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Best Chef 

Dennis Johnston, Fid 1569 Dresden Row, 422-9162

One of the great things about chefs is that if you hang around their kitchens long enough they feed you. “Do you like shellfish?” chef Dennis Johnston asks, handing over a freshly steamed, jumbo crab leg. Next comes a tarte au sucre. “That’s for our spring dessert menu. Do you like it?”  

Johnston’s affable nature is part of the experience at Fid, where you’ll often find him mixing with his clientele. “Fid is a small restaurant, and I have the luxury of being able to take off the apron and go out and say hello to everybody.” Johnston fell into the profession in London, England, when he helped a friend open her own restaurant. He later apprenticed with two French brothers, and then worked in France and Switzerland before moving to Montréal. Three years ago he and partner Monica Bauché made the move to Halifax, opening Fid in late 2000. “I missed the ocean,” says Johnston. “I grew up here.”

Freshness and availability are key in menu planning. “I get my inspiration from the produce itself,” he says. “Now that spring is here, the earth is unfrozen and any root vegetable that remained in the field over the winter—it’s called wintering over—is actually twice as sweet. I just picked up some incredible parsnip, beet, parsley root and carrot.”

Finding fresh fish every day is no problem, but which kind he’ll get can be a little unpredictable. “I’ve had haddock on my menu for two weeks—it’s the best seller, crispy skin haddock with organic mustard greens and sautéed shitake mushrooms. So, I’ve got a function tonight and I need haddock. I call up my fish guy and of course there’s a storm coming in tonight, nobody’s going out in their boats. The only other thing is halibut, so I just change the menu right there. The menu evolves slowly but surely.”

Johnston describes his cuisine as minimalist. “Take one element in its prime, fool with it as little as possible, and accent it with two or three other elements,” he says. “Food is simple. If you have top-quality products, it does it all by itself.” That may be so, but the final product is definitely a team effort: “There’s a feeling in the kitchen when everyone’s working together and we’re on the same wavelength. I just love it.”  

With the recent chef-turned-TV-celebrity craze, I wonder if Johnston might aspire to have his own show. “No,” he says meditatively. “But I wouldn’t mind having a new TV.” —Heather Nicholson

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