The first Ontario farmers’ dinner party

The first Ontario farmers’ dinner party

The way I see it, I am only as good as my last dinner. Thesedays, however, as I wait for Union to open, I guess I am only as good as mylast blog post. So here goes: I cooked the first farmers’ dinner last Sundayup at the farm, and it was one of the best dinners I have ever made. There issomething special about cooking food for the people who raise and grow theingredients. This was a five-course meal cooked on the wood-burning stovewith everybody sitting around the kitchen table.

There were Barbara and David, who started the 100-Mile Market and ownStoneyfield Elk Farm; Brad and Marianne from Barbetta Orchards, who broughtsome of the best pears I have ever tasted; Frank from Scotch MountainMeats, a seventh-generation farmer, and his friend Rita; Ivan and Lisa fromPheasant Hill Farm; and Fiona, Joanne-the-chicken-lady’s daughter, whosupplied hybrid birds hatched on the farm for the first time this year. Igot a lot of help from my sister, Amy; my business partner, Kate; my brother,Chase; and my sommelier friend, Christopher, who helped me serve the food andthe wine that I rounded up in Beamsville a couple days before. The crowd wasa nice mix of country and city.

We kicked things off in the living room with champagne and a coupleamuses-bouches: smoked splake on toasted challah with Mennonite crème fraîcheand elk sliders with smoked havarti and pickle. Then, once everybody wasnestled around the big kitchen table, I started them off with thinly slicedsmoked duck with seared scallops and a seaweed-fennel-radish salad with asoy-ginger-mirin glaze. I followed it with smoked Peking chicken, servedwith squash and sunchoke-truffle purée, Swiss chard and jus. Next came anamazingly flavourful roast prime rib that Frank brought, done in the woodoven with sweetbreads and pappardelle, roasted beets, parsnipsand jus. Dessert was a maple-apple bread and butter pudding caramelized onthe wood stove with ice cream. When that was all done, we had somecheeses from Ruth at Monforte Dairy.

The meal turned out to be a great, warm country gathering. The conversationnever waned. All the guests were engaged, and we talked about everything fromthe decline of the bee population to the need to recondition Canadians topaying more for food, and how pigs always look you right in the eye (unlike dogs, which always look down, and cats, which always look up), and how younever get used to taking your livestock off to the slaughterhouse. Near theend of the evening, Brad was talking about how he trims his fruit trees andgives them “windows,” so when the sun comes up and over them, it’s alwayshitting them right at the core because, as he says, “I grow fruit, notfirewood, and fruit comes from the core of the tree.” I reckon that the wayBrad trims his fruit trees sums up what I want to do with myrestaurant—cut away all the crap so that Union can be healthy from the core. I want to give it windows so it can have depth.At the heart of Union are the farmers; they are the ones on the front lines,and without them and their passion I would have nothing worth cooking.

Nights like Sunday strengthen and inspire me. I get fired up to open Unionso that I can bring nights like that into the city—nights with the simplebeauty of good, clean food, all of it cooked with the belief that it canbring people together on snowy nights, warm them up, and allow them to bewho they are. Great things can come out of nights like that. When everybodyhad left, the bottle of scotch Frank had brought was sitting on the tablehalf-empty. Chase walked by, picked it up and said, “That’s a sign of a good night.” Damn straight.