Food

TASTES OF THE TRUE NORTH

Canadian cuisine, writes PATRICIA HLUCHY, is a medley of local and ethnic flavours

June 30 2003
Food

TASTES OF THE TRUE NORTH

Canadian cuisine, writes PATRICIA HLUCHY, is a medley of local and ethnic flavours

June 30 2003

TASTES OF THE TRUE NORTH

Food

Canadian cuisine, writes PATRICIA HLUCHY, is a medley of local and ethnic flavours

DEFINITION OF A GEEK, ethnic variety: in the early 70s you’re gathering edible mushrooms with your Slovak-born dad while, in another part of this Vancouver Island field, some of your teenage peers are looking for psilocybin—“magic” ’shrooms. Early on, I discovered the simple, decidedly non-psychedelic pleasure to be had in foraging for wild food. My father had brought the mushroom-picking tradition from the Old Country. And so our family went on regular expeditions near the places we lived—in the woods around Thunder Bay, Ont., and, later, in the cattle pastures surrounding Duncan, B.C. Scoring boletus camouflaged by old logs, or agaric growing amid cow patties, is good dirty fun. And it’s worlds away from filling a plastic bag with the white Styrofoam that passes for mushrooms at the supermarket. The dew on your clothes, the dirt on your fingers, the musky odour foretelling butter-and-garlic-bathed pleasure—it all clicks in some primordial part of the brain.

One recent afternoon, I went mushroompicking with renowned chef Michael Stadtländer. If anyone is the personification of uniquely Canadian cuisine, this is the guy. With his wife, Nobuyo, Stadtländer runs

Eigensinn Farm, a 100-acre spread near Collingwood, Ont., two hours north of Toronto. They raise their own organic pigs, lambs, ducks, guinea hens, chickens, geese, trout, vegetables and herbs (more than 30 of them, including seven kinds of thyme). Friday and Saturday nights for most of the year, Stadtländer and a small team of helpers transform their produce, along with ingredients from neighbours and, maybe, just a few items from away, into some of the best six-course dinners you’ll get anywhere. In fact, last year the British magazine Restaurant named Eigensinn one of the top eating establishments in the world.

It’s an unseasonably cool day, weighed down by a thick fog that’s rolled in from Georgian Bay. Carrying baskets, Stadtländer and his wife descend into the misty woods beyond their red-brick Victorian farmhouse. Like their dwelling-cum-restaurant, the property is whimsically decorated here and there with found objects—rocks, wood, shells, even wine bottles and corks. The whole farm seems an evolving eco-art installation fea-

If anyone personifies Canadian cuisine, Stadtländer (opposite, top right) is the guy

turing regular special events held, even during winter, in outdoor “dining rooms” around the property. In August, the Stadtländers will host a three-day “love-in” for 50 invited guests featuring film screenings, cooking workshops, pottery classes and, of course, exquisite meals. “The way I look at our place, it’s a little theatre,” says the quixotic, 46year-old Michael, who was raised on a German family farm and has been running Eigensinn for a decade, after a brilliant career as a chef in Toronto and on the West Coast. “When people go out the door, besides having great food, they should have a bit more spiritual strength—we want to give them a little massage, a little therapy.”

A big part of that psychic tune-up is administered through the palate: customers get to commune with this very piece of land by savouring its fruits. And so we search for much-prized morels, bizarre-looking protruberances with caps resembling brain matter. At first we can’t find any, prompting Nobuyo, a 35-year-old, Japanese-born beauty with lush hair falling below her waist, to laughingly lament, “The mushrooms, they don’t talk to you.” But eventually we spot dozens of them in an old apple orchard,

some as big as a baby’s forearm. “I haven’t seen morels like this for years,” says Stadtländer, filling his basket.

