Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Raising Cane on the Stratford Victorian Christmas Trail!

I've always been the kind of person who starts thinking about Christmas on Christmas Eve, when I traditionally do all my shopping. But when you live with a two-year-old and a four-year-old, it's hard not to get in the Christmas spirit early and often.  Last weekend we all journeyed together along the Victorian Christmas Trail - the $20 pass lets you pick 8 stops from a choice of 16 of Stratford's most festive local spots, each offering a special gift to Yuletide travelers.

Our first stop in the morning was for caffeine - and a couple of hot chocolates and a gingerbread man! Balzac's Coffee hooked us up with a complementary bevvy to set us off on our adventure.

Right across the street from Balzac's is Chocolate Barrs, where confectionery artist Derek Barr was at work making giant candy canes by hand. There was a real Santa's Workshop vibe as we watched him and his team create these hefty tricoloured holiday hooks. The video (above) doesn't convey the whole experience: I think the peppermint oil vapours in the air (that's what gives candy canes their signature minty flavour) will keep my airways cleared for the rest of the winter!

Just off of of Ontario Street, Smallmart is a really cute little store full of kitschy and vintage stuff. This holiday season visitors to our bathroom will enjoy hand soap that smells like eggnog (above)! No tasting kids!

Lisa and I were in Barcelona not long ago and we fell in love with Spanish cuisine. When we visited Kitchen Connaisseur I immediately knew what spice mix I was going to pick for our gift: Spanish Spice Blend.

We sent Lisa in to Alexandra's Spa on Erie Street to get some Christmas pampering. She came out with some bath salts, some organic tea, and a voucher she can put towards a holiday treatment!

David from Turnbull & Stewart (left) was filling the store's showroom with incredible smells as he prepared some soup and hot cider for all the tourists who embarked on the Victorian Christmas Trail. Fisher (right) loved the Mary MacLeod's Shortbread owner Ken gave him.

Your Local Market Co-op was giving out popcorn that was still on the cob! We'll put it in a bag in the microwave and then string the popped kernels for tree garlands (unless we eat them first!).

The next day, I was at the Slow Food Sunday Market in the historic cellar at Anything Grows - everyone's favourite gardening & food boutique. Christmas Trail trekkers receive a set of four extremely-lifelike grasshopper magnets when they stop by... they made for eye catching ornaments on our sign (look closely above). By the way, for those seeking to stock up the pantry for Christmas with Good, Clean and Fair food, there is a special market this Friday, December 23 from 3pm-6pm at Anything Grows on St. Patrick Street!

After finishing our eight stops on the Victorian Christmas Trail there was only one thing left to do - hang the giant candy cane on the Christmas tree!

Merry Merry and Happy Happy to everyone this holiday season from the Stacey crew!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In the Classroom at the Stratford Chefs School!

This week I headed over to Rundles, the stunning riverside restaurant that transforms every winter into a classroom for the Stratford Chefs School. I was invited to come evaluate student presentations as a guest judge!

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the Winter Warm Up cooking class I attended at the Stone Maiden Inn with Chef Mark Brown. No wonder the comfort food I learned how to make that day was so good - we were in very good hands... 

...since Chef Brown is an instructor at the Stratford Chefs School!

Chef Mark is a SCS Alumni (above, those are this years' students in the Rundles classroom) and now he teaches Food Costing & Culinary Math as well as Nutrition class. I believe the Stratford Chefs School is unique in its provision of business and industry training for chefs - graduates have been schooled in all the realities of the food service industry and many go on to open their own restaurants.

I came to help judge presentations by eight groups of future chefs. Each group of four created a catering company and brand image (e.g. 'Top Hat', above), and presented detailed quotes for a fifty person reception. The coolest part was the catering outfit the judges picked scored a real, paying gig in the new year (so in a couple of months I'll to follow this post up with one where I attend the event!).

The 'Saisonnier' catering company impressed with their seasonal "Food for thought" menu featuring mid-winter local product used in creative dishes. One of their strengths was their strategy to let us judges taste their creations for ourselves - the Red Beet Ice Cream (based on a recipe by Thomas Keller) demonstrated that winter food can be as vibrant and clever as any other season!

