There's an old axiom that to know where you're going you need to know your past. That was the theme at one of the new events at this year's Savour Stratford Culinary Festival. The Culinary Cocktail Gala Reception not only acted as an opportunity for attendees to mingle amongst visiting celebrity chefs, but most importantly it was a chance to spend an intimate evening with some of the local players who've helped develop Stratford's culinary scene.
Hosting was Stratford's most famous couple: CBC News anchor Peter Mansbridge and actress Cynthia Dale. They were a great choice having made Stratford their home for about a decade now. According to Mansbridge the decision was an easy one with Dale already spending half the year in Stratford while performing at the Shakespeare Festival and the couple looking for a quieter place to raise their son. Mansbridge says he has never felt like he has given-up anything moving to Stratford.
Although the theater was and continues to be the city's cultural driving force, even as far back as the 1980s he could see an exciting culinary scene developing. Today that early promise has matured and tourists are now visiting Stratford solely for its food. As for personal recommendations of any hidden gems Mansbridge believes the secret is out on Stratford's restaurants. But after being behind the desk in a suit every evening, Mansbridge quite likes places he can turn-up to in jeans and t-shirt to enjoy a simple meal with his family, which means he's as likely to be dining at places like Jessie's Deli, York Street Kitchen or Down the Street as he is at Bijou, Mercer Hall or The Prune.
After Mansbridge and Dale introduced the evening's theme chef Bryan Steele of the Prune Restaurant, which has been providing Stratford with sophisticated, seasonally-inspired cuisine for 35 years relayed a story about the importance of Perth County's farmers. He explained that they are integral to making Stratford a culinary destination and are the driving force behind chefs' menus. Steele fondly recalled one local farmer who would come into the restaurant during the early days cradling golden raspberries, which tasted of “liquid sunshine,” like a child. That care and dedication to growing the best ingredients possible is something that has stuck with him and inspires him when he's creating food at the restaurant or teaching students at the Stratford Chef School.
Eleanor Kane, who co-founded the famed and now world-renowned chef school, spoke of the camaraderie of kindred spirits who formed Stratford's early culinary life in the late 1970s. They didn't know it at the time, but their work set the stage for Stratford's modern culinary scene and today the experience of those early pioneers is helping to encourage, forge and develop the next generation of culinary talents in Stratford.
All that would be for naught without someone to enjoy the food and push things. The contribution of patrons has been equally valuable and inspiring according to chef Neil Baxter of Rundles. “No good restaurant gets that way without a really interesting clientele adding their contributions,” he said.
Baxter also provided one of the most interesting bites of the evening. Reflecting the evening's theme, canapés like: duck paté with onion marmalade, poached shrimp atop cucumber and smoked salmon with caperberry, had a retro slant. But Baxter's Perth County Headcheese really stood out as being reflective of Stratford's culinary past and also where it is going with its seasonal and local approach. The rich and porky headcheese sat atop a crispy chicharrón and was balanced nicely by the acid kick of pickled eggplant and radish seedling from Soiled Reputation.
The focal point of the evening was a giant mural that festival organisers called the Family Culinary Tree. Produced by Stratford artist Kato Wake, it used a tree as the visual metaphor and depicted Stratford's culinary history over the past 30 years. You could follow how the leading culinary voices today have branched out from the early pioneers of Perth County's culinary scene. It was certainly an apt visual way of underscoring the gala's theme and words of all the speakers.
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.