"We are taking recipes that go as far back as 400, 500 years — a couple of dishes on our menu actually date back to the 1600s," says Wu.
The husband and wife team opened Borealia last month, drawing inspiration from native dishes, and the food early settlers brought to Canada. The name itself is Latin for northern and was suggested as a name for Canada, prior to Confederation.
CBC Toronto caught up with Wu and Morris for our 5 to Watch series, shortly after the official opening of Borealia.
"We wanted to contribute something fresh to the local food scene, and it's just funny we had to go back in time to come up with something fresh," she says.
A fusion of cultures, techniques
The restaurant is a labour of love for Wu and Morris. They spent nearly 2 years recording recipes, researching ingredients and refining the concept. They tracked down what's believed to be the first cookbook ever published in Canada,1877's Canadian Home Cookbook.
"It was compiled by the ladies of Toronto, and it gives you a glimpse of what they had back then, which is so useful to us. What we’re aiming to do is to take these seemingly basic recipes and figuring out how to modernize them," says Wu.
Part of the inspiration came from Wu's time working at celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, in Bray, UK.
"I had just come back from England, working in a restaurant that did interpretations of historic British food. We started thinking, just because Canada doesn't have the extensive history that Europe has it doesn't mean we don't have the histories of all the people who came and settled the country," explains Wu.
"These people came from their home countries and brought their recipes and had to adapt based on the ingredients that were found here."
Dishes dating back centuries
The idea is best explained by the dishes themselves. The oldest plate on the menu dates back to the days of Samuel de Champlain: L'Ecclade is made of mussels steamed on a burning pile of pine needles.
“We did an adaptation of it. When you light the pine needles on fire, you get five to 10-foot flames. They're dried pine needles. We had to play with that recipe. We tested it a dozen times before we got it right,” explains Morris.
The menu also includes inspiration from both their backgrounds.
"I'm from Nova Scotia — my heritage is mostly Acadian. I was always interested in exploring Nova Scotia's past and food, and because it was the gateway to Canada a lot of the cultures ended up coming through Nova Scotia and Pier 21,” he says.
Wu says that while the recipes celebrate Canadian traditions, she also wants to infuse his Chinese heritage into the mix. That's how the chop suey croquettes were born.
“Traditionally chop suey was food that was eaten by the Chinese immigrants when they came to build the railroads in the mid-1800s ... It was traditionally just rice, with meat scraps, and whatever vegetables they could find sauteed slathered in a brown sauce. We've done a more playful take on arancini, the traditional Italian rice balls,” says Wu.
Though they have both worked in kitchens all over the world, Wu and Morris feel Toronto is the perfect city to introduce Borealia.
“We thought Toronto would be a great place to launch this concept, because people here are really proud to be Canadian, they're really proud of Toronto,” says Morris.