You hear about restaurant owners leaving negative Yelp reviews for competitors or undercutting them till it hurts. But in an industry that’s already challenging for its long hours, high-pressure environment and financial perils thanks to changing economic and dining trends, more and more Canadian chefs have decided dirty tricks are not their dish of the day.
For a new kitchen generation, it’s all about collaboration: Toronto has the pioneering Group of Seven Chefs, who host one-of-a-kind events together on nights off; since 2013, Alberta has its own collective, the Alberta Ate Chef Collaborative; and Stratford, Ontario, just got in on the act this year with the Stratford Chefs’ League.
“Stratford is pretty competitive in our busiest season—summertime—but the league was designed for us to drop our egos, hang out and cook together and raise the bar for Stratford as a whole,” says one of the founding chefs Yva Santini of Pazzo Taverna + Pizzeria.
The group includes the likes of Tim Larsen and Sean Collins from Mercer Hall Inn Restaurant, a spot that built its reputation on meat-centric menus; Gilad Rozenberg, chef-owner of the Spicery, known for his aromatic spice blends; and Ryan o’Donnell, who works at fine-dining institution the Prune and Stratford Chefs’ School. Front-of-house staff such as Andrew Maclean, Steve Walters and Alex O’Shea, are an integral part of the gang too.
Perth County, where Stratford is located, is known for its outstanding farm-fresh produce—from the organic vegetables grown by Antony John of Soiled Reputation to the pork, lamb and beef ethically raised and naturally bred by Max and Vicki Lass of Church Hill Farm to the artisanal cheeses made by Ruth Klahsen and her team at Monforte Dairy. And the league was born of a desire to experience food full circle—not just in the cleaned-up form in which it arrives at the kitchen.
“Even though we had a great rapport with our farmers, we never got to see an animal slaughtered, so our first Chefs’ League event involved killing a pig together, then preparing a community feast. I thought this would help connect us with the farmers and the animal,” says Santini.
The second Call to Farms event happened in late-September, under the twinkle of hundreds of fairy lights strung up in Antony John’s barn, where eighty people sat down on covered hay bales to feast on veggies prepared and harvested by the Stratford chefs. “Antony John is a fantastic farmer with a beautiful biodynamic farm,” says Santini. “We wanted to get to know him better; work on his farm, and learn about his soil.”
Bucking current trends for meat-based dining, the chefs walked the fields and greenhouses on the 80-acre farm to see what veggies were available to work with, then sat down together with beers and drew up a menu with plants at its heart. The following morning, they borrowed the mobile brick oven from Stratford Chef School and set to work cooking together for an entire day, before members of the community turned up for a unique dining experience.
On arrival at the farm, guests could grab a beer, then make for the greenhouse, where some of the chefs were handing out an amuse-bouche that set the playful and creative tone for the evening: onion leather with Spicery spice blend, Soiled Reputation honey and Newfoundland sea salt. (Crazy-sounding combination, but it worked.)
Highlights from the main event in the barn included a colourful vegetable terrine; a pea and parsley soup—as emerald-green and vegetal as cut grass—with purple potato gnocchi; and roasted celebration squash with apple filling and crumble. The wildest dish of all was carrot pop rocks and beet fun dip—the next big things for getting kids to eat their veggies?
Next up for Stratford Chefs’ League is an ice fishing field trip. “That one will be just for us—it’s an opportunity to bond and hang out, without catering to guests,” explains Santini. Then come Spring, tickets will go on sale for another Call to Farms event.
Collaborating in this way doesn’t just strengthen food community ties, it creates exciting learning opportunities for chefs that in the past would only have been possible through travelling for unpaid work experiences or stages. Stratford has a high concentration of classically trained chefs, in part thanks to the chefs’ school. “We wanted to be able to learn from one another,” says Santini, “right here in Stratford.”
* * * * *
At the OCTA food summit, on November 12, members of Stratford’s Chef League are participating in a panel discussion. To attend the next Chefs’ League farm feast in Spring 2015, stay tuned for updates here.