Later, they show up in the main course, which is lamb served with the mushrooms and a sauce of lamb brain and tongue. Trust me, it’s amazing—robust, earthy, delicious. The six-course dinner also includes an unforgettable soup of lobster (Stadtländer isn’t a local-produce hard-liner), periwinkles and white asparagus, then squab (pigeon) and foie gras with a potent, marjoram-infused reduction, sweet Georgian Bay pickerel accompanied by wild leeks and a vibrant medley of pepper cress, sorrel and chives, and a rhubarb meringue hazelnut tart. It’s a meal redolent of spring, the farm and the woods.

WILD FOOD, local food, seasonal food—this is the mantra of the chefs, producers and foodies who are establishing a distinctive Canadian cuisine. “It’s not about fancy towering presentation and expensive ingredients,” says Halifax-based chef Michael Smith. “It’s about finding Canadian ingredients and letting them shine.” English Canada may not have signature dishes the way Quebec does to some extent, and most other countries emphatically do: can you imagine Spain without paella, Morocco without tajine, Scotland without haggis? But we do enjoy the bounty of the seas and a variety of game and wild plants and fruits, not to mention such Canuck clichés as maple syrup.

Smith, a cookbook author who has two shows running on Food Network Canada, shares many chefs’ enthusiasm for the small but growing artisanal food movement—small, eco-friendly producers of usually organic cheeses, breads, herbs and salad greens. He speaks excitedly about extra-virgin, coldpressed, organic canola oil (Smith swears it can be as good as olive oil) from Highwood Crossing Farm near Calgary. He also hails innovators like Supreme Sturgeon and Caviar Ltd. of St. George, N.B., for the fish itself and the company’s plan to harvest Canadian caviar within a year. “Yeah, we have winter,” Smith notes, “but most of the world doesn’t have a year-round growing cycle. If you rattle off the ingredients from coast to coast, we’re definitely blessed.”

We’re also blessed with many immigrant communities that have given Canada a multiethnic smorgasbord unmatched in most parts of the world. A lot of the superb food available in takeout establishments and

restaurants—not to mention homes—across the country may not conform to the emerging Great North culinary idiom, but it’s still ours. “The conundrum of Canadian cuisine is that we’re a country of people who immigrated from a million different places, and the waves of immigration have changed over the years,” notes Food Network Canada host Christine Cushing, who’s also a seasoned professional cook. “It’s not like French or Italian cuisine in that it constantly evolves. Those countries tend to stay within their culinary history because those histories are so strong.”

And so, over the years the Canadian palate has come to embrace risotto, jerk pork, rotis, pad Thai, borscht, moussaka, tandoori chicken, sushi. Dozens of dishes once considered exotic have made it onto the menus of nonethnic restaurants, or get served for dinner in thousands of Canadian households. This eclectic diet isn’t a product of the melting pot alone; it also reflects the fact that Canadians have travelled abroad a whole lot in the past few decades, and that we’re all living in an increasingly globalized world.

Then there’s the rise of the “fooderati,” to borrow a term in Vancouver author Timothy Taylor’s best-selling novel Stanley Park.

Tellingly for these times of gustatory obsession, Taylor uses food as his dominant metaphor for personal authenticity and rootedness. A fixation with haute food is by no means unique to Canada, but we’ve embraced the trend hungrily. Sure, we’re still devoted to fast-food outlets—to the tune of $5.9 billion in 2001, according to Statistics Canada. And in many towns the offerings don’t get any more risqué than what you find at the local Chinese-Canadian joint.

But for many Canadians, observes veteran Toronto cooking teacher and cookbook author Bonnie Stern, “food has become an entertainment.” Hence the advent in this country six years ago of the Food Network and then, in October 2000, of Food Network Canada, which has seen viewership in the key 25-54 age demographic, increase 43 per cent since its launch. Celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Anthony Bourdain and Emeril (the abominable) LaGasse have sexed up the kitchen—to the point where enrolment in chef programs is booming across the country.