Another group who really impressed us called their catering outfit 'Carnival': from the perspective of creating the funnest party food scene these folks ran away with the prize. Their dishes elevated fall fair Carnie food to a whole nother level, with items like Foie Gras Cotton Candy pops (above) and Chick Pea Corn Dogs.

After the first four presentations were over, the judges had a little break. Chef Mark and my fellow guest-judge Emily Chandler (culinary consultant with the Stratford Tourist Alliance) chatted about the presentations in the front window of Rundles (above), with its spectacular view overlooking the icy river. Other judges included the events coordinator for Homer Watson House and Gallery in Waterloo and a former Stratford restaurateur who now manages 100 Mile Market, as well as my brother-in-blog Andrew Coppolino (from Waterloo Region Eats) who continues to reign as our area's King-of-All-Food-Media with his radio show The Food Show on 570AM and a regular TV spot on Grand River Living.

The second wave of presentations were equally impressive. 'The Traineez' name was inspired by the Chefs School students' vision of their educational journey as a train, "The school is like a train and it will take us where we want to go." 

'Ragouter' (translation: "To give appetite") got serious brownie points from me by serving the judges a glass of really refreshing Featherstone Black Sheep Riesling (above); they explained how they based their choice on what they tasted during their in-person visit to the Niagara winery earlier this semester. 

But out of all the groups I was most impressed by the simple but beautiful menu proposed by 'Dulcinea'. After visiting Barcelona recently I admit I have become highly-biased towards the Spanish tapas approach they chose, but I also noticed their low food cost. I really thought they had the potential to pull-off the challenge of catering a great reception with good value for the client (by which I mean killer food) with the important potential for them to earn profit. 

We will see if the other judges agree - I will post the name of the winning group in the comments section of this post when I find out who got the gig, and stay tuned in February for my blog about attending the winners' event!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Caffeinated Cuisine: Dinner at Revel Caffe

And when their ham and eggs need savor 
Coffee ketchup gives 'em flavor 
Coffee pickles way outsell the dill 
Why, they put coffee in the coffee in Brazil! 
- Frank Sinatra, "The Coffee Song" 

Last Saturday night Lisa and I were at Revel Caffe for an amazing dinner. This might surprise folks who are familiar with Stratford's hip little Wellington Street spot, which is known for serving fresh-roasted Las Chicas Del Cafe coffee (and some beautiful baked goods to go with it!) but doesn't normally serve incredible four course meals. Owner and uber-barrista Anne Campion (above) hosted an event last year that featured coffee paired with creative desserts created by students from the Stratford Chefs School. But this year, she's pushing the relationship between food and coffee up another level, asking the question, "What does it look like when you actually start to put coffee in the food?"

The person Anne called upon to answer that question was Chef Jordan Lassaline. Jordan is an alumni and veteran instructor from the Stratford Chefs School, and I've heard nothing but great things about his cooking. This was the first time I had ever had the pleasure of enjoying an entire meal prepared by him (above, he's putting the final touches on the opening dish featuring savoury coffee gnocchi, spicy arugula and earthy mushrooms). Although I expected some really good food this dinner was truly above and beyond. I am officially a fan of this talented Chef. He also grows a mean moustache (part of the evening's proceeds were donated to the Movember campaign against prostate cancer, which was fitting since me, Jordan and about ten other dudes were proudly sporting mo's). 

The second course was a pork tostada that brought to mind the tropical landscapes of coffee country. Chef Jordan's approach was evident here as the subtle roasted/citrusy tones of coffee brought out the sweetness of the pork atop the crunchy corn tortilla, "The idea was to highlight some of the flavours that are in the coffee without letting it take over, and still letting the other ingredients come through."

