Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Monday, November 29, 2010

Food Television: Food Network Canada's 10th Birthday Gala!

This month marked the first anniversary of my family's big move to Stratford - which has proven to be the best decision we could have ever made by many, many miles. However, long before I considered Stratford as the place where I could come to fulfill my dreams and "Live the Life of Food", I was already well aware of its reputation as a culinary hotspot.

There are a couple of interrelated reasons for this: Firstly, for the past ten years I've been pretty much glued to Food Network Canada (ok, that and Coronation Street);  and secondly, over the past ten years my favourite network has consistently aired amazing shows set in Stratford and featuring some of our city's most colourful food personalities and culinary institutions.

How does a town with just a little over 30,000 people manage to produce such a disprortionate volume of great foodie TV? I don't know the specific answer to that. See my previous 50-or-so posts I guess, because as Stratford's official food blogger I can tell you that the challenge for me isn't in finding media-worthy subjects - it's keeping up with them all!

On behalf of the entire Stratford food community: Happy 10th Birthday to Food Network Canada!

Over its decade-long history as our country's #1 source for edible entertainment, no less than three shows set in and around Stratford have appeared on its airways.
Chef School was a documentary series that aired for two seasons. It followed a class of would-be chefs as they struggled through the two-year intensive program experienced by students of the world-class Stratford Chefs School. The cast of characters included many fixtures of the Stratford restaurant community, like Chef Neil Baxter of Rundles, who starred as the hard-to-please instructor, and Chef Bryan Steele of The Old Prune, who pushes the students to achieve his uncompromising standard of culinary excellence. If you missed the recent stretch of re-runs that were broadcast over the summer, you can watch every episode online on the Food Network Canada website!

Once you're done, you can check out what's going on at the  Stratford Chefs School today in real-time by attending their student-prepared dinner and lunch events - top notch cuisine at amazing value in support of this important Stratford culinary institution. I have my eye on the special December 10th dinner featuring the Italian menu designed by visiting instructor Chef Riccardo Camanini of Ristorante Hotel Villa Fiordaliso, as well as the Christmas dinner on December 18th showcasing the culinary style of Thomas Keller of the French Laundry.

Antony John - aka Food Network Canada's The Manic Organic - is the singing-painting-birdwatching-cooking-TV-show-hosting-veggie-growing dude behind Soiled Reputation Farm (located just outside of Stratford near Sebringville). I've had the pleasure of hanging with Antony and his wife Tina every Sunday at the Slow Food market (come see us from 10am to 2pm at our new winter location in the basement of Anything Grows), and one of my most enjoyable blog adventures to date saw me putting in a shift one  morning this past summer to see what it was like to work on their farm.

When I watched The Manic Organic on Food Network Canada I loved the show's combination of growing tips, field-to-table cooking techniques, and quirky personality. Here's a clip featuring leeks both wild and cultivated (which is appropriate considering Farmer John's country of origin is Wales):
Word on the street is that Antony is releasing a new music CD of jazz standards called Old Dog, New Tricks in time for the holidays, so come see him at the Sunday market or keep tabs on him by following @ManicOrganic on Twitter.

OK, so I didn't just decide to pay homage to Food Network Canada on my blog because it's my favourite TV station and/or because they show a lot of Stratford content. I actually got to attend the 10th anniversary gala dinner at Studio 99 in Toronto this month as the guest of Paul Finkelstein, the  Chef-come-Culinary Arts teacher whose student-run alternative high school cafeteria the Screaming Avocado Cafe was featured in the Food Network Canada series Fink.
Fink is basically a show that promoted healthy eating in schools before Jamie Oliver brought the issue to the forefront of North Americans' consciousness this past year. Even better, it demonstrated a solution: get the kids in the school to cook the food, and the kids in the school will eat the food. Get the kids to live the food, and they will love the food. Check out all of the episodes online if you didn't PVR the summer re-runs on Food Network Canada.

The show and its namesake are totally aligned with my own perspective on food as nourishment for much more than just the physical body. So when I moved to a house two minutes from the Screaming Avocado - unknowingly, I swear! - I guess it was kind of inevitable that I would soon start hanging around there....

Fast forward through a bunch of Fink/Local-Come-Lately collaborations including: a massive school garden project; a food festival fundraiser; and an epic class trip to Nunavut... and here I am walking down the red carpet at the Food Network Canada's 10th Anniversary gala dinner as Paul's guest, while he's being pulled aside by an interviewer.