While Canada’s most exciting cooks don’t have the rock-star status of their British or American counterparts, they’re still revered— and are becoming household names thanks to the Food Network. You don’t have to be a serious foodie to have heard of 5tadtländer, or Rob Feenie and Robert Clark in Vancouver, or Jamie Kennedy, Anthony Walsh, Michael Bonacini and Chris MacDonald in Toronto, or James McGuire and Normand Laprise in Montreal, among many others. And the temples of food where they and other esteemed peers perform culinary sacraments are becoming as well-known as more traditional tourist attractions—places like

Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour House (page 77), Lumière and West in Vancouver, Edmonton’s Hardware Grill, River Café and Catch in Calgary, Winnipeg’s 529 Wellington, Canoe, Avalon and Boba in Toronto, Montreal’s Toqué! and le Passe Partout, Initiale in Quebec City, Chives in Halifax and the Inn at Bay Fortune on P.E.I. But the Canadian restaurant serious gourmets get most rapturous about is Toronto’s Susur, named after proprietor/chef, Susur Lee.

ON THE TABLE in front ofhim, Lee lays out some Vietnamese peppercorn, a spice he first discovered during a work stint in Singapore in the late 1990s. The dried berries are almost double the size of the more common Indian variety, but more significant for Lee is their “very floral” taste. “I didn’t know the difference between a great peppercorn and a good one,” he says. Hong Kong-born Lee, 44, isn’t just a phenomenally gifted chef. He’s also a scientist of technique and flavour, an artist who’s forever finding new ways to delight and astonish diners. That sometimes means scouring Toronto’s Chinatown, or visiting tiny Vietnamese grocery

stores, to find exotic fruits and spices. “It’s so exciting,” he says, “that I can get these ingredients in Canada.”

Lee combines many of the leading themes in Canadian cuisine—ethnic flavours, eclecticism and a devotion to the best seasonal ingredients. But he also possesses an unparallelled creativity. The modest chef, who got started in the business at the age of 14,

washing woks at a Hong Kong restaurant, actually gives his clientele credit for spurring on his inventiveness. “The customers have let me cook the food I’ve wanted to cook,” says Lee, a married father of three sons, like Stadtländer. “They’ve been very pleased to get something that has never been done.” His first restaurant, Toronto’s Lotus, won him cult status soon after it opened in 1987. In 1998 and ’99, the elite of Singapore flocked to Club Chinois, one of the restaurants for which he was consultant. Then, in August 2000, he returned to Toronto to open the airy, exquisitely minimalist Susur, which immediately established itself as one of North America’s top eating establishments.

So strong is Lee’s pioneering spirit that he’s even gone against orthodoxy and reversed the order of dishes in the seven-course tasting menu—the customer favourite—at Susur. After a small appetizer course comes the most substantial fare, with lighter, smaller offerings of fish, shellfish and vegetables following (most tasting menus adhere to the French model of several courses leading up to the main course).

But it’s the Asian-influenced food itself that’s made Lee our sole truly international cooking star. He’s been featured in GQ, Saveur and Food & Wine, and scored a major profile two years ago in Gourmet. Approached in the past about taking his talents to the Big Apple, Lee he concedes that “playing in a bigger playground” does tempt him. “But,” he adds, “other places don’t have the ingredients that we have in Toronto.”

If Michael Stadtländer’s food reconnects people with the earth, Lee’s takes them to more rarefied places. His dishes are subtle and complicated. But no matter how numerous—and disparate—their ingredients, they invariably deliver old-fashioned, mouthwatering pleasure. The counterpoint of tastes is fun, not daunting, and the plates are Miróesque masterpieces. Recent offerings on the tasting menu included: succulent smoked squab with a Tanjin mustard sauce, a truffle sauce and shallot-lemon jam; luscious, jerk-flavoured Wuxi pork with a spice-tamarind glaze; and a fabulous soy-marinated rock bass with lily-bulb purée and black truffle vinaigrette. It was as much a performance by kitchen and servers as it was a meal, punctuated by regular refrains of “wow” at our table. It made me thankful to be in a country of immigrants, and great ingredients, and some awesome cooks, [’ll