Monday, November 16, 2015

Foodie Beware: Food Trends for Culinary Enthusiasts in 2016

Foodie Beware: Food Trends for Culinary Enthusiasts in 2016


For over a decade, I have been a food trend chronicler of sorts. Like many of my colleagues I am wary of anyone who fetishizes ingredients or self-identifies as a foodie. The way I see it, the term foodie has a certain lack of gravitas, almost a negative connotation and is incorrectly used as a synonym for gastronome or epicure. My bordering-on-neurotic ambivalence of the term foodie is more honestly about perpetuating the culture of inauthentic culinary experiences and fake ingredients like counterfeit cheese, the synthetic product known as truffle oil, pricy ultra-premium olive oils and factory-made balsamic vinegars. 

Keeping tabs on the trends requires being an avid reader of menus, cultural cookbooks, restaurant reviews and scrutinizing a wide variety of food and drink publications and, of course, reading other food writing. I am interested in how food trends became part of the culinary zeitgeist and shape both the restaurant industry and the consumer at large.

To keep up-to-date on the latest culinary developments, I frequently dine out, attend food events, preview dinners and engage with culinary innovators, early adopters, chefs, farmers, food artisans and “culinary visionaries” in fields like nutrition, food policy and the environment.

Professional tastemakers and trend analysts use a variety of ways to gauge what’s hot and what’s not.  I always keep in mind that there is a distinction to be made between trends and fads.  Trends are basically a manifestation of our collective appetite. The fact is that most gastronomic trends advance in predicable stages before going viral, unlike culinary fads which are generally seasonal frequently don’t live up to their hype, fizzle out and never realize their potential in the mainstream market.

Chia made into a gelatin-like substance or consumed raw exploded into the health food of choice a few years ago. Every year a new way of eating healthy becomes popular, and this time it’s the movement to clean eating that is beginning to really accelerate leaving the gluten-free movement in the dust. Eating "clean" maybe a subjective term, but it's all about eating whole foods in their most natural state, and limiting anything that is processed or has been exposed to pesticides. Clean is the present-day form of the '60s natural food movement, for the counter-culture that wouldn't be caught calling themselves "hippies” or “hipsters."

Progressive chefs and restaurateurs are in sync with underlying culinary trends when it comes to menu development and augment those developments with their own twists and innovations to propel them in new directions. Breakout trends include, root to stalk cooking (with restaurants serving vegetable trimmings formerly headed for the trash can such as beet tops and zucchini ends) featuring dandelion, Swiss chard, mustard greens, collard greens and even carrot peelings.

Kale has gone main stream and you may as well forget about charred cauliflower, this is the year of both knobby kohlrabi, that suddenly pervasive cultivar of cabbage, and celeriac the farinaceous root that boils and mashes to a silky purée, and can be sliced raw for a crunchy salad. Still on trend are globalized ramen the hearty bowl of noodles bathed in hot broth with ethnically diverse toppings, or adding seaweed to everything from smoothies to salads to popcorn.

As independent restaurant concepts continue to evolve, changing demand creates the need for new ways to enhance the customer experience. Restaurants that continue to grow and even prosper are usually the ones that are most willing and readily able to adapt to changing trends. Today’s modern restaurants are about feasting, sharing, authenticity, quality ingredients and celebrating the craft and tradition of farmers, chefs, winemakers and brewers.

Shareable meals are surging in popularity in restaurants, as chefs cook larger cuts of meat or whole chickens and fish with supplementary side dishes. Other menu trends include fewer choices on menus, smaller plates, tapas, mezze and Dim Sum offerings. Natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave are also trending.

More and more chef-driven restaurants are choosing a different model, based on the Italian concept of contorni: the seasonal vegetable side dish, which you order separately and are served in a separate dish, never on the same plate as the main course — and pay a premium for it.

We are living in an age when innovative chefs wield unprecedented influence, and some of the most creative among them are finding original ways to utilize unfamiliar and largely neglected ingredients. No group has a better outlook into the future of impending food trends than the culinary professionals who drive the industry.

Frequently the cuisine of a culture or country is deemed to be on-trend. This brings us to the convention of cultural appropriation: a practice that includes taking segments of a particular culinary culture, commodifying and trivialising them in the process. A subcontinent can’t be summed up by a curry or a korma. However, sometimes the build-up around a culture’s cuisine can be used as an opportunity to teach people.

Global cuisines have become staples in our day-to-day diets, yet even though the African continent features a repertoire of distinct and diverse cuisines it is still relatively unknown and underappreciated in some culinary circles. Berbere, baharat, dukkah, ras el hanout, tsire and other traditional spice mixtures are expected to gain broader use, as African spice blends are emerging as a fast-growing trend. Tarted up ingredients like grapefruit and hibiscus syrup, preserved lemon syrup and spicy harissa oil continues to be the rage.

Again, our preoccupation with chilies and heat lingers — chili-infused honey is one taste that’s continues to garner buzz. Food enthusiasts like to seek out their next big chili kick, and the continuing fixation for heat. Siracha the ubiquitous red sauce’s closest competition still remains gochujang (Korean chili paste), made from from malted barley and fermented soybean flour, red pepper and rice flour.

Following in Siracha’s footsteps are a variety of other condiments like garlicky chimichurri as a burger topping;  smoky, spicy and slightly sweet, Portuguese piri piri (birds-eye chili sauce) on anything grilled; zaatar the quintessential Middle eastern spice rub  slathered on crostini; and hot n spicy chicken wings with avocado raita to cool down the burn. I am sure you get the drill.

Speaking of heat, Indian cuisines continue to have their day in the sun, emerging from their traditional confines despite a 5,000 year history of various groups and cultures intermingling with the subcontinent’s diverse culinary traditions. The expansion of familiar Indian cooking with modernist interpretations of the cuisine like nouvelle-inspired tandoori-smoked eggplant tartare; and non-traditional wine pairings are changing the way we look at the cuisine.

Latin cuisines continue to be huge food trends, thanks to a seductive blend of international and native influences.  Brazilian Cuisine – Rio de Janeiro will bring the country's seafood stews, grilling techniques and Amazonian ingredients into the culinary limelight when it hosts 2016 Summer Olympics.  The black-purple açaí berry, with its purported health benefits, was among the first wave of unfamiliar ingredients coming out of the jungle. Also, think barbecued meats, thirst quenching caipirinhas, and lots of rice and exotic fruit. Culinary pundits are still predicting further international expansion of Peruvian cuisine. Paella is also positioned to make a comeback.

A logical progression of the sushi movement, poké, the Hawaiian raw-fish salad specialty, has become something of a craze on the West Coast. Expect to see it on restaurant menus in the very near future.

The continuing obsession is with aged, pickled, fermented and house-made or artisan foods like pickles, sausages and “vegetable charcuterie.” Fermentation the hottest trend since whole animal butchery, artisan cured meats and charcuterie shows no signs of abating. Made by hand in small batches with specialized, local ingredients, “craft everything” continues to be the mantra.

As the buzz about the purported probiotic powers of kimchi, sauerkraut and miso gets even louder, the lightly effervescent, fermented tea known as kombucha, and the vibrant pink turnips pickled in beet juice (kabees el lift) that add the requisite crunch to your shawarma are about to hit the mainstream.

In terms of mixed drinks, shrub is the term for two unlike, but related, acidulated beverages. One type of shrub is a fruit liqueur which was popular in 17th and 18th century England, typically made with rum or brandy mixed with sugar and the juice or rinds of citrus fruit. A shrub can also refer to a cocktail or soft drink that popular during the colonial era, made by mixing vinegared syrup with spirits, water, or carbonated water. The term "shrub" can also be applied to the sweetened vinegar-based syrup, from which the cocktail is made; the syrup is also known as drinking vinegar.

Switchels, also switzel, swizzle or switchy are also undergoing a renewal with several start-up brands bottling the water and apple cider vinegar based colonial-era beverage which is often sweetened with ginger, honey or maple syrup.

From faux cocktails and sodas to innovative brews, rich, creamy espresso syrup with earthy overtones is a new star ingredient in more recent culinary-driven creations and has become a chic mixer in craft cocktails.

The movement for craft beer brought new interest, flavours and sales to the beer industry. Look for this movement to encompass other beverages and culinary items, as millennials are being given the credit for driving upcoming trends.

When it comes to appeal, local is another trend that’s creating quite a stir with craft beer drinkers. And to find out just how important local is, The Nielsen Company conducted an English-language survey by Harris Poll earlier in the year. The results indicate that while local is important across all alcohol drinking consumer groups (beer, wine and spirits), it’s most significant to beer fans. In fact, 53% of beer drinkers in this demo say local is very or somewhat important.

Hand- crafted, local, regional and small-batch have become buzz words and signifiers of trends that provide consumers with false prestige. But what do these terms really mean? In my experience, an artisan is a craftsperson who makes a high-quality or distinctive product in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods. True artisanal goods can’t be mass-produced: they are limited in quantity and generally have specific characteristics deemed to be specialty in nature. The trend for “craft everything,” by independent artisans, however small and Indie, does not always necessarily equal a quality product. Foodie beware.

BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.

Monday, November 9, 2015

An Off-Season Look at Stratford, Ontario: The City's Restaurant Community Continues to be Open for Business and Not Just for Locals

An Off-Season Look at Stratford



It may be the end of another Stratford Festival season which brought diners in droves to the city for prix fixe menus, but the city’s restaurant community continues to be open for business and not just for the locals. Stratford has been known for decades for setting the benchmark when it comes to dining, but until just a few years ago it wasnt feasible for many of the restaurants to operate year-round. But that has changed.

A full calendar of exhibitions and special culinary events, music programming, and lots of restaurants, cafés, food specialty shops, bakeries, farmers’ markets, epicurean treks, galleries, antique shops and a wide-ranging system of parks and recreation along the Avon River means that there is plenty to do in Stratford during the off-season.

 Savour Stratford has had successes in steadily increasing the awareness of the many and diverse offerings of Stratford when the theatre-goers are gone. Programs featured under an expanded Savour Stratford brand include Stratford Chefs School dinners, tutored tastings and a series of self-guided culinary trails.

