Edible Sustainable Art

Chef Justin Cournoyer opens his culinary palette to the world, and it is delightful.

By Paige McPhee

Photos By Arash Moallemi

edible sustainable art by Chef Cournoyer

Justin Cournoyer was born and raised in Actinolite, Ontario—a rural town just outside Bellville that would eventually give name to his Ossington restaurant. Actinolite was where Chef Cournoyer was first introduced to the Canadian food landscape; foraging, hunting and gathering from a young age. Whatever Cournoyer’s family couldn’t grow or gather themselves, they would buy from their neighborhood farmer, baker, or brewer—unknowingly living a highly sustainable life.

Chef Cournoyer never set out to incorporate sustainability into the design of his restaurant. After cooking under established chefs like Sursur Lee for a large portion of his career, Cournoyer had enough culinary credibility to cook what he knew successfully. In its original stages, Actinolite served various French, Mediterranean and European style dishes that pleased patrons but left Cournoyer dissatisfied and displaced. It wasn’t until Cournoyer visited international restaurants, like Denmark’s famed Noma, where he was reintroduced to the rustic foods and flavours of his home.

Almost overnight Actinolite changed their plates – featuring ingredients with those found within the forest, like juniper, pine needles and lichen. After a little exploration, Cournoyer found organic biodynamic farms to source meat & produce for the restaurant—a process of food production that allows a farm to sustain itself by regenerating waste and utilizing natural resources. By using organic biodynamic produce, Cournoyer shrinks Actinolite’s environmental footprint and offers economic support for farmers in his community, while providing more nutrient dense dishes. It wasn’t long until Cournoyer made one of his biggest culinary investments; shutting down the restaurant one day each week to educate and explore with his staff.

“At first, it was just experimentation. Seeing what we could use from the land around us, but I really found myself working back to Actinolite, and back to my roots.” Cournoyer explains. “Everything we present is a reflection of the Canadian environment and landscape. Pasture raised animals. All organic biodynamic vegetables. Come spring time, we’re foraging – but preserving for the winter at the same time. Going into summer, we’re preserving, fermenting, dehydrating for winter. It is a constant process of collecting, repurposing, savouring. It not only forces us to be more creative, but to value food all the more.”

For this reason, the price of Actinolites various menus is very reflective of the work and process behind each dish. The 2-course neighbourhood special, paired with a glass of wine, is about $30. The 4-course summary menu is priced at $60, with the 7-course chef’s menu at a deserving $90.

When eating at Actinolite, it becomes clear that quality is vastly more important that quantity—as each dish is both beautifully and sizably prepared, some even on refurbished Actinolite rocks. Several thin slices of aged angus beef shoulder lie on my plate, joined by wild dandelion leaves, coated in a white pine oil. The beef is tender yet textured, tasting of strength. Red-meat is a rarity on Actinolite menu, though for good reason. Cournoyer details, “I like to treat the restaurant like I’d treat my family a hundred years ago. Back then, you wouldn’t have access to the volume of food we have today, especially meat. You would be lucky to get a Sunday roast that one day a week. To be sustainable, we should be eating less meat less often. And when you do, meat that’s high quality, organic, sustainably farmed.”

As the chef’s menu continues, Cournoyer’s philosophy of simple—but not simplistic—food transcends, each plate containing no more ingredients than you could count on one hand. Cournoyer prides himself on using ingredients of peak flavour and freshness, allowing each element to give an independent impression.

The miso dish is easily one of the most divergent and sustainable of the night, featuring squash, jerusalem oil and peony flowers. Cournoyer explains that though the dish is Asian-inspired, it also classifies as Canadian food. “Immigration has greatly improved Canada’s food culture. We’ve obtained culinary histories from China and Japan, that influence what we prepare. We make 10 different misos here because we get to purpose fish guts—an ingredient that can be fermented and manipulated to be incredibly versatile. These are great flavours that Canada provides.”

Chef Cournoyer extends his sustainability beyond his plates to his bread baskets and beer glasses—using discarded grains from Burdock Brewery to bake fresh rolls, all the while stocking the restaurant’s bar with frosted bottles. Cournoyer has even got into the habit of handing organic waste over to partnered pig farmers, to use for a more dimensional feed.

Sustainability as a mindset really allows one to transform their lifestyle, rejecting impulse and favouring thoughtfulness. If there’s anything Actinolite is as a restaurant, it’s extremely thoughtful, developed and decadent. An intelligent dining experience that not only betters your body, but your mind, community and environment.