By the end of February, 2011, I had already declared two contenders for the Local-Come-Lately's 'Best Dish of the Year' (I encountered them at two Chef School dinners: the first was a Pickerel taco by Mexican guest chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo and the second was a Crispy Seared Veal Tongue by  France's Michelin star chef Alexandre Gauthier). My year-in-food has been absolutely phenomenal, but I gotta say this meal's Beef Short Rib main course is a runaway winner for the best thing I've eaten in '11. Rubbed in coffee and braised for hours in rich broth, the thick cut of beef slid off the bone and melted in our mouths. The Jerusalem artichoke puree and the Brussels sprout leaves provided a creamy and fresh pedestal for the sumptuous meat, which altogether made for an outstanding winter entree. 

After a meal like that there's nothing better than a good coffee, and coffee we got! A scoop of ice cream was drowned in a hot shot of espresso - a fun juxtaposition of temperatures that really worked flavour-wise too. Chef Jordan created a bread pudding out of coffee house croissants, which was perfect along with a steaming hot cup of Revel coffee (just as I like it, in basic black).

The Revel House Band (with Anne's husband Dave on drums along with some of his fellow musicians from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) entertained throughout the night with some coffee-themed lounge numbers (including the Sinatra tune I quoted above) and after dinner Anne joined in for a duet!

This is only the first in a series of dinners planned for Revel this winter and spring. On January 21 there is a meal themed on the trip Anne and Dave are taking soon to visit the Nicaraguan family plantation where all of the beans for the Las Chicas single origin roasts are grown. On February 18 there is an "Apres Neige" dinner planned that will pay homage to Anne's home province of Quebec (there will be snowshoeing involved!). Although both of those are already sold out (with waiting lists), there will be another meal in March and another in April (which will raise funds in support of my project The Local Community Food Centre, which will be up and running by then!). Don't miss them! 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

True Winter Comfort Food at the Stone Maiden Inn

There are a lot of great Bed and Breakfasts in Stratford (in fact, the website for the Stratford & Area Bed and Breakfast Association lists no less than 72 B&Bs in  our community!). But this weekend I discovered the bed and breakfast for food lovers staying in Stratford.

The first time I visited The Stone Maiden Inn was for the Savour Stratford festival's celebrity chef kick-off: Chuck's Night Out with Chuck Hughes! I was totally impressed by the food that night, as Stone Maiden Inn's own Chef Mark Brown led a kitchen full of Stratford Chefs School students and high school culinary arts students to create a series of unforgettable canapes: I vividly recall the vanilla poached lobster and the elk carpaccio.  

I've always given loads of credit to the Stratford Chefs School for attracting and training some of our city's brightest culinary lights, and Chef Brown is a great example of the kind of outstanding talent that the Chef school cultivates. Besides being the star of the show at the only Bed and Breakfast in town with a true chef in the kitchen (at least as far as I know) Mark is also an instructor at the Stratford Chefs School. 

Kim, the owner of The Stone Maiden Inn, is probably Chef Brown's biggest fan. In just two seasons since she took ownership she has seen her B&B skyrocket up the Stratford Bed and Breakfast rankings on Trip Advisor to a permanent spot in the top 12! 

On Saturday Chef Mark turned the gorgeously warm and welcoming kitchen at the Stone Maiden Inn (I'm a sucker for a raised fireplace) into a cooking classroom, teaching two sessions for home cooks like me to learn how to make true winter comfort food!

The first "Winter Warm Up" dish he taught us to make was a creamy golden Butternut Squash Soup with apples and candied ginger. Mark is a Chef who really recognizes the value in using local food - as we began our class a farmer showed up at the kitchen door with some organic squash and maple syrup for our dishes! The bright yellow butternut squash reminded me of the Savour Stratford award Chef Brown received when he paired with grower Dave Koert for the festival's "Most Creative" dish: Butternut Squash Ice Cream on a Shortbread!

Chef Brown mentored me through the creation of a winter stew with beef tenderloin, shrimp, and dumplings in a spectacular sauce made with lobster broth and veal stock: if that won't warm someone up on a winter day I don't know what will! 

And for dessert, what else? Homemade hot chocolate warmed our bodies and souls along with a couple of chewy snickerdoodle cookies with Chinese 5 Spice!

The best part was, when the cooking classes were done Kim invited Lisa and me to spend the night at the Inn! We spent a cozy winter evening in the comfort of one of Stone Maiden's authentic Victorian rooms.