Paying homage to the rise of craft beer and the boom in bacon as a culinary trend, The Bacon and Ale Trail continues to be a great success. After all, Perth County pork is legendary. This is the home of the Ontario Pork Congress. The Stratford Chocolate trail showcases skilled chocolatiers and bakers that work in a city with a storied history in candy making. Boutique chocolate-makers include Chocolate Barr’s, Rheo Thompson and The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Another well-liked tour is The Maple Trail, with maple-inspired stops with offerings that range from maple balsamic vinegar, to a maple-smoked bacon BLT, and, at Mercer Hall, a maple Manhattan.

Stratford boasts many independent niche retailers and specialty services situated in its downtown late-Victorian streetscapes, and in the well-preserved commercial districts on Downie, Ontario and Wellington streets. There are a number of great bakeries including the Downie Street Bake House, which bakes artisanal premium breads — high quality, hand-crafted and free of artificial additives and preservatives — and bills itself as, “Really Good Bread from the Wrong Side of the Tracks.”

 The quaint tree-lined streets just north of the river are great for walking and sightseeing. Several of the stately heritage homes and princely Victorian, Italianate and Second Empire edifices in Stratford are B&B’s.

Visiting Bradshaws, a premier culinary retailer known for its holiday grandeur, is an annual Stratford shopping tradition. Operated by Jeremy and Carrie Wreford, the downtown retailer recently celebrated its 120th anniversary and remains one of the country's truly inimitable stores.

This year the maturing restaurant community had a gastronomic rebirth and several restaurants were relaunched with plenty of fanfare  continuing to reinforce Stratford's already impressive status as one of Ontario's premier culinary getaways.

One of the standout features of Stratford's culinary scene is its laid back approach that unites restaurants and farms through food. There are so many exceptional restaurants in Stratford that it is impossible to recommend one or two. A short list includes Bijou, Rene’s Bistro, Restaurant at The Bruce, Mercer Hall, Sirkel Foods, Pazzo Taverna & Pizzera, Madelyn’s Diner, Keystone Alley, Down The Street Bar & Restaurant, Foster’s Inn and The Parlour Gastropub. These establishments remain open year-round. 

Chef Robert Rose’s Canadian Grub is one of few restaurants in the country serving exclusively Canadian grown and refined products. We also can’t resist Monforte Dairy’s 30 types of artisanal cheese, and visiting Monforte on Wellington, the seasonally-inspired osteria on Market Square, is always a highlight. The restaurant features an ever-changing selection of cheeses, charcuterie, salads, soups, preserves, pickles and other specialties, prepared by Monforte’s culinary team.

Mark and Linda Simone bought Bijou in March, added a new entrance off Wellington Street, a new bar in the front area and extended hours with plans to operate the bistro for 10 months of the year. Chef Max Holbrook added to the daily-inspired chalkboard features a globally-inspired tapas menu of shareable plates featuring Perth County ingredients. The menus of small plates are paired with craft wines and some old world classics.  

Among Stratford’s most eagerly awaited openings this year was The Red Rabbit. Jessie Larsen and Chefs Sean Collins and Tim Larsen created the community-shared and worker-owned venture in a former bridal shop on Wellington Street. The instantly successful, down-to-earth, farm-oriented dining experience is built on years of deep symbiotic relationships that remain at the heart of The Red Rabbit experience. There is a dedicated focus on Perth County ingredients from area farmers like Church Hill Farm, Perth County Pork Products, McIntosh Farms, and Soiled Reputation. Regional ingredients abound on The Red Rabbit menus and include addictive house-made salumi (beef heart pastrami) and delicious rillettes of rabbit. Be sure to try the Colonel Collins fried chicken and waffles, which has become a Stratford staple. In search of a watering spot that serves great craft and house-infused cocktails? The Red Rabbit is the ticket. Keep in mind that The Red Rabbit is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday, from now through the winter.

The once celebrated Church Restaurant, where the Stratford Chefs School started in the kitchens back in 1983, was purchased and painstakingly refurbished by Rob and Candice Wigan. The former Baptist church turned dining and music venue is now the stunning Revival House and gastro-lounge Chapel. Chefs Kyle Rose and Byron Hallett met seven years ago in London, Ontario, and have been working together on and off since. “Our friendship started over a love of salty pork products, knives, hard work and the beverages that follow. We’re passionate about using local and sustainable ingredients, showcasing nose-to-tail cuisine and the best of what Ontario and Perth County have to offer,” declares Rose.

On a visit to the Chapel, we began the evening with the Ontario Gouda Tasting. The sampling consisted of four half-ounce portions of Mountainoak and Thunder Oak Gouda (favourites were wild nettle and fenugreek), which the kitchen sources from the charming Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop on Ontario Street. Chef’s pairing takes cheese tasting to a whole other level. It was comprised of lightly pickled apple balls, a mound of torched maple meringue, a glass of fermented celery water, florets of crunchy charred dehydrated broccoli and a gorgeous chunk of pure comb honey from the "Revival House Hives" (produced in partnership with Huismann Apiaries).

