Written by Jan Davies.
Guerin Sykes lives in Hillier. Or maybe it’s Ameliasburgh. “We’re on Burr Road, right on the border,” he laughs, “and there are three Wards that meet up here, including the one for Sophiasburgh. My driver’s license says Ameliasburgh, our mailing address is Hillier, but as long as we’re in The County, I’m happy.”
He and his wife Jessica opened The Marans Dinebar in the plum location between the Regent Theatre and Picton Library earlier this year.
“It’s a unique kind of kitchen,” he says wryly. “Very compact. About 100 square feet. I have no gas, no hood, but what I have are three induction burners and I use my immersion circulator. I cook most of my proteins sous vide, so there’s no grease, it’s all in water baths.” Add in a couple of pressure cookers and a toaster oven and he’s serving an average of 100 people a day on weekends with 20 seats inside, 20 on the patio. “Lunches can be a bit crazy,” he says cheerfully, “dinner is more relaxed, a little more refined, and we’re all having fun.” After working for years in corporate hospitality, as executive chef for universities and big companies, Guerin was looking to get back to the more intimate side of hospitality, and he found it on Main Street, Picton.
WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM FAMILY …
It’s not his first restaurant. “I opened my first in Burlington when I was 22,” he says. “It was sort of mainstream, main street, a seafood place with a takeout counter, and I managed it with a lot of love and financial support from my parents. When I sold it I went into the corporate chef world, and after a few years Jessica and I had had enough. We wanted to move somewhere smaller.” They came to vacation in The County and it instantly shot to the top of their shortlist. “In the end the choice was between the south shore of Nova Scotia and here. We looked around a lot in Nova Scotia, but The County won because of two things: it’s easier for our families to drive three hours to see us than to jump on a plane, and frankly we fell in love with the whole atmosphere here. We like the eco-tourism and the easy hospitality but the first thing that knocked us out was the honour system. Not even in Nova Scotia had I seen an honour system at a bakery! We put money in a box for eggs, butter tarts, even beef, and we thought if people in The County have that much trust and that much pleasure in sharing their stuff, this place is a lot more than a great vacation spot. I’m from down east originally and Prince Edward County is the closest thing I’ve seen to the Maritimes.”
… AND FRIENDS
Before opening The Marans, Guerin worked with other local operations. “I revamped Waupoos Winery last year and helped open the Signal Brewing company up in Corbyville,” he says. “So I worked with a lot of people in the industry and some of the staff wanted to follow me on my adventures. That’s a nice situation to be in. I believe in giving people a fair living wage, respect and opportunities, and that goes a long way. I value input from my staff and involve them in decision making. People like their voices to be heard, and ours get involved in everything, even our slogan which is “Locally sourced, globally inspired, family run.” We had the idea but a member of staff actually put it together like that. It’s much easier when you pool resources, with menu development and everything. I’m only one person and I can miss things or have great ideas that the front line people know can’t translate into real life. Sometimes they say no way Guerin! Sometimes they say, yes that’ll work and we can do even more.”
WHAT’S UNIQUE ABOUT THE MARANS
When Guerin and Jessica first came to The County they discovered ethnically inspired dishes were not easy to find. “That’s changing now and there’s more coming, which is awesome,” he says. “We travel a lot which has a huge influence on us, not just the way I cook but how we live, the way we raise our kids. There is a lot of South Eastern and Asian influence, and South America gets in there, too. For the restaurant, we want to recreate the way we cook at home. We’ve had the opportunity to eat all kinds of great food around the world and in the diversity of the city. We want to offer that kind of choice while still highlighting local produce and growers and artisans.”
Using County ingredients means they’re not necessarily 100% authentic or traditional, but they’re close, and people have shown their approval. They got busy fast. “Our first Countylicious sold out,” he says. “I’ve had big learning curves, particularly with the space.” Guerin does not have storage. What you see is what you get. There’s one extra holding fridge but no storage there or off-site. No worries. “I just get small deliveries,” he says. “I use small suppliers and I prep daily. I try to prep today for tomorrow so I’m one day ahead but the menu is small and tight. The space dictates what I do, and so far it’s working great.”
WHO LOVES YA
Guerin says candidly he’s surprised by some of his clientele, considering his esoteric dishes that come from the faraway places he has been, and some he hasn’t … yet. “I’ve not made it to Africa,” he grins. “But I’m interested in their spice profiles and techniques so there are African dishes on the menu.” He didn’t expect his menu to be a hit with everybody and it’s not. “We are not for everyone,” he says with a shrug. “But we don’t need to be. It’s a small place and we couldn’t fit everybody in anyway!” But he tells of the satisfaction of seeing a group of mature women take a table and get six orders of mapo tofu and absolutely love it. “I said have you tried this before? And they said no but we heard about your food and we trust you, and it’s delicious.” He may not have expected such enthusiasm from County residents, but he was wise enough to base his business plan on surviving the off-season with mainly local customers. “If we could get through winter, we knew the summer visitors would be a big bonus.”
How does he see the future? He answers honestly, “This is not necessarily a long-term venture. I only have a short lease, because there’s so much going on in this immediate block with the library renovation and possible development of the theatre. But this is a terrific spot for brand testing. There’s a lot of foot traffic, great visibility, no parking,” he shrugs again, “but it’s all pretty exciting.”
One of his more inspirational dishes, pork belly maki roll, has become a mainstay of the menu. “It’s a beautiful looking dish,” he says. “And it gets Instagrammed a lot. It’s Japanese inspired but instead of fish we use local pork belly from Walt’s Sugar Shack. In fact Brian Walt has brought in more hogs for me because I really go through it. We use things like dehydrated beets for sweetness and produce from other local farms and our own farm, too. Cloven Farm does specific sprouts for me, I have them doing 3-week old shishu, and I love using their blue oyster mushrooms!
So he’s taking three or four local producers and putting them on to one plate in dishes from around the world. And he doesn’t just buy what the local producers are offering, he gets them to grow what he needs. “That comes from having good relationships with many of them already, like Tim at Jubilee Farms,” he says. “When we first saw what he’s doing, his farming techniques and his whole approach we reached out to him. I love his Salad Bar Beef, all that grass fed beef. We were his first restaurant and we deal with him weekly. We’re consistent and it’s a win for the farmer because I can take things other than the usual commodity cuts, things that might not sell so easily because I can use them, and it’s a win for me because the products are excellent.”
Guerin likes to support dedicated people. “People like Tim and Angela took on a lot with their way of farming, they’ve struggled, but they tell me they’re now getting people come to them who have tasted their produce at The Marans and want to buy from them direct. And that is very cool.” Guerin laughs that he has more local suppliers than he has seats in his restaurant, and they’re not all food producers. He showcases local artists, too, like Emerson Pringle’s wooden boards, furniture and vessels and he hangs local art on the walls. “Art is huge here,” he says. “I think of the County as food, wine, art and beaches, and I’ve got three out of the four. I like to surround myself with great stuff and there’s a lot of resources here. Our logo is by a local artist, Natalie Piper. I told her what I wanted and she came up with something completely different and much better.”
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