I think I got whiplash trying to keep my eye on all the Food Network Canada celebs I saw that night. An hour before we got to the event we happened upon Bob Blumer (of Glutton for Punishment/Surreal Gourmet fame) at the bar of the nearby Drake Hotel. I almost ran over Kevin Brauch (of The Thirsty Traveller/Iron Chef America) as I was coming out of the Drake washroom. As we mingled in Studio 99 waiting for dinner to start I spotted The Opener's David Adjey (taller than I thought he'd be) and David Rocco of Dolce Vita (surrounded by adoring fans). We found ourselves sitting beside none other than Rob Feenie: first Canadian Iron Chef America champion; host of the Food Network Canada show New Classics with Rob Feenie; and I have to say a genuinely enjoyable person to have dinner with.

So, you're probably wondering: What did Food Network Canada serve at its own 10th birthday party dinner? What else, but signature creations by some of their most prominent chef personalities!
David Adjey and Chuck Hughes (of Food Network Canada's Chuck's Day Off) were in charge of the starters. Adjey demonstrated why he's so in-demand as a menu/restaurant consultant by serving a fresh and creative zucchini-wrapped tuna roll (see pic above). Chuck's lentil and goat's cheese bruschetta finished the one-two-app-punch. I could just eat starters for the rest of my life, and these two were great.
Lynn Crawford (from Pitchin' In) and Laura Calder (of French Food at Home) took to the microphone to educate the crowd about the mains they were placing before us. Crawford  created a beef tenderloin with lobster mashed potatoes that was worthy of the hard work of the dedicated producers she celebrates on her show (spoiler: she was recently in Perth County visiting Perth Pork Products for an upcoming episode). Calder presented us with a French classic duck a l'orange that brought some citrus to round off the indulgent double-entree.

The night finished off with some gorgeous desserts courtesy of Anna Olsen of Fresh with Anna Olsen, and of course some more schmoozing. Was that Christine Cushing I saw hanging with Fink while I was waiting in line for my chocolate blackout cake?!?
What more can I say except thanks to Paul for bringing me along as the token up-and-coming blogger, and thanks to the Food Network Canada for putting together such a fantastic event to mark its tenth anniversary and celebrate its wealth of food media talent!

I guess I can add one more thing: we need more of Fink on Food Network Canada!

I know... how about Chef & Blogger?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Television Food: The Coronation Street 50th Anniversary at The Parlour

When I returned from my recent food education adventure in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut (where I spent a week sleeping on a high school common area floor) I was ready for two things: a drink, and my favourite TV show. I got a serious catch-up dose of the bevvie and CBC's prime time Brit-soap Coronation Street a few days after I got back. Yes, I admit it - my wife and I are total 'Corrie' geeks, having watched the show religiously for eight years. We felt like Trekkies hitting one of their nerd conventions when we showed up at The Parlour, where for the third year Stratford area 'Street' fans turned our town's legendary English-style gastropub into The Rovers Return (the local pub in Weatherfield, the fictional Manchester neighbourhood where the show is set). This year 'An Evening at the Rovers' was extra special, as 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the show, which is as addictive as the genuine English 'Quality Street' chocolates that were placed in heaping bowls on all the tables. 
Go ahead: Call us geeks! Call us nerds! Tell us we watch too much TV! 
We had an absolute blast!
Listen, I thought I liked Coronation Street. Then I came to The Parlour and realized I am nothing but a lightweight. Of the sold-out crowd of 120 people - many of whom came dressed as their favourite show characters (my favourites were 'Blanche' and 'Norris') - there were over a dozen people in attendance who'd watched the show since the very first episode aired one whole half century ago. Luckily, a couple of these die-hards were seated at our table: we kicked-ass and won the overall title for the Coronation Street trivia game that raged throughout the night! We got prizes!
The Parlour's cocktail menu for the 'Evening  at the Rovers' was definitely concocted by serious fans. Half of the show takes place in the pub, so loyal viewers become accustomed to each of the characters' drink orders. On the night's bar list, an orange juice was named after tea-totallers 'Roy & Haley Cropper'; Street-urchin 'Becky Granger' was the namesake for what else but a hard cider (had a few  of those m'self, ta); a 'Gail Platt' was a glass of white wine (which is perfect because I can't stomach either of them); and an 'Emily Bishop' was a wee glass of what is apparently British old ladies' tipple of choice: sherry.

The Parlour serves some of the best pub food in Stratford for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night. Chef Max Holbrook is known for creating inspired gastropub cuisine using fresh local ingredients, and for this event his kitchen produced an outstanding and authentic English-themed meal served-up family style.
We started with a Cornish pasty that was crisp on the outside and filled with savoury chunks of beef. The MC for the night noticed a few people using their knives and forks, and pleaded, 'I'm from Manchester, folks - eat it with your hands!' Any way you cut it, the starter was some crackin' scran.
No night of British cuisine would be complete without the iconic combination of fish n' chips. Mini versions of the ubiquitous chippie staple were served: the only thing missing was the tabloid newspaper to wrap each order up!
Betty is the ninety year old barmaid who's been on the show since way before I was born. 'Betty's Hot-Pot' is, as far as I can tell, the only food available at The Rover's Return, and let me tell you the punters gobble it up so much I wonder what the hell they're all going to eat if she ever leaves the show! The highlight of the night's meal was without a doubt the Lancaster Stew (otherwise known as Betty's Hot-Pot) - moist lamb served with potato & veg in a perfectly seasoned gravy. After finally trying it, I no longer wonder how they can all eat it every day!
The dessert was a Spotted Dick [insert joke here, sorry it's too easy]. Whipped cream, raisins, custard - with dense, but not too heavy, cake. A gorgeous British pudding punctuating a great night of British pop culture.
Actually, it wasn't complete until the roomful of Anglophiles raised our glasses, toasted our favourite show, and sang God Save the Queen (not necessarily in that order, but yes it all happened).

