These Toronto chefs are redefining farm-to-table cooking
Buying fruit and veg: out. Growing your own: very in. Meet the Toronto restaurateurs supplying their restaurants with their very own farms
Keenan McVey and Matty Matheson
Blue Goose Farm, Fort Erie
When Matty Matheson and former Bar Raval chef Keenan McVey first discussed the possibility of growing food together, they had no experience working a plow, let alone running a farm. But they figured that a mutual love of produce was the most important building block.
They were right. Their 42,000-square-foot operation—named Blue Goose after a restaurant in PEI once owned by Matheson’s grandfather—now supplies Prime Seafood Palace as well as Dreyfus, Bernhardt’s and other top Toronto kitchens.
It’s intentionally low-tech—crops like caraflex cabbage, unagi cucumbers and heirloom carrots are hand-weeded and grown without the use of a tractor. McVey says this hands-on approach fortifies their commitment to good soil ecology.
At PSP, the produce is featured in several dishes, including hakurei turnips served with BC mussels in an elegant pinwheel. “It’s amazing to work with ingredients that take a lot of time to grow,” says Matheson. “You ever taste a tomato right from the vine in August? It’s the star—no manipulation, no funny business, no trying to be something it’s not. Having a farm allows me to show true restraint when thinking about what’s best for dishes.”
Ashley Lloyd and Ben Denham
White Lily Farms, Uxbridge
Ashley Lloyd and Ben Denham lived a streetcar ride away from their Riverside restaurant, White Lily Diner, but when the pandemic hit, they decided to sell their Parkdale home and buy a 10-acre farm in Uxbridge. “We had talked about moving out of the city one day,” says Denham, “and when restaurants shut down, we pulled the trigger.”
The first phase was defined by unbridled enthusiasm at the bounty they could grow—including fun crops like pink Japanese okra, purple tomatillos and blue Japanese corn. “We learned what not to grow the hard way,” says Lloyd. “What looks really cool in a seed catalogue isn’t always what grows well in our climate or what we can sell to restaurants.” The farm’s output now focuses on what will work on their diner’s menu—and on those of other clients, like Twenty Victoria and Lake Inez.
At the diner, Denham takes full advantage of the farm’s Cornelian cherries, Italian plums, heirloom carrots and radishes, salsify, and red-fleshed Amarosa potatoes. They also raise hens, which produce about half of the restaurant’s eggs.
Denham and Lloyd now live at the farm, commuting to the diner a few times a week. It’s been a welcome change of pace—they love that their kids can safely roam free on acres of land.
“There are so many things involved in farming that are beyond your control,” says Denham. “I’m a perfectionist, so this process has taught me patience and perseverance. When something goes wrong and a crop fails, we often have to wait another year before we get it right. But there’s something exciting about slowing down.”
Meghan Robbins and Carl Heinrich
The New Farm, Creemore
Ingredients come first at Carl Heinrich’s Financial District stalwart, Richmond Station, where he buys only whole animals and butchers them on site. In 2017, Heinrich wanted to apply a similarly holistic approach to produce, so he started a half-acre plot on the New Farm—an organic, regenerative farm near Creemore—now managed by Richmond Station gardener Meghan Robbins. They’ve since doubled the plot, growing up to 60 crops at a time—with a proportional impact on the menu.
“The garden has changed our food, no question,” says Heinrich. “Our menu has become more plant-focused, sustainable and delicious.” Executive chef William Kresky slices heirloom beefsteak tomatoes, dots them with basil—including unusual varieties like lime and opal—laced with olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, and serves them with whipped ricotta salata and focaccia croutons. He charcoal-grills zucchini and pattypan squash, stuffs the blossoms with scallop mousse, fries them in tempura batter and serves it all with red snapper. It’s refined fare, but minimally meddlesome.
“From the planting of a seed to the way we treat a vegetable in the kitchen, it’s all about respecting these products,” says Kresky.
Honourable Mentions: Three Toronto restaurants with rooftop and backyard gardens
Avling: This Leslieville spot is all about kitchen-brewery-farm synergy. Alpine strawberries, apple trees and herbs are among the produce grown on its rooftop oasis. Chef Laura Maxwell recently served a BC tuna crudo with a purée of garden-grown stinging nettle, lovage and rhubarb vinegar—made from the same rhubarb used in the brewery’s silky, sour Rhubee ale.
Actinolite: The herbs and edible flowers chef Justin Cournoyer grows in his garden make their way into dishes like strawberry salad with tarragon, shiso and nasturtium. A short growing season is no obstacle to his stalwart locavorism—he infuses oil with lemon verbena, works marigold flowers into salami and uses dried fermented lovage as a seaweed-like garnish.
Fairmont Royal York: On the rooftop of the Royal York, there’s a 4,000-square-foot “herbarium” complete with an apiary and 14 plant beds. The volume produced here isn’t enough to fully supply Reign, the hotel’s restaurant, but crops like heirloom tomatoes, serrano chilies, breakfast radishes and bronze fennel regularly make their way into accents and garnishes.