Haute Canuck

JOE CHIDLEY August 24 1998

Haute Canuck

JOE CHIDLEY August 24 1998

Haute Canuck



As the car pulls up to the end of a dirt driveway clogged with chickens, geese and the odd guinea hen, a young boy runs down from the ramshackle farmhouse, shooing away two curious collies who seem to make a habit of getting underfoot. ‘You here for dinner?” asks fiveyear-old Hermann Stadtländer. “Sorry, but were not cooking today.” Assured that the visitors are at Eigensinn Farm, about a two-hour drive north of Toronto, just to talk to his father, Hermann leads the way into the kitchen. There, helpers are busy cleaning—the pots, pans and dirty floor are telltale signs of the bustle of activity that was last night’s meal. Before heading off to other duties—maybe looking at the piglets out in the back 40, or playing with his donkey (named, for no apparent reason, “Neil Diamond”), Hermann points to Dad, who’s out on the porch, broom in hand. “Seventy-five per cent of the chef’s job,” explains Michael Stadtländer, dropping the broom and shaking hands, “is cleaning up.”

Meet one of Canada’s most renowned chefs—dressed in khaki shorts, T-shirt and sturdy boots, he looks like an overgrown boy scout. Stadtländer looms six feet, six inches tall, but he has that easy, self-effacing gait adopted by big men who want to be seen as unin-

timidating. And though he is 41 years old, he looks to be on the pubescent side of 30. So when he begins to talk—seriously, even prophetically—about the future of cuisine in Canada, it comes as something of a surprise. “I think,” he says in his heavy German accent, “that we are on the verge of something great.”

Huh? In Canada? Land of poutine, pemmican, beavertails and seal flippers? Stadtländer, though, is talking about something else. And it’s not the sort of trend that anyone can prove, exactly—Statistics Canada does not keep numbers on how many people attend cooking schools, how many ethnic restaurants are bringing new flavors to Canadians, how much better food is this year than last. And sure, fast food is and forever will be a part of the North American diet (sign of insanity: a Chinese restaurant in Sorel, Que., near Montreal, now advertises something called “Oriental poutine”). Yet the marks of a significant shift in the Canadian palate are clear. They lie in the myriad fine restaurants Canadians have to choose from; in the work of a handful of chefs who are making the best of local ingredients and local flavors; in a new interest among ordinary folk in food and wine. Canadian cooking is coming of age.

Some might say that is no big deal—that food is simply fuel for the body, or that the food industry is just another dollars-and-cents affair. But such pragmatism ignores the importance of food in the development of culture. For Michael Olson, chef at On the Twenty in

As chefs concoct distinctively northern masterpieces, and

liners thrill to their creations, Canadian cuisine is on a roll

Jordan, Ont., and a groundbreaker in what’s now being called “Niagara cuisine,” boosting local product and flavors is tantamount to a patriotic duty. “Something’s finally clicked,” he says. “People are saying, Wait a minute—I’m sick of thinking it’s crap if it comes from Saskatchewan or Ontario, but it must be great if it comes from Bordeaux or Italy or California.’ Enough. We do great things here.”

The rolling fields and wooded hills around Eigensinn Farm remind Stadtländer of his German homeland—“It seems sort of European around here.” The son of farmers near the northern town of Lübeck, he began his apprenticeship in cooking at age 15, going on to work as a journeyman in Stuttgart, then to Lucerne, Switzerland, where he met Canadian chef Jamie Kennedy (now owner and executive chef of J. K. ROM in Toronto, in the Royal Ontario Museum). After coming to Canada with Kennedy in 1980, he made the rounds at some of the best-known eateries in Ontario and British Columbia. But during his climb through the ranks of Canadian chefs, he was plotting his escape—away from the packed dining rooms where, as he says, “you serve 90 people a night and work like an idiot.” Five years ago, he and his Okinawa-born wife, Nobuyo, purchased 100 acres of land in Grey County, near the notexactly-bustling intersection of 10th Line Road and Sideroad 30.

If anything, the move has brought Stadtländer even more notice: last November, Eigensinn was the subject of a glowing review in The New York Times, and writers from Gourmet magazine visited the restaurant earlier this month. (Not all of the attention has been favorable, however. Earlier this year, he made national news after a “sting” operation by undercover provincial police, who enticed

Nobuyo, 31, to serve them wine—even though Eigensinn has no liquor licence and is strictly a bring-your-own-bottle establishment. The charges were dropped.) And demand for his six-course, $235per-couple meals outstrips supply: the Farm, which serves only three nights a week, is fully booked through December.

