For those who have recently adopted the philosophy of the local food movement, Michael Stadtländer is like the father they never knew they had.
A farmer, chef, artist, food activist and proponent of farm-to-table for more than 20 years, Stadtländer is well-known among the country’s best chefs. Yet, having shied away from the celebrity status that comes with food television, his name is likely unfamiliar to many of those who have taken up his cause.
Inspiring the next generation of chefs to develop that close connection to the land and with local producers is part of Stadtländer’s mission – one he enthusiastically shared with NAIT culinary students during his week in March as the Hokanson Chef in Residence.
Hokanson Chef in Residence
This unique program provides Hospitality and Culinary Arts students with a rare opportunity to learn from the best chefs in the world. The program – the result of a generous donation from John and Susan Hokanson – has hosted seven chefs since it began in 2009, including the six prior to Michael Stadtländer:
Rob Feenie (2009)
David Adjey (2010)
Susur Lee (2011)
Massimo Capra (2012)
Chris Cosentino (2013)
Lynn Crawford (2014) Rob Feenie (2009)
Stadtländer’s current life is about as far removed from that of a celebrity chef as his beloved Eigensinn Farm is from the culinary hubbub of downtown Toronto. He and his wife run the most rustic of exclusive restaurants from their farmhouse about two hours north of the city, a 12-seat operation that has been ranked among the world’s 10 best by Restaurant magazine in the U.K.
It’s open only three nights a week from May through October, and provides an eight-course meal prepared largely from food they grow or raise themselves. “The quality of the food you cook with should be under your total control,” he explains.
In many ways, Stadtländer’s pastoral life is a return to his farm roots in northern Germany, where he fished, foraged and hunted as a boy.
He eventually made his way to Switzerland, where he met Canadian chef Jamie Kennedy and joined him in opening the acclaimed Scaramouche restaurant in Toronto in 1980, one of the first to introduce nouvelle cuisine to this country. After opening (and closing) his own Toronto restaurant, followed by a stint at Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island, he bought Eigensinn farm near Collingwood, Ontario in 1993.
“I never looked back,” he says.
Stadtländer’s strong tie to the land and simple, inventive food is part of what made him an appealing role model for students. His manner and philosophy made his cooking – and him – accessible.
“I really like that Michael’s not one of the Food Network stars – he bases his entire personality and reputation around what he does in his restaurant and on his farm,” says Kyle Hebert (Culinary Arts ’15), one of the students in Stadtländer’s sessions. “He does fantastic work and he’s someone you can look up to, but [his approach] is a goal you can reach for instead of just trying to be on TV.
“It’s chefs taking control of the production of their food. That’s the position I think all of us would like to be in.”
Here’s a closer look at Stadtländer’s time with the students.
Delicious and spontaneous
stadtländer is known for building evocative flavours with simple, accessible ingredients.
Among his favourites is a classic apple strudel made with homemade pastry and fruit from his farm, a nod to his German roots. Next year, he plans to host a “pine spiel” – a 12-course meal in his pine forest, all based on pine flavours.
Stadtländer grows more than 100 kinds of vegetables and herbs on his farm and raises lamb, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits.
From June through October, 90 per cent of the food he serves comes from his own land. His cooking is so spontaneous, he often walks outside between courses to pull something from the ground.
The new culinary reality
For student chefs who don’t have their own 100-acre farm to draw upon, Stadtländer emphasizes the importance of building relationships with local farmers and producers to inspire menus.
“It’s not that you just get this beautiful product from local farms, but you are keeping these small family farms in business,” which helps the economy and adds choice for consumers.
"You are keeping these small family farms in business.”
He sees people's growing interest in where food comes from not as a trend but as a new culinary reality – sparked, he believes, by concerns about factory farming and genetically modified organisms.
His farm restaurant customers seem to share his philosophy, making reservations months in advance and paying $300 each for the ever-changing eight-course meal he prepares from whatever is in season.
“Forget about your life”
Stadtländer works alongside culinary students to prepare meals just as he does at Eigensinn farm with the five or six “stagiaires” – unpaid culinary apprentices – who work with him in exchange for room and board.
Min Young (right, without hat), who accompanied Stadtländer for his week as Chef in Residence, began as an apprentice and is now head chef at Haisai, Stadtländer’s small restaurant in Singhampton, Ontario. Aspiring chefs regularly come to apprentice with Stadtländer.
“I say, if you come to Eigensinn farm, forget about your life. Don’t ask me for weekends off or anything crazy like that, you know? Sometimes you work 12, 14 hours. For someone who’s really interested in where food comes from, you cook the food that you grow and raise. It’s a very special process.”
Five of his apprentices over the past few years have gone on to work at Noma in Copenhagen, named the world’s best restaurant in four of the last six years by Restaurant magazine.
Taking up the cause
Working with and supporting young chefs, farmers and producers is critical to effecting long-term change in our relationship with food, says Stadtländer.
“Over the years, I never have changed my gospel."
“Over the years, I never have changed my gospel – it’s always the same thing,” he says of his insistence on using fresh, local ingredients and supporting small, independent producers.
While many young chefs have taken up the cause, each brings his or her own style to their food creations, he adds. “There are young chefs all over Canada who are doing very inventive things adapted to where they are.”