The charcuterie board was underpinned by technique and skill and the salumi had lots of flavour. The offering included speck (smoked pork leg), lonza (cured pork loin), coppa (salt-cured from the neck) and rillettes which in this case were a rich spread of savoury, seasoned, slow-cooked pork. It should be noted that there were a heady 22 VQA’s to choose from on the impressive wine list.

Chef/restaurateurs Aaron and Bronwyn Linley, former owners of Bijou, introduced Linleys Food Shop, located at 51 York Street, in late-July. The chef-driven shop features catering, restaurant-style food to take away and a selection of gourmet fare. Both experience and proclivity led the Linleys —known for their visionary cuisine that espouses global inspiration, modern French technique and the very essence of Ontario — to become formidable culinary retailers.

Bill and Shelley Windsor, who own The Prune, purchased Mercer Hall Inn this summer and placed Chef Ryan O’Donnell at the helm. The restaurant at Mercer Hall continues to offer chef-inspired food and drink featuring heritage pork, line-caught west coast seafood and Ontario-focused wines.

After several delays, Down the Street Bar and Restaurant re-opened to rave reviews in July with Chef Lee Avigdor in the kitchen.

Following on the heels of last fall’s opening of Black Swan Brewing, comes Stratford’s own micro-distillery, Junction 56 Distillery. Owner Michael Heisz began his first batch in April, and is starting with vodkas, vapour-infused gins and moonshine on the shelves at Junction 56. The facility and retail outlet opened to public in mid-September. Tours and tastings at the distillery run every Saturday.

There are plenty of great cafés in Stratford. Anne Campion’s Revel Caffé, behind the red brick City Hall (with its gables, turrets, gargoyles, and finials), is a great place to grab and go or sit and watch the sights through the large glass windows facing onto Market Square.



BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Food Writer at Large.


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Black George and TOOK: The Remake of the Modern Ontario Restaurant



Black George and TOOK: The Remake of the Modern Ontario Restaurant



Fine dining isn't disappearing. It is transforming into something fresh, as self-determining restaurateurs just keep changing and redefining it with new concepts and interactive experiences. But what is driving the change?

As independent restaurant concepts continue to evolve, changing demand creates the need for new ways to enhance the customer experience. Restaurants that continue to grow and even prosper are usually the ones that are most willing and readily able to adapt to changing trends. Today’s modern restaurants are about feasting, sharing, authenticity, quality ingredients and celebrating the craft and tradition of farmers, chefs, winemakers and brewers. We are living in an age when pioneering chefs wield unprecedented influence, and some of the most innovative among them are finding original ways to utilize unfamiliar and largely neglected ingredients.

To stay at the top of their game savvy restaurateurs revamp and rethink their whole approach to their restaurant on a continuing basis. This is the story of two independent restaurants with big reputations on a similar trajectory. On the surface they may seem dissimilar. Yet they have a lot in common, appealing to both food enthusiasts and connoisseurs who enjoy participating in their own culinary experiences.

The Only on King recently went through a brief refurbishment and relaunched under the acronym TOOK. The relaunch included a makeover, rebranding, unveiling new menus, expanding the business hours, offering lunch Tuesday through Friday, and adding take-away options including coffee and fresh pastries. The updated interior is striking with lots of farm-to-table touches and handcrafted accents by local artisans.

TOOK, with its fully realized farm-to-table philosophy, dedicated acknowledgement of the local terroir and support of local farmers and producers, remains in the vanguard of the righteous modern Ontario restaurant.

Chef/owner Paul Harding brings many years of experience to this new venture. His commitment to using locally sourced ingredients on his menu hasn’t changed and the restaurant continues to serve some of its classic signature dishes. Chef is known for traditional farmstead practices such as pickling, brining, curing and ageing. There are antipasto, truffles, organic beef, organic pork, black cod and sheep’s milk ricotta together with more modest ingredients that are conferred equal reverence, and multi-cultural culinary treatments. TOOK is now open late into the evening with an expanded cocktail and beer menu to coincide with the fresh approach to casual late night dining.

TOOK’s dinner service focuses on a well-chosen but limited selection of bigger plates and an assortment of smaller tapas-style offerings divided into categories which include snacks, soil, sea, land and sweet stuff. This menu style proves to be infinitely versatile by accommodating almost every culinary tradition and the shareable plates allow diners to eat communally and sample a variety of items. It also allows diners the opportunity to curate their own tasting experience, either by ordering a selection of dishes to share, or enjoying their appetizers as entrées and vice versa.

 Some of the recent menu items include sheep’s milk ricotta gundi (gnocchi-like dumplings) with red sauce and fresh basil; miso marinated black cod with pickled mushrooms and a kimchi burger with organic pork and beef patty with cilantro lime mayo. These types of modern menus remain important tools for chefs to communicate their ethos to their customers.

The other relaunch in downtown London is an updated, re-imagined Kantina — which has, after more than five years, evolved and morphed into Black George. The vibe at Black George is hip and edgy while the food is modern, rustic and playful. Owner Miljan Karac built the former Kantina’s stellar reputation on innovative Balkan-inspired cuisine, prepared from scratch with farm-to-table ideals.

The newly refurbished space has a clean, minimal style with whitewashed bricks and higher ceilings with dangling red cords and bare bulbs. The updated interior is even more casual, with less formal service than the former incarnation. It is the natural evolution and maturing of Karac as an innovator and restaurateur.

Black George similarly showcases original cuisine with small, shareable plates tapas-style. In order to fully experience the concept, your dishes are served as they are prepared, with understated confidence by Chef Courtney Noble. The Stratford Chef School alumna runs a focused kitchen and all items are made in-house and bear her stamp. Her personalized dishes underscore a passion for big flavours and a respect for farm fresh, seasonally appropriate foods.

The restaurant’s most popular dish, and its namesake, comes with its own symbolic narrative. Legend has it when Serbia was under Soviet rule a high ranking official visited a local restaurant and ordered Chicken Kiev. The chef dared not disappoint but didn’t have all the ingredients to prepare the dish. Instead, he created a rolled, fried schnitzel and called it the Karađorđe (Black George) after the first elected leader of the First Serbian Uprising that liberated Serbia from the Ottoman Empire, and who became a national hero.

On a recent visit, the deep-fried Black George arrived at the table cut in half, with its creamy filling oozing out onto the plate. I tasted it and admired how the combination of flavours — the buttery clotted cream-like kaymak, the tenderized pork and the melt-in- your-mouth ham blend so perfectly. The dish was served with roasted potatoes, baby heirloom carrots and cubes of knobby kohlrabi, that suddenly ubiquitous cultivar of cabbage.

The new menu combines old favourites with some inspired recent additions. We love the house-made duck sausage with kale pesto and risotto. In Noble’s hands, warm feta and lemon dip with olive oil and chickpea flatbread tastes like a deconstructed version of the Greek fried cheese appetizer saganaki. An appetizer of kataifi-wrapped (phyllo pastry that looks like shredded wheat) tiger shrimp with cocktail sauce and avocado purée remains the perfect amalgam of flavours and textures. There is a chilled, layered and luxurious lemon meringue parfait served in a mason jar which has both sweet and savoury components. The salted caramel pot au crème becomes a hedonistic experience after the first spoonful.

Black George and TOOK are independent businesses that thrive on creativity, dedication and commitment enhanced by well-honed and sophisticated culinary points of view. Both restaurants continue to be meccas for serious food enthusiasts. Karac and Harding seem to be directing their attention to growing successful, sustainable businesses — based on renewed strategies for winning customers by staying on top of evolving trends while remaining true to their strengths and culinary philosophies.

Many new restaurant concepts are shedding everything that is superfluous and ingrained about guests’ fine dining perceptions. What’s left is understated and confident, genuinely hospitable and fueled with the life blood of culinary skill, craftsmanship and authenticity.



349 Talbot Street
London, ON



FRIDAY & SATURDAY – 5:30–10:30 PM

Available for private bookings SUNDAY & MONDAY


TOOK (The Only on King)

172 King Street

London, ON




FRIDAY – 11 AM - 1 AM




BRYAN LAVERY is eatdrink’s Food Writer at Large.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The C-K Table and Culinary Farmer Paul Spence


For the most part, Ontarians are complacent about the origins of their food and oblivious to the challenges farmers face just to stay on their land. Paul Spence is the archetype of the intrepid, modern Ontario farmer advocating for change to our food system. His family has been working land in Chatham-Kent since 1852, when his ancestors settled in this biologically diverse Carolinian zone of southern Ontario.

Spence and my paths intersect at events supporting local food and agricultural initiatives, culinary events and tourism conferences. We often discuss the fact that an obvious lack of commitment to locally procured food takes away from the integrity of many of these events.

A fifth-generation farmer, Spence can debate the economic impacts of food policy with agility and is equally knowledgeable about the urban farmers’ market culture and the practicalities of traditional farming methods as he is on the subject of green­washing. His fierce championing of local food has won him both admirers and detractors.

Spence and his wife Sara, who emigrated from Ecuador, founded Lo Maximo Meats in 2009 as an outgrowth of Spence Farms. Uniting the food of Sara’s culture and his farming practices of growing his own feed and raising the meat without growth hormones or additives, they developed a reputation for Latin-style cuts of quality fresh-frozen beef, pork, lamb and goat. Soon they were retailing pasture-raised ducks, geese and rabbits from other small family farms in Chatham-Kent. I became acquainted with Spence during the four years he spent as a vendor at London, Ontario’s Masonville Farmers’ Market.

In 2012, Spence and fellow-farmer and River Bell Market owner, Joseph Grootenboer, collaborated to establish the first Chatham-Kent Table. Over 100 attendees savoured a repast, prepared and served by the farmers from where the products originated. They achieved this with the assistance and support of the contributing farmers, their families and sponsors.

In 2014, C-K Table was awarded “Event of the Year” by the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance. Now in its fourth year, this annual culinary event has morphed into a year-long discourse about local food in Chatham-Kent. This year C-K Table partnered with Fanshawe College’s Artisanal Culinary Arts Graduate program. C-K Table featured unique items on their tasting menu, all of which will be prepared by the culinary students and their chef instructors. For the last three years, Growing Chefs! Ontario, whose focus is food education among children and youth, has been the event’s fundraising recipient. This year the money raised will be used to help build infrastructure for future C-K Table endeavours.