The palate-conscious foodies who make the pilgrimage to Eigensinn don’t come for appearances. They come for the cooking and for the ingredients—many of which Stadtländer and his family harvest themselves. Organically grown black currants come from a patch in back of the house, as do leeks, potatoes, beans and tomatoes. As for meat, he gets lamb from local farmers, beef from a local butcher, fish from nearby Georgian Bay suppliers. Stadtländer’s poultry, meanwhile, is walking around the farmyard, and as for pork—well, those piglets napping out back are in for a delicious end. Everything is as fresh as possible. “It’s a good connection,” he says, “to be where the food comes from.”

That philosophy is central to the notion of regional cuisine—a movement that got its North American start in California in the 1970s and 1980s, when chefs like Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck began emphasizing local ingredients and cooking styles. These days, restaurants all over the United States boast regional cuisines, often even putting the names of the food suppliers beside menu items (GQ magazine food critic Alan Richman likes to quip that, in some trendy California restaurants, he feels like he needs a road map to read the menu).

In Quebec, regional cuisine is a long-standing culinary tradition, where inns and restaurants have for decades offered habitant-inspired foods. For the past 10 years, the nonprofit Corporation de la cuisine régionale au Québec has monitored and encouraged the development of

regional cuisine in the province’s restaurant and food industry. It now has some 300 member establishments, each of which must meet stringent criteria. In English Canada, the development of regional cuisine has been slower, and much of the growing appreciation of local cuisines is coming from outsiders.

Among them is Michael Smith, co-owner and executive chef of the Inn At Bay Fortune on Prince Edward Island. A native New Yorker, Smith, 31, answered the call seven years ago when innkeeper David Wilmer was looking for a chef. “I was working in Manhattan and looking to get out into the great big country,” Smith says. Before his arrival, Bay Fortune was serving “roast beef and boiled lobster,” he adds, but now specializes in “creative cuisine in a country inn setting.” That means using his training (he attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York City) on ingredients he either grows in his garden or buys from more than 70 local suppliers. Says Smith—now a Canadian citizen—who will be launching a TV show called The Inn Chef on Life Network next month: “We have a responsibility to show off the produce of the Island.”

On the West Coast, Sooke Harbour House, a tranquil retreat overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca about 40 km southwest of Victoria, has been developing its own regional cuisine for the past 20 years. Regularly ranked by critics as among the best restaurants in the country, Sooke, which has 26 guest rooms in the adjoining inn, has become something of a stomping grounds for the rich and famous—past guests include Robert de Niro, David Duchovny, Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford. “People come here for the Canadian experience,” says Sinclair Philip, who owns the establishment with his wife, Fredrica. “Our menu changes every day, three times a day, depending on what is fresh, local, seasonal—regional.”

Walking through Sooke’s garden—tended by six full-time staff—is an adventure of sights and smells. It is home to some 400 varieties of herbs, greens, vegetables, edible flowers and fruits, from strawberries and sorrel to kiwi fruit and scented geraniums. Seafood—fish, octopus, crabs, oysters, goose-neck barnacles and periwinkles—comes from local suppliers, as does all the meat; one waiter, an expert in fungi, is in charge of picking mushrooms. Sooke follows what Philip calls the “philosophy of traditional cooking—in most cultures people cook what is there. It isn’t about waiting for what comes off a jet plane.”

Ultra-fresh ingredients and regional flavors yield delectable fare

Not that there’s anything wrong with jet planes. In fact, without them, where would Canadian cooking be? “There’s room for so much good food,” says cooking instructor and TV show host Bonnie Stern. “Eating regionally and seasonally is very important, but we don’t grow pineapples in Canada—and that doesn’t mean you can’t eat a pineapple.” Stern, 50, remembers a time not so long ago—back in 1973, when she opened her north Toronto cooking school—when the food Canadians now take for granted simply was not available. ‘You had to go to Chinatown to get fresh ginger, and you couldn’t get extra virgin olive oil anywhere,” she says.

