It doesn’t exactly come as a shock that Canadian restaurants have started serving locally sourced cuisine. “Local,” after all, is the flavour of the moment in the restaurant world. But consider for a moment a Canadian restaurant that takes the concept of “Canadian” food to the next level—one that serves rockfish from British Columbia or caribou from the Northwest Territories, with a wine bar stocking only vintages from Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula; where local farmers show up at the door at all hours of the day with fresh, lovingly reared produce.
Now consider this: that restaurant opened not five, not 10, but 20 years ago. It was called Nekah, and the chef behind it, a man named Michael Stadtländer. Even back then, “local” was old hat for Stadtländer, now just 50, yet considered one of the grandfathers of innovative Canadian cuisine. As far back as 1980, he could be found smoking his own eels on the hillside below his first restaurant job at Scaramouche (still around, and located in one of the leafier and pricier neighbourhoods of Toronto, ON).
Smoking eels was nothing unusual for Stadtländer, though it’s a safe bet the neighbours thought otherwise. He was born in northern Germany and grew up on a farm, where his parents schooled him in growing produce, making preserves, smoking hams. And the bucolic meadows near the Baltic Sea are where Stadtländer might very well have still been today if it wasn’t for the fact that in his early teens, he tuned in to a Canadian TV show, “Adventures in Rainbow Country,” about a family living in the pristine, jaw-dropping wilderness around Lake Huron, ON’s Georgian Bay.
The show, funnily enough, was one of Canada’s first attempts at locally produced television, and was replete with locally sourced images of Canadian landscapes that stirred the young would-be chef’s heart. By 1980, Stadtländer had made it to Toronto, although it wouldn’t be for another 13 years until he traded city for countryside. In 1993, anticipating the “locavore” trend by more than a decade, Stadtländer and his Japanese wife, Nobuyo, scraped together their savings, borrowed money from a loan shark and bought an old farm. They moved in to discover that there wasn’t even a fridge or a stove. The 40-ha (100-ac) farm was just a stone’s throw from Georgian Bay. The chef christened it Eigensinn, German for “single-minded.” Here, Stadtländer definitely got single-minded about local.
It started with dinner. The couple began inviting friends and favourite customers to the farm to eat, and when it came to finding the ingredients, all the chef had to do was walk out the back door. He raised chickens, ducks, pigs, lambs and the odd calf. Stadtländer’s herb garden was possibly the largest, and certainly the most varied, in the province; the vegetable garden was even bigger. Out back was a trout pond, and behind it, a forest where he would forage for morel mushrooms, wild ginger, ramps or whatever other tasty and edible thing happened to be in season. He prepared the ingredients in the farmhouse kitchen, and cooked using a secondhand stove the couple bought for $75. The first guests were a couple from Toronto. (They still come back every year.)
Instead of following recipes, Stadtländer operated on instinct. With a cut of pork, duck or lamb sitting on the butcher block, he would walk out to the herb garden, inhale the scents around him and decide which combination of herbs he was going to use that day. It wasn’t long before the meals took the concept of local to the next dimension.
For one dish, Stadtländer caught a brown trout in his pond and baked it in clay he harvested from the bottom of the pond. Another day, he found wild grapes growing on an old fence. He picked the grape leaves, wrapped them around a lake trout caught earlier that day in Georgian Bay, and grilled it outdoors over a wood fire. Each fall Stadtländer picks apples from trees planted by a previous owner and makes apple cider, which he then reduces on the stove into a glaze to pour over his pork chops.
From a distance, Eigensinn—fields, pond, forest, barn, farmhouse—looks like a standard, century-old southern Ontario farm. Up close, there are eccentricities. There’s a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and between his legs dangles an empty jeroboam of wine. (The statue is designed to “flow.”) In the forest, Stadtländer has created a kind of raised, open-air treehouse where guests sit, in nature’s cathedral, and eat, drink and be merry.
Stadtländer himself is tall and lanky. He possesses a quiet demeanour that masks a perpetually bubbling imagination fueled by enthusiasm. He likes to say that people who consume his much-praised cuisine are “tasting the land.”
“You get the most intense kind of feeling picking leeks in the forest or Jerusalem artichokes in the garden,” he says. “When people come here to eat, I feel like am the local ambassador.” And, he points out, local food doesn’t have far to travel—sometimes only seconds from herb garden to soup bowl.
If there is a problem with Eigensinn Farm, it is one of space. It isn’t a restaurant so much as a farmhouse, with a resident farmer who just happens to be a world-renowned chef. Unfortunately, his farmhouse is only so big. The dining room, which hasn’t changed much since the place was built, accommodates a maximum of 12 guests. As a result, securing a reservation is sufficiently difficult that people have been known to brag about it.
But that’s won’t be a problem any longer. For a summer ’08 debut, Stadtländer teamed up with his eldest son, Jonas, to open a new restaurant in the nearby town, Singhampton. The restaurant is called Haisai, which means “sincere greetings” on the Japanese island of Okinawa, from where Stadtländer’s wife hails. With any luck, the restaurant’s 30 seats should put getting a reservation within reach.
The meat and produce, it goes without saying, will be local. So, for that matter, will be the furniture. In what may be a first for the North American dining scene, Stadtländer and his son are making the chairs themselves, out of elms, pines, and cedars grown nearby.
Canadian land, it would seem, has plenty to say. In Michael Stadtländer, it has found its voice.