Lisa and I are already thinking of who we are going to dress up as for next year's event (Fizz & Kirk?). We're also going to try to come back to The Parlour on the third Sunday of most months (starting-up again in January) for the Coronation Street breakfasts. 

Chef Holbrook, do I smell bacon butties à la Roy's Rolls?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cambridge Bay, Nunavut: Local Food Adventures Above the Arctic Circle!

Some of my readers may have noticed a bit of a drop-off lately in my postings. I have a really good excuse for this: I've been in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, accompanying Paul Finkelstein and his Stratford Northwestern Secondary School's Culinary Arts class (aka the Screaming Avocado gang, featured on the Food Network series Fink) on an absolutely unbelievable school exchange!

For a few months last spring, I worked with Paul at the Screaming Avocado Cafe, where his class cooks lunch from scratch to sell to other students on a daily basis. One of the things I helped out with was writing grants to make his ambitious food education ideas become reality. I think Fink must have noticed my taking a particularly keen interest when working on an application for the YMCA and Heritage Canada's Youth Exchange program, which supports students from all over Canada traveling to each other's communities. He was bringing his class to visit students at Kiilinik High School in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and then hosting the Nunavut school group when they came back to Ontario. One day he just came right out and asked me: Do you want to come to Nunavut with us? I think I said 'yes' before he'd even finished the question...

Flash forward four months and I'm on a plane bound for Edmonton with fifteen stoked foods students, Paul Finkelstein, and SNSS's intrepid principal Ms. (Deborah) McNair.  

We stopped over in Edmonton on the first night of our long journey. Our adventures in Northern cuisine began that night in fine style, as we were all invited over to the home of fellow food fanatics Steve and Twyla. These friends of Paul's had been the first to encourage him to set up the exchange to Cambridge Bay. I hit it off right away with Twyla, who as it turns out is an avid Edmonton food blogger, travel writer and radio restaurant critic (check out her blog It's A Weird, Wild and Wonderful Life, in particular her own postings on her experience accompanying us to Cambridge Bay). 

Upon arriving at their home, we were presented with what can only be called a true Northern feast, with gorgeous baked Arctic char, muskox carpaccio, and a melt-in-your-mouth muskox roast that had been cooked using the sous vide method for two and a half days! This taste of things to come really whet the appetites of some of our more adventurous young foodies, who weren't shy to comment: "This is da bomb!!" Check out the Screaming Avocado blog that was kept during the trip for some pics of this fun and delicious evening.

The next day it was off to Cambridge Bay... kind of. We got there but couldn't land due to ice fog, so we headed back to Yellowknife where we spent the evening in a hotel. Fortunately, the following day saw clear skies for us to land at our destination. The kids were greeted by their exchange partners, and lifelong friendships were forged almost instantly! For luck (and out of gratitude that we had finally made it!) we all kissed the airport's famous stuffed muskox!

When we go for a little walk,
Out on the land,
When we're just walkin' and holdin' hands,
You can take it as a sign of love.
- Neil Young, 'Sign of Love' (2010)

The next day we were introduced to several of the remarkable Elders of the Cambridge Bay community, who took us all for an adventure on the frozen, treeless tundra. We all loaded-up into long sleds that are pulled behind snowmobiles (known as qamutiks), and headed "Out on the land".
Many of the vast caribou herds of Nunavut spend their spring and summer on Victoria Island (upon which Cambridge Bay is located), then after the fall mating season they cross the ice of the Northwest Passage and spend the winter foraging on the mainland. Our trip was timed to correspond with the caribou waiting to cross the ice, and we were not disappointed as many small herds had gathered along the south coast for us to see!
We returned to the Elders' camp to find that they had prepared a hearty caribou stew and delicious bannock bread to warm all of our bones!
I particularly enjoyed cutting away pieces of garnet-red frozen caribou to eat raw, which is an Inuit staple known as quak.

