This guy turned his farm into a pop-up picnic spot, and his triple-fried fries are out of this world
If you think fries that take six hours to make might be potato overkill, drive to Ayr in North Dumfries Township, take a seat at chef Murray Zehr’s new pandemic-inspired pop-up, Culinary Academy 1909, and order the Thai Fry. The locally grown Russet Burbanks—hand-cut and triple-fried, dressed with house-made sweet chili sauce, and topped with curled carrots, bell pepper, and a healthy sprinkling of cilantro and scallions—are sure to change your mind. The spuds are all kinds of sweet, savoury and spicy—and their crispy-crunchy exterior holds up in a takeout container, even after the long drive home.
Zehr, who has years of experience in the food industry—restaurateur, Chopped Canada contestant, chief advisor on Ontario’s Healthy School initiatives, head of the Culinary Arts and Chef Training department at Burlington’s Robert Bateman High School—grows much of the produce himself on his one-acre property. He cooks some of the food in the kitchen of his charming 111-year-old farmhouse, which in the before times was home to a small culinary school that the pop-up is named after.
Classes have been on hiatus since the pandemic started, so Zehr decided to pivot, transforming his farmland into an al fresco dining experience. There’s a wood-burning pizza oven encased in wood from skids, oversize furniture carved from maple and oak trees, a smoker where Zehr smokes all his meats overnight, and a dining area scattered with properly distanced picnic tables. No reservations are required and the tables and tree-stump furniture fill up fast, but there there’s plenty of land to go around. Guests are encouraged to bring their own chairs and park them wherever they please (near the asparagus patch is a prime spot).
“What’s on the menu depends on Mother Nature,” Zehr says of his rotating menu. “She’s the boss.” Still, there are a few mainstays, including the fries (available plain, in poutine, or Thai Fry form), pulled pork and edible raw cookie dough from Zehr’s company The Bent Scoop. Dishes on the a la carte menu range from $9 to $25. The Frycuterie Board comes loaded with the signature fries, beet chips, sweet potato croquettes, deep-fried brie, tempura vegetables and arancini balls served with six dips, including a beer mustard and chipotle aïoli. Fourteen-hour-smoked pulled pork on a bun is served with tangy coleslaw and baked beans seasoned with smoked salt. And there are always vegetarian options on offer, including buffalo cauliflower “wings,” quinoa-carrot salad or Beaver Tail bruschetta, that familiar pastry base topped with house-made cheese, arugula and balsamic glaze.
The entire property is licensed, and there’s a selection of boozy beverages to buy, including wine, beer from Upper Thames Brewery and canned caesars (sometimes topped with a speared pork rind and pickled green bean). Occasionally there are drink specials, like strawberry sangria garnished with local fruit. They’re all very good reasons to bring along a designated driver.
The atmosphere alone makes it worth the drive, especially for those not quite ready to take part in Toronto’s new patio scene. Farms border both sides of the property, and the setting sun hits the surrounding greenery in a really special way around 7 p.m. It’s the perfect time to order up a waffle cone stuffed with locally made ice cream and debate moving to the country…before grabbing a box of fries for the road and heading home.
Open Tuesday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Culinary Academy 1909, 5183 Trussler Rd., Ayr, 226-336-1909, the1909culinaryacademy.ca
Previously this post stated that Ayr was in Oxford County. The information has since been updated.