Spence tells me his children Vivien and Jakob know and experience what good food means. On Father’s Day in 2014, his 4-year-old son asked his wife to write on the card, “Thanks for all the good food we get to eat.” 

“That almost made me cry to hear that is the one thing he told my wife to write on the card for me. Very humbling,” explained Spence, a graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agriculture College and Bachelor of Commerce program.

Spence is not only an innovator but a creative marketer of his farm and Chatham-Kent. A couple of years ago, while I was dining at The Only on King in London, Ontario (now TOOK), the waiter delivered a dossier (prepared by Spence but inspired by TV’s Portlandia) on possible candidates for my chicken entrée entitled “From Our Family Farm to Your Fork — Meet Your Chicken!” There was a selection of contenders. (His chickens, Rhode Island Reds for eggs and White Cockerels for meat, are free to roam in a large fenced-in open area with fresh air, sunshine, bugs, grass and weeds to feed on.) The statistics provided included: date of birth, markings/distinguishing characteristics, temperament and other personal information that included diet. I later asked Spence about his goal for the “Meet Your Chicken!” dossiers and he told me, “It was actually an idea from a fellow farmer. It’s a great way to both educate and engage consumers.”

Spence’s arrangement to supply farm-to-table restaurants with food and also be identified as a culinary farmer is part of the farm-to-table movement in which farmers directly connect with chefs. When asked how he came up with the term “culinary farming,” Spence clarified, “I ponder food and the realities of it a lot. I feel there is a real education piece around the farming of food products and farming with commodity products. No disrespect to commodity farming, but please tell me what it is that you eat, that corn, soybeans and wheat aren’t part of these days. So the creation of the term “culinary farming” was meant to refocus farming on food and culinary experiences, whether it be fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, or even grains for things like bread, pasta, beer, etc.”

Sometimes shopping at farmers’ markets is a way of supporting local farmers, so long as you employ a very liberal definition of the term local. Spence’s definition of local starts with putting food traceability at the tips of consumer’s fingers. He is passionate about buying locally but just as passionate about authenticating local products. He starts by posing a series of hypothetical questions for consumers to ask to determine the origin of products: What is the name of the farm? Where is it located? What do they grow? What is the history of that particular farm? To Spence, the idea of local food production and consumption is very important but the reality of actually supporting small to medium-sized family farms is just as, if not more, important.

Farmers’ markets have boomed across the continent, and most cities have a group of stalwart culinary farmers that cater to committed locavores and culinary enthusiasts. At many urban farmers’ markets, it is now assumed one is willing to pay a premium for certain items because they are local. I asked Spence if he thought this was true. He replied, “To an extent, local food needs to be affordable and accessible so that the masses can participate, and not just the upper social economic groups. That being said, we also need to re-educate consumers that the price of most, if not all foods, is completely misguided. My belief is farmers should be entrusted to set their own fair price so that they can have an income that reflects the level of work and commitment that goes into their products.”

However, in reality, one of the difficulties with traditional farming is that someone else tells you what your product is worth. The truth is that the mounting disparity between what small-scale farmers produce and what they earn continues to drive farmers off their land. Locally, farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets and events like the London Training Centre’s successful annual Feastival and the C-K Table are the closest many consumers come to being in touch with the origins of their food. In the meantime, we need to encourage culinary farmers, support local procurement policies, and validate advocates of sustainable food strategies, like Spence and many others in our communities, who continue to make a difference.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Chef Eric Boyar's sixthirtynine: A Distinctive Taste of Oxford County


Travel the back roads and country trails and familiarize yourself with the proud Quaker settlements, Amish farmgates, rural hamlets and a variety of trails where you can see, touch and savour first-hand the many unique regional tastes distinctive to Oxford County. The small, historic town of Woodstock, population 38,000, is home to sixthirtynine, which is emerging as the embodiment of one of Ontario’s best destination farm-to-table restaurants.

By definition, a destination restaurant is usually one that has a compelling appeal to entice diners from beyond its region. Interestingly, the earliest concept of a destination restaurant originates in France with the Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants as to whether they merit a special visit or detour by motorists.

Newly refurbished to a higher standard of comfort, sixthirtynine is a tasteful 30-seat room offering menus that are tied to the rhythms of the growing season in Oxford County. After a decade its synthesis of gastronomy, service and comfort has matured into something substantial and remarkable.
A full wall in reclaimed lumber, ceiling beams and a new bar top in raw lumber with a natural edge has set the mood for the recent redesign by Kelly Oliver of Oliver Design in Woodstock. The renewed space introduces a crisp palette of navy, grey, and white, and natural brown tones in the floor, as well as a few strategic bio-ethanol fireplaces and solid comfortable dining chairs upholstered in platinum fabric.

