It’s not unusual on a fall day to see Cherie Swift pull root vegetables like potatoes, carrots and turnips from her backyard garden in time to prepare for a dinnertime meal with more than a dozen guests.
It’s been a regular occurrence at her Ross Ferry farm since mid-August. Swift, 52, originally from the Georgian Bay region of Ontario, moved to Cape Breton two years ago with her teenage son, Noah. In late summer, she opened a restaurant called GRÁ inside her home.
GRÁ translates to “love” or “sweetheart” in Gaelic.
The fixed, six-course menu comprised mainly of same-day harvested vegetables and herbs comes from her 150-acre sustainable farm located on Boularderie Island.
As much as 70 per cent of the produce used on the menu comes from her farm. The remainder is locally sourced from farms and other producers in Cape Breton.
“Everything is simple. Simple recipes. Few ingredients but lots of flavour because it’s fresh,” said Swift.
“A couple of times during the summer I had people calling for reservations and I was in the garden digging out potatoes for the dinner that evening. That’s how fresh it is. I pick the day of (the dinner) for a lot of the produce.”
- Located at 8874 Kempt Head Rd. in Ross Ferry, Victoria Co.
- Offers fixed six-course meal including meat and seafood dishes, a wood-fired oven pizza and a dessert.
- Open Wednesday to Saturday, dinner served at 6 p.m. Dining capacity set at 20 guests.
- Dining room closing for the season on Nov. 23; open for private functions on Saturdays during December.
- Website: www.earthtotablediningcapebretonisland.ca
Victoria County restaurant offers unique dining experience with locally sourced food, fixed six-course menu
She also buys produce from another farm in Ross Ferry called Silver Birch Acres.
Seafood, red meat and poultry also come from producers located in Cape Breton.
She depends on Mira Bay seafood products from Louisbourg Seafoods Ltd. for seasonal catches of snow crab and lobster. There’s also Kathryn Farms in Roberta, Richmond County, where Swift buys her beef and pork. The small family farm raises grass-fed and pasture-raised livestock.
The lack of dining establishments that have a menu consisting of all locally grown and raised products led her to the decision of opening her own restaurant.
GRÁ even offers fresh butter made on site.
The intimate establishment has a capacity of 20 guests and most will stay for three hours or longer, chatting and striking up conversations with people they’ve only met that evening.
“One time I had three groups of couples and by the end of the night they were all great friends. They never met each other before. They all booked in for the following year for a date they could all meet again. That happens all the time,” Swift said.
The restaurant employs five people who all live on Kempt Head Road in Ross Ferry, she said.
Owning a farm back in Ontario, she made the decision to move and purchase the property in Ross Ferry after a brief visit in May 2017. What followed was 18 months of extensive renovations to the old farmhouse that dated back more than a century.
She knew it was the right place to resettle. Her son quickly fell in love with the community, Swift said. When he’s not acting as her chief dishwasher, the 17-year-old is enrolled in the welding apprenticeship program at Memorial Composite High School in Sydney Mines.
“He is a completely different student going to school here than he was in Ontario. He loves going to school and loves the welding program. It was a total 100 per cent flip for school.”
With the leaves quickly changing and the harvest nearing its end, GRÁ will close for the season on Nov. 23. It won’t reopen again until next August because of the dependence on locally grown food.
“I have a problem with giving people too much food.” -- Cherie Swift, restaurant owner
While there is a downside to operating a restaurant dependent on Cape Breton product — for instance, halibut wasn’t immediately available after post-tropical storm Dorian moved across the island in early September — Swift said her operating costs are low and little food is wasted.
"It’s cheaper for me than for anybody else because the difference between me and a regular restaurant is, I know the day before how many people are coming the next day. I only make exactly enough food for those people,” she said.
“Let’s say I have 10 people coming. I need six courses for 10 people. And there is nothing else. Where a regular restaurant has a menu of 25 or 30 items … and they have to wonder what are people going to order today. All that food just sits there. The longer it sits, the less fresh it is and the more costly it is because if it sits for too long you’ve got to replace it.”
One problem — depending on how one looks at it — is the large portion size on each plate. The dinner usually opens with a soup or salad, followed by meat and fish dishes, a wood-fired pizza and closing out with a dessert.
Sometimes patrons will fill up by the fifth course.
“I have a problem with giving people too much food,” she said with a laugh.
“That is my only problem. Everybody is stuffed when they leave here.”