Having been through hell and high water on St. Maarten, Mike and Teresa Wilson came home to open Cucina Urbana, their modern Italian lakeside restaurant on Cobourg’s beautiful waterfront.
For a couple of Canadian foodservice veterans escaping to the tropics to run a successful beachfront restaurant on an island paradise sounds idyllic; and it was – until it wasn’t.
On September 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma made landfall on St. Maarten. Blowing for 10 terrifying hours, the Category Five storm reduced 95 percent of the island to rubble, including Mike and Teresa Wilson’s beloved beachfront eatery, Big Fish Seafood Restaurant and Hurricane Bar.
The pair had moved to the island of St. Maarten after many years of hard work, long days and nights, and all the stresses of running busy food service operations in the GTA – seven establishments over three decades. “We did it to change our lives for the better,” says Teresa.
They had been in St. Maarten for seven years when the storm hit. Teresa was back home in Canada for a wedding; Mike had stayed behind. “I started the onslaught of Hurricane Irma in our condo in Red Pond, a three-minute car ride from our restaurant,” recalls Mike. “As the hurricane worsened, the 300-pound hurricane-proof sliding glass doors in our condo began bending inwards from the force of the wind. Feeling unsafe I left the condo, ran to my SUV and drove through the valley, heading to Big Fish, because it was equipped with hurricane shutters.”
Mike made it to what he hoped would be a safer place to ride out the storm. Once inside, he sealed the storm shutters, then barricaded the doors with cases of bottled water. “I hunkered down,” recalls Mike, “and listened to the deafening wind – gusts were clocked at 320 kilometres per hour – things smashing outside, and the 15-foot storm surges. At one point the restaurant had six feet of sea water in it.”
As the winds died down, the looting began. Back in Ontario, with all communications down on the island, Teresa could only watch the news and wait to hear from Mike. It took him eight days to find a cell signal on the battered island and let Teresa know he was all right. Soon he would be on the tarmac waiting for an evac flight with WestJet when word came that a gang armed with machine guns and machetes was on its way to rob the evacuees at the airport. Mercifully, he and the others made it onboard in time.
“After the hurricane, it just became too dangerous,” said Mike. “It was lawless, with heavily armed gangs roaming the streets, looting and killing. We had loved the lifestyle on St. Maarten, but…”
So, the couple returned to Ontario, settling in Cobourg. “It was hard to start over at our ages – in our 50s – after losing everything,” says Teresa. “But we had a little nest egg, and we knew we didn’t want to go back to the GTA, so when we saw this place, it was as if the stars had aligned.” The couple love the water, and since they won’t be going back to St. Maarten, beachfront Cobourg is the next best thing.
“The place was practically turnkey,” recalls Mike of the location at the bottom of Division Street by the marina. “We just added our own look to it,” adds Teresa. With colourful abstract art by local painter, Betsy Miller, and help from the design firm, Acanthus, and carpenter, Sean Burnside, of Best Woodworking, the couple gave it a nautical vibe with soft blues, white wicker, ceiling fans, and a simple, yet perfect, chandelier of driftwood collected from the beach just a few steps away.
“We love to support local,” says Teresa. And the feeling is mutual. “People here are amazing,” she adds. “The support from the community has been fantastic and we’re so grateful for the way it’s embraced us.”
Cucina Urbana opened its doors on May 17, 2019, offering a menu of modern, urban Italian – the kitchen honours Italian cuisine but is not married to tradition. “We’re at the beach,” says Teresa,“ so we need to reflect that on the menu, with some lighter fare – and of course, seafood.”
Chef Jason Scott and his team make everything from scratch, including some of the most authentic pizza this side of Napoli. “We press our dough into semolina flour for a perfect texture,” says Scott. “And they’re baked at 625°F, so they come out in just four minutes.”
Cooking in restaurants since the age of 15, and hailing from British Columbia, Chef Scott brings a fine palate to his cucina (that’s Italian for kitchen). His menu changes twice a year, offering spring and summer, and fall and winter seasonal features.
With the kitchen open seven days a week, for lunch and dinner, Mike and Teresa can be onsite from first thing in the morning to well after closing, especially in the summertime. Their home is the apartment right above the restaurant, which makes the daily commute an easy one. Still, living and working together in a competitive business can be challenging. Their formula? “We were best friends before we got married,” says Teresa. “And we let each other do our own parts in the business.”
“We are very passionate about what we do,” she says. “That’s the key to success: being hands on, and letting each of us do the jobs we’re best at. And being here and involved.”
The breezy nature of their back-and-forth and easy smiles suggest it’s working.
“Also,” adds Teresa, “God winked at us and gave us a second chance. We landed on our feet.”
Chef Scott’s Chicken Liver Pâté with Smoked Tomato and Caramelized Onion Jam
Chicken Liver Pâté
“I love this pâté because it’s so smooth and creamy. It’s comfort food elevated. It’s also surprisingly light on the palate, so it’s great to serve all year round.” Chef Scott uses fresh livers, but frozen will work just as well.