We actually stayed in the Princess Diana room, which was humorously fitting since Lisa and her good friend Matty used to pretend to be Charles & Di for their own little Royal Wedding when they were 5 years old! [I guess that makes me Dodi?!?]

We woke to the smell of wonderful breakfast wafting from the Stone Maiden Kitchen. When we sat down in the beautiful bright dining room we were presented with two of Chef Mark's splendid fruit peel scones with a spoonful of house-made apple butter.

I think we might have actually had the best breakfast in Stratford that morning. Chef Brown spoiled us rotten with an Eggs Benedict featuring local smoked ham. I would have expected nothing less from Stratford's top B&B for food!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Real Catch: Simple Fish Company Open House!

Now admittedly there are some folks who get a lot of play here on The Local-Come-Lately. Probably none more than Shawn Hartwell, the culinary artist formerly known as the Chef at Simple Fish and Chips (although Paul "Fink" Finkelstein and Antony "The Manic Organic" John also definitely make near-weekly cameo appearances). When I type Shawn's name in the text box over on the right (where it says "Search Previous Posts") I get 11 results, including: 

My third-ever post where I declared Simple Fish and Chips Stratford's most sustainable restaurant based on their all-Oceanwise and Canadian-caught fish sourcing policy. 

My reviews of the incredible sustainable seafood fine dining series Simple hosted last winter. 

My most recent post about the high school Culinary Arts trip to Cuba Shawn and I were mentors on last month. 

And of course, who will ever forget the classic Local-Come-Lately/Simple Fish and Chips mash-up when I tried to eat the Mammoth Lobster Sandwich in honour of Simple's one year anniversary a year ago.

I hope I didn't alarm anyone when I identified Shawn earlier as "formerly known as the Chef at Simple Fish and Chips". He's not going anywhere, and neither are Stratford's best fish and chips. But this week "Simple Fish and Chips" officially became "Simple Fish Company", as Shawn and his wife Candice expanded their operation to also include a spectacular fish market!

Candice's belly is currently harbouring a little fish of their own - their soon-to-be-son is due in February (why do I think it's going to be a Pisces?).

For almost a whole year Shawn's been hooking me (and everyone else who goes to the Slow Food Sunday Market) up with pristine fresh fish as well as his perfectly seasoned prepared fish and seafood offerings like the house-made chowder, fish cakes and salmon burgers. Although Simple will continue to sell at the Sunday market (henceforth you'll find Shawn and the other "Good, Clean and Fair" vendors at the Anything Grows winter venue!) we can now get this beautiful product all the time at the Downie Street resto-market!

To celebrate the evolution of Simple Fish and Chips to Simple Fish Company Shawn and Candice hosted an open house on Monday with champagne and - of course! - loads of phenomenal fish and seafood! A nearby Indian restaurant lets Shawn use their tandoori oven to cook an Indian-spiced Sockeye salmon - one of my favourite fish dishes of all time!

Brendon "Caveman" Lyoness (another character who gets a lot of play on this blog) was going toe-to-toe with me slurping down fresh-shucked West Coast oysters.

In case anyone was worried about Simple changing too much, the Fish and Chips menu was still front and centre. It's scaled back a little (they're keeping it simple!) but everything you'd ever want is still up there.... 

...along with some creative new daily specials on the side chalkboard!

I know I'll be buying all the fish I serve to my family from Simple Fish Company, so the Staceys and another fish-loving household split one of Simple FC's $500 "Fish Stocks", which gives us vouchers we can redeem for $700 worth of sustainable fish and seafood (just not all at once!).

Shawn will be hosting workshops and demos to inspire people to eat and cook more sustainable fish and seafood on Mondays throughout the winter. This Monday (November 21, 2011) the session is free, so go check it out - especially if you missed the boat on the Open House!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Cuba: A Tropical (and Educational!) Food Adventure

This time last year I was blogging about the week I'd spent on an epic food adventure with Paul Finkelstein and his Culinary Arts Class above the Arctic Circle in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Accompanying Fink and his students as they hunted caribou on the frozen tundra with the village elders was definitely a highlight of last year (and even of my life!).

