Food File: Examining The Farm-to-Table Ethos

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When acclaimed chef Michael Stadtländer and his wife Nobuyo opened their 12-seat restaurant, Eigensinn Farm (located in Singhampton, Ont.), 25 years ago, they didn’t know if it would be a successful venture. What Stadtländer did know was that the best food he had ever eaten — the freshest ingredients, the brightest flavours — was on his family’s farm in Northern Germany when he was a child.

“It was an old-school kind of farm,” he muses. “My father had hunting rights in the area and my mother had kitchen gardens. My uncle was a baker. We were always eating seasonally — what came out of our gardens.”

He recounts returning to Germany in the 1970s and visiting a fellow chef who used only biodynamic vegetables in his restaurant. Tasting this food, Stadtländer was instantly transported back to the flavours of his childhood. “He was a milestone chef for me,” he recounts.

Back in Canada, and experiencing the all-too-common “chef burnout” from long hours spent in a stressful environment, he decided to buy Eigensinn Farm with money borrowed from a family member and cook for a minimal number of guests each night, featuring 90-per-cent locally procured food or food grown on-site. Although he took a risk, at the time, opening such a novel restaurant (during a recession, at that), the payback came exponentially.

“[The turning point in the business] was when Joanne Kates gave us her review. Then someone gave another positive review and things just took off from there.”The Stadtländers’ ever-changing set menu ($350 per person) and farm-to-table business model has since been emulated by many other Canadian chefs and entrepreneurs. Stadtländer believes their business has had a positive effect on the surrounding community by increasing tourism to the area and supporting local businesses and food producers. “The people (in the area) can actually benefit from the farm being here in many ways,” he says. “You come for dinner and need a room for the night, we send you to a local B&B.”

GRAB A BITE
Bryan Picard, chef of The Bite House on Cape Breton Island, N.S., says the local community has not only benefitted from his business being there — it also comprises the majority of his customer base. “We are now completely booked for 2018, and while there will probably be cancellations, about 80 per cent of the people eating here will be from Cape Breton.” Picard’s Victorian-style farmhouse has been smartly converted into living quarters as well as the 12-seat, open-concept restaurant overlooking his leafy front yard. Around the back, you’ll find raised beds for growing herbs and vegetables. Picard’s father helps out in the summer, catching fresh fish and helping to forage ingredients along the Atlantic coastline.

While Picard always wanted to open his own restaurant, he originally bought the house as a place to live. “[The business] could have gone either way. I put a bit of money into the place, but we were going to be living here anyway. I wanted to see if I could do this on my own since I already had a building. I could see there was a gap in the market for this kind of dining [in Cape Breton].”

As a result, Picard has found balance in an industry where there usually is none. “I actually want to downsize. Last year we only opened three nights a week. I cook all of the food myself, so I need those other days to prep, shop, cook, clean…and to enjoy my life.” The Bite House offers a set five-course dinner with menu items such as snow crab, pickled sugar pumpkin, fresh ricotta and sheep sorrel (2018 prices are yet to be determined) from Thursday to Saturday. Currently, the business closes for a winter break in January and reopens in May. Picard’s food is hyper-local, making use of what he can grow, forage and buy from nearby producers depending on the time of year.

“The climate here is unpredictable and it’s nice, because you always end up with something a bit different. If something doesn’t grow when it’s supposed to, there’s always something else in its place.”

LOCAL IS A WIN-WIN
According to Culinary Tourism Alliance president Rebecca MacKenzie, supporting local farmers and embracing hyper-seasonality isn’t just good for the community — it’s good for Canadian tourism. “Since we’re a culture of cultures, Canadian food is as varied as the people who live here,” she explains.

This year, the Culinary Tourism Alliance will be taking over the management of Toronto’s annual Terroir Symposium, which is currently in its 12th year. Held on April 23, this year’s theme is Terroirnomics: The Powerful Economics of Local.

“This year’s symposium will be focusing on how to take what comes from our lands, lakes, oceans and rivers and sharing how you put them into your business or destination in ways that are economically profitable, support a healthy corporate culture, ensure a sustainable environment and build strong communities,” says MacKenzie.

Feast On, an initiative created by the Culinary Tourism Alliance, connects local Ontario food and drink producers with chefs and restaurateurs. “The Culinary Tourism Alliance is proud to be delivering the Feast On certification to foodservice operators in Ontario. The certification audits restaurants based on their procurement of Ontario foods and beverages (VQA wine, Ontario Craft Beer, Ontario Cider and Ontario spirits),” MacKenzie says. “In addition to marketing certified restaurants to consumers, we work to strengthen the connection between growers and producers and the foodservice sector to see more Ontario ingredients on the plates and in the glasses of diners.”

One of Feast On’s preferred suppliers is King Cole Duck, a farm and family-run business located in Stouffville, Ont. Established in 1951, King Cole Duck is as community-minded as it is global — currently exporting its duck to restaurants, hotels and cruiseships around the world. The business is celebrated for its vertical-integration method of farming, which means its cares for its ducks from breeding, incubation and hatching stages all the way to prepared duck food product (found in shops all over Ontario). Director of sales and marketing, Patti Thompson, says its family philosophy is what ultimately drives the business.

“We have a commitment, as a family, to volunteer, be part of the community and find ways in both our business community and the community in which we do business to take part.” Thompson also feels, however, that food companies with this ethos in mind will ultimately benefit financially. “Companies with this kind of focus will be more profitable. It’s good for the business.”

BOUNTY OF RICHES
Michael Smith — celebrated Canadian chef, television personality and local food ambassador — owns and operates The Inn at Bay Fortune in Prince Edward Island. The on-site restaurant, Fireworks, features local specialties cooked with live fire in its 25-foot-wide wood-burning oven. He says there’s a symbiosis between the farm and restaurant that can’t be replicated or replaced. “In our world, our farmer Kevin Petrie and chef de cuisine Chris Gibb are equals — they work together daily. This relationship is yielding magic. It allows them to ask “What if…?” every day.”

The food featured at The Inn at Bay Fortune — a set, daily-changing menu ($145 per guest) — celebrates the best of the local terroir and bounty of P.E.I. This isn’t only Smith’s business’ unique selling point — it’s his personal ethos — one formed over many years of cooking, travelling and sharing his knowledge.

“As a chef, I know the single-most powerful cooking lesson I’ve learned is to [know] the stories behind the ingredients; to meet the [people] who get up early in the morning and get their hands dirty for us — to make it personal. We’re at our best when we don’t see commodities, but stories. When we understand and respect the real work and passion that goes into our ingredients.”

Smith says growing 100 per cent of the produce used in the inn has led to an increase in overall quality and variety, a growing collection of heirloom varietals and an in-house educational opportunity for his guests and staff.

These days, the farm-to-table ethos is less of a trend and more of a lifestyle choice; but you don’t have to give up your career and move to the country to partake — you can simply support the businesses and restaurants that have. If there’s one common thread with these businesses, it’s how they create the perfect escape from the ever-growing urban jungle.

By Janine Kennedy