Chef Eric Boyar’s culinary repertoire, rooted in classical French technique, was developed in such Toronto hotspots as Splendido, Mistura, Goldfish and the Metropolitan Hotel. Chef and his wife Jennifer returned to his Woodstock home in 2005, and opened sixthirtynine with his mother Pauline Bucek. Pauline and Jennifer are hands-on partners and both work the front of house, often spelling off one another.

Boyar and sous chef Wes Quehl deliver a homegrown Oxford County “from scratch” farm-to-table experience. They are among the leading-edge chefs showcasing the distinctive diversity of culinary regionalism that safeguards rural knowledge, its wisdom, as well as its traditions. Dedicated to building and nurturing strong personal relationships with farmers and producers, Boyar travels straight to the source to procure items for his Oxford County driven menus.

Chef Eric Boyar’s culinary repertoire, rooted in classical French technique, was developed in such Toronto hotspots as Splendido, Mistura, Goldfish and the Metropolitan Hotel. Chef and his wife Jennifer returned to his Woodstock home in 2005, and opened sixthirtynine with his mother Pauline Bucek. Pauline and Jennifer are hands-on partners and both work the front of house, often spelling off one another.

Boyar and sous chef Wes Quehl deliver a homegrown Oxford County “from scratch” farm-to-table experience. They are among the leading-edge chefs showcasing the distinctive diversity of culinary regionalism that safeguards rural knowledge, its wisdom, as well as its traditions. Dedicated to building and nurturing strong personal relationships with farmers and producers, Boyar travels straight to the source to procure items for his Oxford County driven menus.

The restaurant has always featured a culinary garden and Boyar is now working his own plot of land. The family, Boyar tells me, has always had ties to agriculture. The farm where they started growing a lot of the restaurant’s produce is located just outside of Woodstock near Princeton called Gobles which is where Boyar grew up. The 60-acre property was purchased by his brother and father two years ago. They cleared 30 acres for farmland and have dedicated two acres for cultivation for the restaurant, with plans to grow even larger.

Locally procured food has never been more intentional, as many chefs and restaurants have gone a step further and begun growing their own produce in community gardens, on rooftops and farming plots of land. Some of the payback comes in the form of specialized produce. Boyar tells me there is deep satisfaction in preparing and serving homegrown food to appreciative customers.
It seems to me that cooking with vegetables and herbs from your own plot of land is one of the best things you can do to deliver a great farm-to-table experience. However, there’s a trade-off in the form of the extra hours of work combined with already long days in the kitchen and, in the Boyars’ case, the fact that they have three young children.

sixthirtynine is a participant of the Feast ON certification program (which has similarities to the former Savour Ontario Dining program), which brings together diners and restaurants who share an interest in choosing and serving locally grown foods produced in Ontario. The program is a criteria-based designation system, designed to increase the profile and demand for local food by identifying restaurateurs and food service operators dedicated to procuring and serving Ontario foods and beverages and whose particular attributes qualify their commitment to local food. The Feast ON seal and designation is meant to assure consumers of an “authentic” taste of Ontario.

A former recipient of the Top 30 Under 30, the annual recognition program that celebrates young hospitality food services professionals from the Ontario Hostelry Institute, Boyar has also represented Oxford Fresh in the prestigious Ontario Premier’s tasting events at Queen’s Park.
I caught up with Chef Boyar earlier this year at the Wine & Food Show at the Western Fair Agriplex, and again this summer, when Ontario’s Southwest brought the region’s food, wine and beer to Toronto with its City Fare event at Wychwood Barns. Representing Oxford County, Boyar’s spring-fed trout crudo with horseradish cream, pine nuts, trout skin chicharrón and mustard sprouts, all but stole the show.

There is a first course of seared scallops served with apple celery root purée, duck confit and aged cheddar ravioli with red wine gastric on the current menu, and another first course of steamed PEI mussels with Railway City copper ale, double smoked bacon, house mustard and heavy cream. A representative dinner entrée is roasted Berkshire pork loin with edamame, pearl barley risotto, confit of garlic, hen of the woods mushrooms and smoked chili oil. Another item on offer is the apple smoked duck breast with buttered white navy beans, pioppino mushrooms, spiced red cabbage purée, duck confit croquette and quince butter with a cider reduction.

Boyar tells me it has taken years to develop the staff so that he is able to comfortably participate in events like City Fare and more recently as a judge at the Blackbox Food Fight festivities at the Arts and Cookery Bank in July.

Consistent with the cuisine, the wine list offers many Ontario VQA’s with an assortment of old and new world wines. The bar list features a well-conceived selection of Ontario craft beers and seasonal brews. Tasting menus are available by request with optional wine pairings. There is a small and intimate patio for al fresco dining. A highlight for patrons is the Chef’s Table — four seats that position diners right in front of the kitchen, allowing them an interactive experience.


639 Peel Street, Woodstock

LUNCH: Wednesday–Friday 11 am–2 pm
DINNER: Wednesday-Saturday 5 pm–10 pm,
Sunday 5 pm–8:30 pm

The Art of Greenwashing …and the Lexicon for Faux Environmental Responsibility

The term greenwashing has been around long before expressions like “locally-sourced,” “farm fresh,” “artisanal,” “organic,” “small-batch” and “heirloom” conferred unwarranted credibility on menus of some restaurants that are less than forthright about their food purchasing practices. Many restaurant professionals of my acquaintance joke that the rule of thumb is that the number of adjectives in a restaurant’s menu is inversely relative to the quality of food.