But... BRRRRRRR!!! 

Perhaps it was in acknowledgement of the cold, long nights spent sleeping on the floor of Kiilinik High School last year that Paul invited not just me - but my whole family! - to accompany the Stratford Northwestern Secondary Culinary Arts students (aka the Screaming Avocado Cafe gang), as well as students in Paul's fellow Chef-Turned-Teacher wife Amanda's class at Mitchell District High School (aka the Twisted Carrot Cafe crew), on this year's food adventure to Cuba!

Also joining Paul, Amanda, and Northwestern Culinary Arts teacher Dean "Mr. E" Elief as mentors on this trip were Brendon "Caveman" Lyoness (a former student of Fink's at the Screaming Avocado Cafe, today he's a veggie grower and Slow Food Sunday Market vendor known as Caveman Crops), Shawn Hartwell of Simple Fish Company (Stratford's source for sustainable fresh seafood and fish and chips), and our Cuban ex-pat leader Jimmy (he's been living in Stratford for years but returns home to Cuba quite regularly).

The first day saw everyone getting acclimatized to this unique tropical environment. Sometimes it felt like we'd all stepped into a time machine to the past, especially when traveling in one of the country's emblematic classic car taxis. 

Staples in Stratford sent along a huge suitcase full of school supplies for the students on the trip to give out to children in Cuba (the supply of just about everything in Cuba, even pencils and paper, is strictly limited due to a trade embargo imposed by the U.S.). On the first day we all visited two schools where our kids hooked the adorably uniformed Cuban students up with all sorts of markers, pens, colouring books, and pencil cases.

Everyone had such a good time all our students were invited to come back in smaller groups over the course of the week to help the Cuban kids out in their classrooms. When they came out at the end of class, all of the Canadian kids were stoked from the experience, and for many it was clearly life-changing. They were also impressed at the high level of education they witnessed in Cuba, where elementary school students study from 7:30am to 4pm, with nine 45 minute classes a day!

Now that everyone had a good feeling for Cuba and its wonderful people, it was time to get to know the local culture even better with some adventures-in-food!

As a market veggie grower, Caveman Brendon was front and centre when we visited a community garden near our resort. I've got a big thing for community gardens and urban agriculture myself (there are no better places to combine physical activity, nutrition, nature, and community).

But community gardens and urban agriculture projects are all over the place in Cuba because of necessity - the unstable and highly restricted supply of food imports Cubans endure has inspired them to pursue food sovereignty by growing their own! All the students on the trip pitched in and got their hands dirty after taking the lead from Brendon!

As much as Brendon's into gardening, Shawn Hartwell's into fishing and sustainable seafood. After scoring a hand-line and some hooks (totally Old Man and the Sea), Shawn led groups of students to the end of the pier near our resort to catch some fish alongside the expert local youths.

His mentoring started at the sea...

...continued to the market...

...and culminated in our resort's poolside restaurant area, where he gave the culinary students a demonstration on how to make a seafood stir-fry using locally-sourced ingredients (like lobster and octopus!) that could not have been any fresher.

On our second-to-last day it was time to balance the students' Cuban experience out with a little educational sightseeing.

We all visited a spectacular underground cave system near our resort that literally glittered with crystal-encrusted caverns and stalactites, stalagmites, and very rare sideways cave crystal formations known as helictites. 

On our last night it was time for the trip's mentors to get together and have some fun trying some Cuban cuisine at a restaurant not far from where we were staying.

My wife Lisa and our two boys took a break from the pool and the beach to enjoy some seafood too! I definitely have to thank Paul, Dean and Amanda for inviting the whole Stacey crew along... it made the trip really special for me.

On our bus ride from the Toronto airport to Stratford, the teachers asked the students what they had learned during their time in Cuba:

"I learned about another culture."

"I learned to appreciate all we have here in Canada."

"I learned how to be a better person."

Paul Finkelstein's motto is 'Food as a tool for change.' Once again, he promoted positive change in the lives of students through a once-in-a-lifetime culinary experience, and I am personally very grateful to have once again been included in another of his adventures. 

I wonder where next year's trip will be?