Ah hey, ma ma ma
Life in a Northern town.
- Dream Academy, 'Life in a Northern Town' (1985)

The next day we met up again with the Elders, who taught the students how to clean some dazzlingly colourful Arctic char using a traditional  crescent shaped cutting tool known as an Ulu.
The fish were filleted, and the golden flesh was scored before the sides were all placed on a wooden rack for drying - a simple Inuit technique for curing fish known as piffy (pronounced 'biffy').
The piffy that everyone prepared was destined for the community feast that was planned for our last night in Cambridge Bay.

We then visited one of the only processing plants in Canada that handles muskox and Arctic char. Muskox isn't back in season until February (we tried so hard to see them, but to no avail... so we've dubbed them "the Snuffaluffagus of the North") but there was lots of char being smoked.
We got some candied smoked char (smoked with a glaze of brown sugar), which was appropriate because at  a fish smoking plant using such incredible wild product I did feel just like a kid in a candy store!
Besides the upcoming community feast there was another dining event that was being planned: the Screaming Avocado crew brought along some Perth County pork loins and preserves, and Fink quickly organized a fundraiser dinner for the next night to help pay for some of the activities he has planned on the Ontario end of the exchange. To promote the event, Paul and I were invited to the local radio station, where we quickly filled the airways with news of  tomorrow's feast, and I even delivered some important public service announcements:
That night, we were invited to the community centre to enjoy some traditional drum dancing and throat singing. When the ornately costumed performers invited members of the audience to participate in the dance, SNSS student Barry and I jumped to our feet and gave it a go! Check out the Screaming Avocado blog from that day for some video of us trying to keep up.

And I'll come and catch her
- Caribou, 'Leave House' (2010)

The next day, the Elders gave us all an authentic taste of what survival above the Arctic Circle is really about: 'catching' caribou. Anyone who has issues about hunting wild game needs to realize that for thousands of years hunting caribou, seals, whales and muskox (and fishing for Arctic char) has basically been the only viable source of food for the Inuit. When I visited the local Cambridge Bay grocery store and saw the prices of food I experienced some serious sticker-shock ($4.25 for a can of soup?!?). Families in Cambridge Bay today continue to survive economically and nutritionally by hunting wild game, and it was a real privilege for our group to be invited along on a hunt. The Elders "caught" three caribou that day before our eyes, and everyone was extremely impressed as they expertly butchered the animals on the snow, packed the meat and hides into a qamutik, and brought it all back for the next night's community feast.
That evening it was time for the Screaming Avocado gang to do their thing and serve up a feast of their own to the hungry Northerners who attended the fundraiser dinner. The kids worked together with their Arctic 'twins' to cook and serve an impressive four-course meal. 
It began with an amuse of citrus marinaded Arctic char tartare, (basically an Arctic char ceviche) proceeded by a phyllo pastry filled with fennel roasted pork belly and goat's cheese. The entree was a beautiful pork loin with potato cake and honey glazed carrots. Everyone went crazy over the dessert, which was a puff pastry with whipped cream and a Saskatoon berry preserve Paul had scored from August's Harvest farm before we left.

We started off the final (planned) day of our  trip with breakfast at the only restaurant in Cambridge Bay. The Lodge at the Inns North served up a mean brekkie (I had a cheese omelet) but wow was it ever pricey ($14 bucks!!).  Apparently, after a little while you just stop looking at the prices...

The Kiilinik and SNSS groups spent the afternoon together making an epic community feast under the supervision of the Elders.
Elder sisters Lena and Mary showed me how the uncooked fat was the best part of the caribou, and we shared cubes of its beautiful creamy rawness as I helped cut up the previous day's hunt harvest into chunks for stewing and ribs for braising.
One of the Kiilinik students, Carly, was asked to make enough bannock bread to feed the feasting masses. She proceeded to give me a lesson in preparing and cooking authentic bannock bread, a staple of Native communities:

A few hours later and the whole town was in the gym sharing a student-and-elder-prepared meal.
 It included Arctic char both dried (piffy) and baked, along with a frozen caribou leg for quak, a sumptuous caribou stew, racks of big ol' caribou ribs, Carly's bannock, and all sorts of great sides and desserts.
The children of the town were beautifully rambunctious, the Elders were gracious and fun, and everyone else just had a great time hanging out together. We all shared in a feast that symbolized the students' experience and the friendship that was created between the youth of Stratford and that of this remarkable Far North town.

There's only one way to finish this blog post: I love Cambridge Bay.

I want to thank the students and teachers of Kiilinik High School for being such great hosts. See you in Ontario mid-November when we get to return the hospitality!!!
I want to thank Paul Finkelstein for inviting me to come on this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
I want to thank the Elders for being such amazing role models for the kids and the community.
And I want to thank the Culinary Arts crew from SNSS: my new brothers and sisters in food. I saw every single one of you come a long way via this experience (and I mean that in more than just kilometers), and I consider myself privileged to have shared in this adventure with you.
I'm just sayin'...