It didn’t take long for Founders House to become a household name in Annapolis County.
Rave reviews on Facebook accounts started the day it opened a year ago and people are still bragging of their dining experiences.
The vision of owner Laura Robinson and her good fortune to find and hire creative and daring Chef Chris Pyne accounts in large part for the success. And when you see Pyne shopping at Annapolis Royal’s famous Farmers and Traders Market Saturday mornings, you’re glimpsing part of a business philosophy that starts in the gardens, farms, and orchards of the Annapolis Valley. And yes, the wharf in Digby.
Pyne is between the lunch and supper rushes and explains the menus he and Robinson are drawing up for the big first birthday celebration July 29. It’s a throwback to all of Pyne’s favourite dishes from the past year and picks from diners as well. There will be a five-course menu and an eight-course menu.
Robinson is slowly releasing Pyne’s list on Facebook to see what the people liked best of his choices.
“Once we get all the feedback from our guests on Facebook then we’re actually going to devise the menu,” Robinson said.
Pyne has his fingers crossed for his No. 1 pick.
“The Caesar Salad and the Seared Scallops, that’s one of my favourites for sure,” he said. “We get the Digby scallops fresh two times a week, and then Caesar Salad is something you can find on any menu but ours is different than any other Caesar Salad around.”
His twist on it includes an anchovy vinegarette.
“There’s hard-boiled eggs in it rather than using the egg to emulsify a creamy dressing,” Pyne said. “Then it’s drizzled over the grilled romaine which is a baby artisan-style romaine, so it’s more tender. And then Ran-Cher Acres goat cheese – and it’s a goat parmesan so it’s different than a regular parmesan. It pares really well with the scallops – the goat parmesan. And then there’s crispy prosciutto instead of bacon. The scallops are seared, just in some foaming butter and a sprig of thyme.”
That’s the sort of thing Pyne does – creates and takes chances. Lobster and rhubarb? He’s done it and it’s worked.
The Founders House Dining & Drinks experience has been second to none for him.
“I’m lucky to be in one of the best growing regions in the country and to have so many suppliers just all around me,” he said. “I have a list of 18 different suppliers to supply the restaurant from. A guy who just does micro greens, a guy who does lettuce. And it’s pretty awesome to know that I’m cooking with stuff that came out of the ground that day. It makes my job a lot easier when I’m working with great produce.”
“I think the feedback is all pretty much positive for the most part,” said Pyne. He’s sitting near a mammoth piece of live-edge mahogany that is the bar. It’s a showstopper piece of wood. Chris Williams serves drinks behind it and dries glasses by hand. “People love the fact we’re supporting local and that’s the biggest thing we’re trying to do here – support our community and all grow together as one. So when I go to the market even, on Saturdays, I create a weekly market menu … and I’ll get a little bit from everyone. I won’t just stay limited buying off one person at the market.”
He’ll get lettuce from one person, cabbage from another person, tomatoes from yet another.
“I think people appreciate what we’re doing here because of that” he said. “They’re able to grow as well because of what I’m doing. Our friend over in Bear River, Sissiboo Organics, he’s quadrupled his production based on Founders House and what we’re doing here. It’s just pretty cool to see other people striving with us.”
Robinson gets emotional when she talks about it. She came home from the city to open Founders House, something Rolland Hamilton wanted to happen after he bought the abandoned Annapolis golf course. He took the old rabbit warren of a clubhouse, gutted it, and rebuilt it into something Robinson turned into world class with roots so local that it’s become its own economic driver.
“That was my whole point,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to do when I knew that I was going to start doing this with Poudie (Hamilton) -- and once we found Chris – that it was supporting local. If I’m going to move home and change my whole life to do something like this, I want it to mean something. And I wanted this place to be able to help support a growing economy.”
She said people’s businesses flourishing and trying new things because of Founders House is what it’s all about, she said in reference to Neil Ellis at Sissiboo Organics upon whom they come to rely.
“Chris asking him to purposely grow things for Chris, and Neil, never having done this before, and being able to learn and his business grow,” she said. “Like that’s everything I could have ever wanted from here. Neil’s amazing. He’s one of our best suppliers.”
“He’ll come to our back door twice a week,” Pyne said. “I think about restaurants in Halifax right now and how far the produce has to travel to be at their back door where everything we get from our suppliers all comes from within 20 kilometres. You can’t beat that.”
“We call Stuart and he picks his carrots and comes here five minutes later,” Robinson said. “He puts them in his car and drives here.”
Maybe that’s why Tripadvisor,ca rates Founders No. 1 in Annapolis Royal, and indeed for the Bay of Fundy and Annapolis Valley areas. And they have a 4.7-star rating on Google.
While the menu can be accessed online, Robinson sums up what they offer as rustic sophistication in atmosphere and food. But she stresses that Founders House is a place for everyone.
“Elevated dining rooted in sea and soil,” is written on the wall.
DID YOU KNOW?
Founders House was once the summer home of acclaimed American movie actor Arthur Kennedy.