3 cups water
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
½ tsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. fine sea salt
2 tsp. minced garlic
1 tbsp. canola oil
¼ cup chopped onion
1 lb. fresh chicken livers; excess fat trimmed
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh thyme
1½ tsp. honey
2 tsp. dry parsley
½ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. fine sea salt
¾ oz. bourbon or rye
¼ lb. butter, softened
- In a large saucepan over high heat, bring water with thyme, bay leaf, salt, pepper and garlic to a gentle boil; allow to boil uncovered for 7 – 10 minutes to release flavours into the water.
- Add oil and onion to a skillet over medium-high heat and cook until softened and beginning to brown – about 5 minutes.
- Add softened onions and livers to the saucepan of water and herbs; reduce heat to low and allow to simmer uncovered until livers are slightly pink – about 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat, drain through a sieve, transfer to fridge and allow to cool until chilled through. Discard bay leaf and thyme sprig.
- When fully chilled, add the poached livers and onion to a food processor along with the chopped thyme, honey, parsley, onion powder, salt and bourbon; blend until smooth – 30 to 60 seconds. Stop once or twice to scrape down the sides.
- Add the softened butter and blend until fully incorporated. Transfer pâté into individual ramekins, small jars or one larger container. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. An optional drop of melted butter or olive oil on top will keep the surface soft and stop it from oxidizing.
- Serve with crackers or toasts and a dollop of Smoked Tomato and Caramelized Onion Jam or other sharp condiment.
Smoked Tomato and Caramelized Onion Jam
“The tangy, smoky, lightly sweet flavour of this jam is a perfect counterpoint to the richness of my pâté. I also love it with meats, cheeses, and charcuterie.”
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 cup finely chopped red onion
1½ cups chopped Roma or plum tomato
⅓ cup red wine or apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. black pepper
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. ground coriander
1 tbsp. sea salt
½ cup packed golden brown sugar
½ tsp. liquid smoke
- To a saucepan over medium heat, add oil; when hot, add onions. Stirring often, cook until soft and lightly brown; about 15 minutes.
- Add all remaining ingredients and simmer on low heat for 40 – 45 minutes or until the texture of strawberry jam.
- Transfer to container with cover. Jam will keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.
Makes about 2 cups
Mercury Chocolates and Soprano Pasta Co.
When Chef Darren Johns isn’t leading culinary tours through Italy, he’s busy in his Cobourg kitchen, churning up authentic Italian gelati, elegant bean-to-bar chocolates, and now, rustic handmade pastas, all in an aim to “Bring the heart and soul of Italy to Canada. We strive for authenticity, tradition, and taste,” he says.
Inspired – and trained – through 25 years of travel in the Tuscany, Amalfi and Apulia regions of Italy he saw an opportunity in 2008 to bring high-end chocolate to Northumberland County, much to the delight of Port Hope chocolate lovers, who got their fix at his John Street shop.
True Italian gelati would follow in 2016, and most recently there’s pasta.
“Today we offer our products to high-end restaurants, wineries and hotels across North America,” says Darren.
“We have partnered with Darren at Mercury Chocolate and Soprano Pasta since Cucina Urbana opened in May of 2019,” says Mike. “Darren began by supplying us with an array of his delicious gelati; and more recently his specialized fresh pastas have been a hit with our customers.”
Jason Sharpe, General Manager
Huff Estates Winery
Since 2004, award-winning Huff Estates has focused on producing high quality wines. The landscape of Bloomfield, Prince Edward County has helped, with their grape processing facility and fermentation tanks perched atop a gentle slope, allowing for gravity to transport the wines into their temperature-controlled barrel cellar below. Huff Estates is the vision of County-born-and-raised owner, Lanny Huff, his wife, Catherine, and winemaker, Frédéric Picard, who’s been on board since the beginning. A visit to Huff Estates offers more experiences than excellent wines. Besides the inn and restaurant, Oeno Gallery is a passion project showcasing Canadian and international artists.
Mike Wilson at Cucina Urbana is a particular fan of Huff Estates wines. “Teresa and I were hosted by Brian Hanna, the sommelier at Huff Estates since 2007, where we sampled several of their products,” says Mike. “Over the last couple of years, we have had Huff Estates wines on our wine list, including the Minimalist Merlot and the Off Dry Riesling. Our clients truly enjoy the wines and along with us are happy to support Prince Edward County wines.”
Jane Abballe, partner & owner with Frank Abballe
La Cultura Salumi
Frank Abballe, owner of La Cultura Salumi in Belleville, has been honing his craft for over 30 years. He immigrated to Canada as a little boy but was drawn back to the family farm in Isola del Liri, Frosinone, Italy, time and time again. It was there he learned the time-tested, Old World secrets of crafting the finest air-dried meats. He still uses the traditional authentic recipes and dry-aging techniques – though now in a thoroughly modern facility in Quinte West – to transform excellent cuts of pork, beef and Ontario water buffalo into award-winning salumi. Made with the freshest spices, local wines, no fillers and far less sodium than most in the industry, La Cultura Salumi is a favourite at Cucina Urbana. “My wife and I went to La Cultura for an introductory meeting and lunch at their facility outside of Belleville,” recalls Mike Wilson. “Frank was a gracious host, and after touring his unbelievable facility, we were sold. We buy cured meats for our charcuterie boards, as well as sausage, Iberico pork, water buffalo mozzarella and other specialty items. La Cultura Salumi is a fantastic partner to Cucina Urbana.”