Stern is a dyed-in-the-wool foodie—she started cooking as a kid,

and now extols the virtues of good eating on her WTN cooking show (which airs daily), in her eight cookbooks (including Simply HeartSmart Cooking, which has sold 175,000 copies since its 1994 publication), in her Toronto Star column, and at her cooking school, where she exposes some 2,000 students a year to all that is practical and imaginative in food. She has seen food fads come and go. In the 1960s, she says, good cooking meant French cuisine; then Italian hit big in the 1970s. And in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a veritable explosion of multinational food influences—Japanese, Chinese, Thai and fusion—followed by a new health-conscious push for low-fat cooking. Which has endured? In short, all of them. With moderation, Stern says, anything goes. But underlying the plethora of cuisines are two long-term trends: the growing emphasis on local ingredients, and “the global food phenomenon, where food is coming in from all over the world to Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto—and actually everywhere. And the two are coming together. People are blending the global things with regional ingredients, and it’s all very exciting.” Increasingly, the old food distinctions are starting to erode. And many of Canada’s most creative chefs are wary of being categorized. “People always want to know if we do Pacific Northwest cuisine,”

says Julian Bond, 28-year-old chef and coowner of the acclaimed Star Anise in downtown Vancouver. “I always say that I don’t know what Pacific Northwest cuisine is.” Bond’s menu changes every three months, depending on what is in season and what is available. And although he uses local food to create such dishes as venison Wellington, he also buys ingredients from California, New Zealand, all over the world. “A lot of focus is being put on pigeonholing what something is,” says Bond. “The truth is that many top chefs in Canada are young, and what might be considered a new type of cuisine is just young people who are artists, playing with food.”

Against that creativity, however, are the exigencies of the marketplace and the need for chefs to adapt to local tastes and expectations. Moncton-born Dale Nichols, 41year-old executive chef at Canadian Pacific’s Hotel Halifax, cut his culinary teeth in Toronto, but took the job at Hotel Halifax in 1995. Catering to tourists and to what he

Isays are the more traditional tastes of Halifax diners, Nichols acknowledges being more conservative in his approach to cooking. “Guests don’t want to read on the menu about seafood mixed with Asian spices. They want basically East Coast food.” There are now more than 61,000 restaurants in Canada—an increase of 36 per cent in the past decade—and they offer customers a provision of choice, from the ethnic eateries that thrive in the major cities (and increasingly in suburbs and small towns) to the hottest of haute cuisine. There are a lot of reasons for that bloom of variety: a modestly recovering economy, better food distribution, immigration. But Stern suggests it is also a response to demand from Canadian consumers, whose tastes have become increasingly sophisticated and varied. “People want choice—expensive, casual, Chinese, Italian, French.”

Running a restaurant anywhere in Canada is a tough business. After booming in the 1980s, the industry was hit hard by recession in the early 1990s. Between 1990 and 1991, total food-service sales dropped to $26 billion from $27.6 billion. Now, however, a modest recovery is in the works. Overall food-service sales have been growing steadily since 1994, reaching $32.3 billion in 1997. For this year, the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice Association is predicting an increase of 4.2 per cent in liquorlicensed restaurant revenues. A helping factor: the moribund Canadian dollar, which has prompted American tourists to flock to Canada—and to its restaurants.

One sign of the return to good, if not great, times in the restaurant industry recently appeared amid the skyscrapers and busy sidewalks of Toronto’s financial district. For more than 50 years, Winston’s was the reserve of the city’s power set, fre-

quented by the likes of financier Andy Sarlos and one-time prime minister John Turner (who had a salad named after him). But in the early 1990s, the by turns venerated and despised institution—often criticized for its snooty service—had fallen on hard times, finally closing in 1994. But last December, Winston’s reopened under a new owner—and it is a far different place. Gone are the red-leather banquettes and the dim, cigar-smoke-tinged lights, replaced by plush fabric and art nouveau mahogany woodwork. And the cozy dining ^ room virtually drips with gastronomic hes donism: the point now is clearly the food, | not the clientele. The menu—which used | to rely on huge hunks of beef—is a lush S blend of traditional and creative French cui£ sine, from Dover sole meunière to sweet^ breads with honey and lavender. The price? Well, with main courses running to $46 and a wine list that includes rare vintages priced at $2,200, it is stratospheric. But, as Winston’s maître d’ Jacob Weizman says, “once in a while people want something special.”

It is of course cheaper to stay at home. But even there, more and more Canadians are taking the task of eating and entertaining with fine food very seriously. And many are turning to cooking schools. In Winnipeg, Marisa Curatolo’sThe Cooking Studio offers small classes with a direct, hands-on approach. Trained in Paris, Curatolo, 33, says that she tries to instil in her students an appreciation not only of technique, but of local ingredients—“I like to design regional dishes based on fresh, homegrown produce.”

