How the jewel of the Gulf became a foodie’s paradise

Garden15

It was a flash of public relations brilliance, and a recipe for success among Prince Edward Island’s culinary contingent.

Take two of North America’s most-watched morning talk-show hosts, cook them slowly under a camera on low heat in front of Charlottetown Harbour, season them with local, gastronomic treats and watch the bread of international marketing rise naturally.

So it was in mid-July, 2010, when Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa planted their less-than-ample derrieres on chairs situated on a raised dais to sample everything from mussel hotdogs and oyster ice cream, to ham and clam sandwiches. Later, according to one report, “Kelly and family dined on lobster and she loved the homemade P.E.I. biscuits.”

As for the show’s spread, nearly 2.9 million viewers from Vancouver to New Orleans watched the hosts stuff their faces and, between bites, issue such reviews as, “magnificent”, unbelievable”, “superb” – all from the land of Anne of Green Gables.

“Yup,” says Jan Holmes, “We meant to do it that way. That was on purpose.”

Holmes, to be clear, is the Director of Food Tourism and Applied Research for the P.E.I. Culinary Alliance, an organization that only recently reinvented itself as the Food Island Partnership as a group that, according to its website, is “established to work closely with industry and government partners to support the growth of the P.E.I. food sector and position P.E.I. as Canada’s Food Island. The organization works in the following key areas to achieve its mandate: Supporting food company and product development; enabling applied research to support value chain integration; and leveraging and building the reputation of the Prince Edward Island food brand.”

All this is, of course, the bureaucratic bafflegab expected when a provincial government joins with a federal organization (in this case, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) and private-industry operators.

Still, the bottom line is that Prince Edward Island, with all of 140,000 residents, is on an indisputable roll when it comes to food tourism. And it has been for years.

Says Holmes: “The Culinary Alliance, as a public-private consortium was formally founded in 2009, but long before that, various tourism interests on the Island were concentrating on the province’s food as a means to build tourism traffic. Overall, we’ve been quite successful.”

In fact, that’s an understatement. Flaring off from the Regis and Kelly weeklong event, tourism numbers on P.E.I. have spiked every year since 2011. The most recent statistics from the provincial government indicate that visitor traffic to the Island in the summer of 2015 was 37 per cent higher than the previous year. That followed tourism hikes in the high double-digits in 2014, 2013 and 2012.

What these results have to do with Island food, exactly, is an open question. Although P.E.I.’s government doesn’t publish visitor stats based on general draws from beaches, restaurants or heritage sites, it has credited food tourism with providing the biggest, reliable boost to the provincial economy during the hardest times of the last recession.

Indeed, at least one celebrity chef from Toronto believes that Prince Edward Island’s deliberate effort to remake itself as a foodie paradise is working, economically, for the province. “P.E.I. is like this fairy tale island,” says Toronto-based Mark McEwan. “The people there are easy and very relaxed. They are very passionate about the food business, the restaurant scene and the whole culture around food.”

McEwan knows something about this. He owns and operates a suite of restaurants and catering businesses in The Big Smoke. “It’s a combination of factors,” he says about P.E.I. “I think the (provincial) government looked at everything and they had a very good reaction to the food scene. I believe they focussed on it. Also, you now have a lot of expats living in P.E.I. – people from other cities, people who have brought a little bit of (their own tastes) down here. Then add to this the local charm, plus the national conversation about food. It comes at you from different angles. But, it all works. That’s what’s great on the Island. That’s a great focus.”

Naturally, Jan Holmes agrees. The biggest food-tourism event of the year on P.E.I. is Fall Flavours – a month-long extravaganza between early September and early October, involving chefs like McEwan, Michael Smith, Lynn Crawford, Susur Lee, Chuck Hughes, Anna Olson, and Vikram Vij – which typically generates more than $600,000 in direct tourism revenue, and more like $1.4 million in multiplier and indirect boons, for the province. “Yes,” she says, “this has been our biggest annual effort,” at least since Regis and Kelly left the Island playground some years ago.

Still, since the New York cameras and photogs departed, there’s been more to attract food tourists to P.E.I. There have been beef and pork festivals, lobster and shellfish celebrations, vegan and vegetarian extravaganzas – all carefully orchestrated and staged to delight and astonish visitors who assume that this part of Canada merely hauls fish for a living.

Thanks to an assiduous public relations campaign, perhaps, others now know better. Or, at least, so said a media report in 2012: “Who doesn’t love spuds and fresh lobster? Prince Edward Island’s food has been crowned the second best in the world by restaurant surveyor Zagat,” reported the Toronto Sun. Said Greg Donald, general manager of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board at that time, “we are thrilled that Prince Edward Island joins the ranks of other amazing culinary capitals. Having Zagat appreciate our island’s local fare is a huge honour.”

Jan Holmes laughs when she hears, again, about the “shocking” genius of food producers on the jewel of the Gulf. After all, they’ve always been here, and they always will.

The trick has only been to get the world to stop making assumptions about a small island in the middle of nowhere, to pay attention, and to bring itself to accept the plausible chance that a ham and clam sandwich, in the hands of a brilliant chef, might actually whet one’s appetite.

Naturally, just before the morning talk show begins.

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