When I told Alan Doyle — member of Great Big Sea, actor, memoir author, and proud son of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland — that I was only going to ask him about food, I could hear him smiling over the phone. Doyle is a fiercely enthusiastic lover of food, be it the cod-heavy dishes of the Maritimes or deliciousness that he’s encountered around the world on his decades-long musical career. He’s currently out and about supporting his new solo album So Let’s Go, and we caught him a couple of weeks ago on a tour stop in Montreal. Alan was more than happy to talk about his favourite food cities in the world, tell tales of eating fish with Russell Crowe and Elvis Costello, and share a recipe for his famed Fisherman’s Feed stew.
Rolling Spoon: I’ve been told that food is a subject near and dear to your heart. Are you much of a cook or is your love restricted to eating?
Alan Doyle: I’d like to think of myself as a guy who cooks a lot but I’m on the road so much that I don’t really get to do it. When I’m home I love to cook and we have a cabin and I’m the cook out there most often. I just got a pizza oven for Christmas and I’m looking forward to getting that going. It’s going to be wicked.
What do you like to cook? If you were at home and I came over what would you make me?
I like cooking local stuff. We’ll have friends come over from the mainland and it always charms them to have that kind of thing. My favourite appetizer to prepare is smoked cod pate. It’s real simple, you get a piece of fresh cod and smoke it in whatever way you like to do that. My sister and brother-in-law own a restaurant in St. John’s called Mallard Cottage that’s doing quite well, it’s one of the best new restaurants in Canada. And you just smoke it and then serve it with cream cheese and onions and it’s amazing.
For main courses I love doing fresh cod, if you can get it locally it’s so good to just do straight-up pan-fried cod or there’s a lot of recipes in Newfoundland for cod au gratin.
You’re in Montreal right now? Will you have time to grab dinner there before your show tonight?
No. I never eat before gigs. I usually eat around two o’clock. I’ll get some smoked meat or something while I’m here in Montreal at two o’clock or so. If we’re lucky enough we’ll find something that will stay open late for us, which is not impossible. I usually go with whatever is unique to where I am. So if I have a night off in Montreal I’ll go for a great Italian meal or great Asian food or smoked meat, or the French stuff. You’re in Calgary? I always go to Charcut and eat whatever they’re cooking. When I’m in Alberta I tend to eat beef and when I’m in Vancouver I may have sushi or something. My favourite food city in the world is Montreal. My second favourite is New Orleans. My third would be a tie between New York and Sidney.
Sidney! I don’t know much about the food scene in Sidney.
Well, they have a huge Italian population. A lot of Italian immigrants there. They have a huge Asian influence too, plus their own kind of version of what we’d know as British food. And they have access to everything. They can grow just about anything. They have access to every kind of livestock or fish. They have great wine! It’s pretty great.
You’ve spent a pretty significant portion of your life on the road. Does it excite you from a food perspective?
Yeah. It’s one of my favourite things about it. I’ve never been the kind of musician who travels to a place and just sort of gets off the bus and goes into the arena or theatre and then just gets back on the bus. I just spent most of my morning walking around in the freezing winter in Montreal. I find it such a privilege to do that and have an incidental day, morning, or hour, or whatever I get. To be in a town and then the next day to be in another one. I still love that. And that’s part of the reason that I love the dawn of the food truck. If you can’t eat a big meal on show days that’s your chance to sample stuff that’s local and small and quick.
And some of those trucks have pretty crackerjack chefs!
Oh! Yeah, especially in the southwest of the U.S. now. All around California. I don’t think I’ve gone into a restaurant on a show day in California in a long time. Because everywhere you go the food trucks are so incredible — it’s the best food you can get now in Southern California.
Do you tend to eat with your band, be it Great Big Sea or your solo band? Is that a good time to hang out and bond?
Honestly, that’s not been my experience. Sometimes in a studio situation it works… we did a record once in New Orleans and we had a dinner brought in to us every night and that was awesome. But more often or not I find that on the road, especially on show days I always encourage people to scatter. Trust me, we spend enough time together.
What about other musicians who you aren’t necessarily working with? Do you have any good stories about eating with other musicians?
I have lots of them! I sat on Russell Crowe’s back deck one time because I was down in Australia working on a record with him. And he said “We’re going to have supper on the veranda and I have a friend coming over.” And I though, okay, it’s probably one of the guys in his band or something. Anyway it turned out to be Elvis Costello! So I was having a dinner in Sidney, overlooking the harbor bridge, with Russell Crowe and Elvis Costello! We had all local fish, lots of seafood.
What is your favourite kind of pie?
Apple pie. Easy. It’s the hardest thing on planet earth to get in a good restaurant. It’s really the only thing I ever want for dessert: hot apple pie with cold ice cream. And in anything above a diner in the U.S. they turn their nose up at apple pie. You want apple pie, made by someone’s nan. There’s a place in New York City called Bubba’s Pie Company and they have good apple pie. And they’re open 24 hours.
I asked Alan for a recipe and he told me about the famed Fisherman’s Feed of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland. I had grand plans to make one myself, but couldn’t pull it off, being restricted to Western Canadian ingredients. But if you can get your hands on some scrunchions and a whole fresh cod, this looks delicious. Here’s the method, in Alan’s words, because it feels wrong to write it up as a proper recipe:
“There is a dish that I cook all the time that’s unique not just to Newfoundland, but unique to Petty Harbour. We just call it Fisherman’s Feed. And what it is is a fish stew. It’s all served in one pot and fishermen would make it on a boat because they could do it with one propane burner. Or they’d come on shore and cook it on the beach. So, you’d layer the bottom of the pot with salt pork, or scrunchions as we call it here. That renders off a whole bunch of pork fat, then you put a big pile of onions in that. Then you put potatoes in there. And then some cubed up salted beef and let that cook for about half an hour. Then you add a while fresh cod fish on top of that for about 10 minutes and off you go. It’s salty, heavy, awesomeness.”