In July, Richard and Marilou Appleby went far afield to satisfy their budding culinary aspirations: the Vancouver couple spent nine days at Villa Delia, a cooking school-country inn in Tuscany owned and operated by B.C. restaurateur Umberto Menghi. Besides frequenting restaurants of the fabled Italian wine region, they also learned how to make such traditional fare as polenta, focaccia, risotto—all based on local produce. Richard, 47 and vice-president of the Vancouver Film School, says that he and Marilou, 43, have long been interested in cooking, but that their Tuscan adventure changed the way they look at food. ‘What we learned is easily translatable to the foods we can buy in Vancouver,” he adds. “Fresh produce, herbs and spices—it isn’t complicated. These are foods the peasants ate hundreds of years ago, and they taste wonderful.”

It’s hard to tell amid the four-lane traffic of the Queen Elizabeth Way between Toronto and Niagara Falls, but the surrounding area is a little Tuscany or Napa | Valley in the making—at least if people § like Olson, Len Pennachetti and Allan g Schmidt have their way. A Saskatchewan § native who cooked at restaurants in Toronto I

and Ottawa, Olson, 34, remembers his first impressions of the area when Pennachetti, owner of Cave Spring Cellars winery in the town of Jordan, invited him down to open a new restaurant, On the Twenty, six years ago. “At the time, my experience of the region was like that of most people—you whiz by at 85 m.p.h. on your way to Niagara, take a picture of the Falls, go to the wax museum, take a pee and leave town,” he says. “But when I got off the beaten path, it was all very new and intriguing. I thought, ‘This is like the California of Ontario, and it’s untapped.’ ”

Away from the highway, Niagara is a land of rich vegetable and fruit fields, and the focal point of the burgeoning Ontario wine industry. These days, the region’s wineries get some 300,000 visitors a year. At On the Twenty, Olson caters to those tourist dollars with food that comes either from his local network of suppliers (he called one recent appetizer, assembled from produce he bought that morning, “The Road to Work Appetizer Platter”) or, if imported, bears the stamp of the area. “I’ve coined the term ‘Niagara-cize,’ ” he says. “If I bring in mussels from Prince Edward Island, I might steam them in beer from Niagara Falls, or flavor them with basil and thyme that are grown around the corner.”

The push to develop regional cuisine in Niagara is ambitious—and gaining momentum. At Vineland Estates Winery, the three-year-old restaurant opens onto a stunning view of the vineyards below. Chef Mark Picone, who studied in the wine regions of France and Italy, cooks up wonderful meals using 95-per-cent local ingredients, and the suppliers’ names are duly listed on the menu:

Rowe Farm Beef Tender, Dimmer’s Muscovy Duck, and something called Soiled Reputation Mustard Greens.

But the food is part of a bigger picture, says Vineland Estates general manager and wine maker Allan Schmidt. Within the next two years, Vineland Estates is planning to open an international culinary institute on its property, with lodging for up to 70 students, visiting chefs and agritourists who want to see Niagara wine and-food country up close. “I think any noble wine appellation in the world—Bordeaux, Tuscany or Napa—has to have three things: great growing abilities, great winemaking abilities and the infrastructure for people to partake in those first two,” explains Schmidt. The restaurant and culinary institute, he adds, “are that third link, a way for the consumer to see what it’s all about and be a part of it.”

Nobody would suggest that “Canadian” yet ranks with French and Italian as one of the world’s great cuisines. But people like Michael Stadtländer are certainly optimistic. And if the demand for seats at Eigensinn Farm is any indication, then Canadians are starting to share his enthusiasm. In fact, for the Stadtländers, it’s almost gotten out of hand. The phone, always graciously answered by Nobuyo (or her recorded voice), seems never to stop ringing. Stadtländer talks about how the time has come to cut down on his business. Next year, he says, Eigensinn is going to serve only 12 people a night instead of 16. And he plans on taking much of next summer off to tour the country, coast to coast, in a camper van, stopping in at restaurants, farms, cafés and inns—along with a cameraman. “I’m going to make a movie,” he says. About what? “About my life, of course— and about food.” And he already knows how the film is going to end. “With a big, big party,” Stadtländer says, surveying his adopted land. “Right here.”

Good luck getting a seat.

With RUTH ATHERLEY in Vancouver, JAKE MacDONALD in Winnipeg, BRENDA BRAN SWELL in Montreal and SHAUNE MacKINLAY in Halifax