”
Her sense of what a restaurant is for has expanded in ways that surprise and move her.
“It’s a lot more than just sustenance,” Kim says. “It’s nourishment.”
Since opening ECB in 2012 with her husband and business partner, chef Tim Muehlbauer, they’ve been helping to build the local supply chain they wanted. Part of it was convincing market farmers to get involved in their restaurant, that it was a viable and profitable revenue stream.
“The offshoots of that have been really positive,” Kim says. “Bringing them to the table opened their eyes to some new opportunities.”
While they artfully deploy classic French techniques, Kim says the origins of her food philosophy are humble and practical.
“I come from a ‘food feeds people’ mentality,” she says, with early food memories of making Meals on Wheels deliveries with her grandmother.
That sense of connection and care has informed the supply chains she supports, which, in turn, send out local ripples.
“When you support a local farmer, you’re directly supporting your community,” she says. “From the land that farm sits on to the people who run it, and the money they put back into the local economy, it’s a very hand-in-hand connection.”
Her suppliers range from hobby farms to larger local producers of top-quality vegetables and meat and even international companies based here in New Brunswick.
She recently worked on a campaign with Crosby’s, the family-owned Saint John, New Brunswick business that has imported molasses since 1879. While it is a large company, the community connection and the tradition of molasses in Maritime cooking are intensely local.
“Mmmm, molasses on your tea biscuit!” Kim exclaims, her eyes lighting up.
She also has a network of single-ingredient suppliers and foragers – including her “scape kids,” a pair of teenagers who bring her bundles of garlic’s savoury young shoots.
“There’s a whole bunch of people who do just one thing, and it’s very extreme seasonal,” she says. “They hit you up when the season’s on, and you take all you can and get processing.”
With fresh ingredients, she’s always got an eye on what’s next.
“You’re always one season out,” she says. As she worked with asparagus, fiddleheads and rhubarb in June, she was already thinking ahead to strawberries.
“Whatever is coming, I need to be ready for it,” she says. It’s how she grew up, preserving the season’s bounty with her grandmother.
“We were hot on it when things were in season,” she says, canning up a storm, making jams and pickles and freezing apple pies and fiddleheads to enjoy through the winter.
“That has been a core of my chefdom,” she says. “Local, farm-to-table, it’s just how it was for me. It’s just how it should be.”