There is also the issue of “farmwashing” and the hypocrisy of calling your cuisine locally-sourced or farm-to-table when using out-of-province produce or ingredients. “Farm-to-table cuisine” is a term now so common that it has inspired its own irritating abbreviation, F2T,” states veteran food journalist, Corby Kummer, in a recent Vanity Fair article called, “Is it Time to Table Farm-to-Table?”

One of the most frequent oversights that businesses make, even unintentionally, is greenwashing — making an ambiguous statement about something that is perceived to be “green” when in reality the claim is motivated sheerly by profit rather than in the spirit of improving the environment. The term greenwashing relates to the practice in which hype and propaganda are employed to encourage the false perception that a business or organization’s products and policies are eco-friendly, or that environmental responsibility is a core business ethic, when in fact it is lacking. Greenwashing has become a commonplace ruse in our modern world to sell just about everything.

A lot of greenwashing is actually intentional, a strategy that has businesses cloaking themselves in the environmental movement in hopes of showcasing a superior moral character, while pretending to speak to your principles. This type of marketing is based on how consumers want to be perceived by others or want to feel about their own choices.

Imagine my scepticism after I discovered that an “artisan” cheese which I had praised at one of my favourite farm-to-table restaurants, and then touted, turned out not to be a handcrafted farmstead cheese and the very essence of Quebec’s terroir, but a mass-produced cheese made with inferior ingredients instead of fresh milk. The “artisan” farmer featured on the bucolic packaging was nothing more than an invention of some marketing agency.

It seems to me that the logic goes something like this: If consumers value the environment for its beauty and biodiversity, and if a product’s messaging and aesthetic reflect those principles, consumers are quite likely to align themselves with that eco-friendly ethos. Positioning a brand is about showing the clients that your products share their principles and are in sync with the consumer’s identity.

Being green not only has a certain rarified status, it is politically correct and valued by both eco-friendly and non-green consumers alike. Yet green and sustainable must be two of the most overused and confusing words in the lexicon for faux environmental responsibility. Marketers and advertising agencies toss around deliberately ambiguous words like “pure”, “non-toxic”, “chemical-free”, “environmentally-friendly”, “energy efficient” and “natural”, or ascribe hollow eco-certifications to greenwash their products.

Marketing studies have established that prompting emotions like guilt, greed, fear, and admiration from consumers has a motivating effect on their attitudes and behaviour. The term greenwashing was actually created by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay concerning the hotel industry’s habit of placing placards in rooms to promote the reuse of towels, in order to conserve resources and seemingly to “save the environment.” Westervelt discovered that, in most situations, little or no effort toward reducing energy waste was being made. Westervelt then stated that the actual objective of this “green campaign” on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, motivated by increased profitability. Westervelt labelled this and other superficial environmentally conscientious acts with the underlying purpose of profiteering as greenwashing.

The term “going green” refers to the pursuit of knowledge and holistic practices that lead to more environment-friendly and ecologically responsible choices and lifestyles. The expectation is that it helps to protect the earth’s assets and sustain its natural resources for future generations. When you combine those initiatives with energy efficiency measures that safeguard the ecology, you ideally make your business more resource efficient, and decrease costs.

Sustainability is based on the principle that everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which the human race and nature can co-exist.

In the dog-eat-dog world of factory-farming and giant multinationals guilt is frequently utilized by marketers in designing advertising appeals. One of the most powerful motivators in marketing is exploiting consumers’ fears about the health and welfare of the planet and whether it will be healthy enough for people in the future to meet their needs. It seems that some of the most profitable corporate brands in the world have mastered how to successfully transform our fears into their fortunes.

Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Revival House and The Chapel in Stratford is Open!

Revival House and The Chapel in Stratford is Open!

 (Soft opening for lunch + dinner)

Rob Wigan and Candice Sanderson Wigan of Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub purchased the iconic Church Restaurant. The former Baptist church turned fine dining establishment debuted last week as Revival House. Chefs Kyle Rose and Byron Hallett (late of London’s former Auberge du Petit Prince) are operating the kitchen, emphasizing a Canadian menu featuring whole animal butchery and charcuterie on the daily menu. Rose apprenticed at The Church eight years ago and Hallett is a graduate of the Stratford Chefs School.

Executive Chef Kyle Rose and Chef de Cuisine Byron Hallett have assembled a kitchen team excited about creating and serving food that expresses the depth of Perth County’s food culture* with Stratford’s sense of drama – favourites re-imagined, traditions reinvented, memories reinterpreted.”

Revival House offers event dining. Upstairs in the former Belfry, The Chapel features an 80-seat gastro pub, and a VIP lounge called Confessions. The Revival house features a new patio that backs onto Brunswick Street. 70 Brunswick Street

Call 519-273-3424 for reservations.

Read the menu:
The food photos here are from Chef Kyle’s photo blog