For Chef Ross Fraser, Monday’s dinner at Fraser Café’s Table 40 must have felt like a final exam. After “studying” under two Canadian local food movement icons Michael Stadtländer and John Taylor of Domus during his early career, Ross’s talents were put to the ultimate test: coordinating an elaborate six-course dinner celebrating Canadian cuisine in collaboration with Stadtländer himself; and with Taylor among the 45 or so dinner guests.
Stadtländer’s Ottawa appearance was one of three guest stints for him and his crew — his wife, Nobuyo; several chefs and apprentices; and their official photographer who rolled into town in a bright red school bus at midnight on Sunday after setting off that afternoon from Stadtländer’s Eigensinn Farm in Singhamton Ontario.
The converted bus, which sleeps 10, is outfitted with a dreamy kitchen including a six-burner Garland stove and a wood-burning oven. Apparently there’s a lot of rattling when it’s on the road, no doubt caused by the dozens of All-Clad pots and pans (guess who is the sponsor?). After leaving Ottawa, there was a stop in Montreal before they will roll on to Nova Scotia for the Canadian Chefs Congress next week. The biannual gathering of food industry players, from farmers to foragers to artisanal food producers, has been created to expand upon Stadtländer’s vision for Canadian food culture.
The way I understood the logistics of the Table 40 event, Fraser’s kitchen team alternated courses with Stadtländer’s mobile crew —cleaning up from one course entirely before passing the torch to the other team to begin the next one. Meanwhile a room full of guests gathered around communal tables unable to see who created each course, but salivating as the aromas wafted through the dining room.
Many of us were there as fans of the Fraser brother’s food but that night was about experiencing the intensely flavourful, farm-fresh cooking for which Stadtländer has become famous. So while much was obviously lacking in terms of the full farm experience, we were treated to many Eigensinn Farm treasures: garden vegetables, lovely herbs, and bread from his bakery. And, of course, those homegrown piglets whose arrival were heralded by the scent of a campfire. Stadtlander’s roasted suckling pigs were crisped up just before being served in a mobile wood-burning oven — the Flatbread Pizza Co. had set up in the parking lot behind Fraser Cafe for the event. It reminded me how much the critical sense of smell is missing from so many dining experiences.
At the end of the dinner, Chef Ross emerged from the kitchen to receive a round of applause and, in his usual shy manner, explained how the menu was designed by two teams with a single consistent style. Stadtlander’s signature intense concentration of flavours and supremely fresh ingredients defined every sophisticated dish. Still the crowd wanted to know which of the three dishes were his and which ones were prepared by the Stadtländer’s crew (see the photo descriptions to find out).
Many restaurants claim to cook with the seasons, but this menu really elevated the whole idea — it captured the range of emotions we all experience between the end of summer and early fall. The standout main course for instance combined rich chunks of fresh lobster with a tiny dice of blue potatoes cooked risotto-style in flavourful stock. It was served with two bundles of vibrant summer greens wrapped in proscuitto and down the centre of the plate lay a stalk of fresh crunchy baby fennel from the farm.
Dessert also walked the seasonal tightrope with a tart that combined Ontario wild blueberries, a last blast of summer, with the earthy autumnal flavour of Kuri squash. It was a berry pie and pumpkin pie in one. It came with a scoop of Whisky ice cream — the ultimate combination of warming and cooling.
What I loved about the dinner is that its “Canadian-ness” went beyond merely having ingredients that were representative of different provinces. The dishes came together in a way that made me think about the dynamics of change and the beauty that can be found within moments of transition. Food infused with the essence of the changing of the seasons — this is Canadian cuisine.
Click on the images below to view the slideshow of last night’s dinner: