As a way to celebrate Niagara’s fast growing food culture we decided to launch a new feature On The Table, where we will profile prominent Niagara chefs who are helping put Niagara on the map as a food destination.
Tucked away on a quiet side street, a treasured Niagara landmark prepares for their dinner service that is anything but soundless. Reserved weeks in advance, Wellington Court’s bustling yet intimate dining room is filled with chatter as local wines are poured and plate after plate of Niagara cheeses, west coast salmons and farm-to-table inspired entrees crowd the tables.
Simplistic, modern appearances pair with an organic warmth that emits from the cluster of branches perched on the bar to the pops of colourful art warming the walls. A sense of family and community is obvious, and it is not hard to tell that these rooms once housed lively family meals; and aren’t we thankful that over 30 years ago the Peacock family chose to open up their family dining room to the community and convert it into one of the first nice restaurants in downtown St. Catharines.
“It was all cheesecakes and pasta when my mother [Claudia] first put in the café,” says Chef Erik Peacock. “My mom would make prepared salads so you would have this trio of salads at lunch. People still come in and think they’re going to get that.”
The restaurant has evolved drastically over the years, sprouting from that little café into a well sought after high dining establishment. This evolution occurred organically once Chef Peacock, who once steered away from cooking, found himself being drawn back into the kitchen.
“I was at Concordia University [in Montreal] and I remember studying angles in crystal spheres and saying, ‘f**k it, this just isn’t me’,” said Peacock. “So I left and went to George Brown College in Toronto for Culinary Arts. And I remember at that time saying, ‘I get this. I feel this’.”
“I came into the kitchen [at Wellington Court] to help my mom, who was having some problems at the time with the kitchen, and I started to make food and it was just like I knew what to do,” said Peacock.
Peacock said he then began experimenting with food, going off menu to create new dishes each night that weren’t his mother’s staples; he would clean whole fish, scraping the bones for tacos and ceviche, using the filet for lunch and the prime pieces for dinner – all while learning food costs, how to get the most out of your food and how to make his mother’s restaurant successful.
From this new found creativity the restaurant took off; media and food critics fled in and in tandem, the business grew.
“All of a sudden, people started recognizing that we were doing something different here,” said Peacock. “And all of a sudden, you couldn’t just walk in, you needed a reservation and we were packed every night.”
Today, business and creativity at Wellington Court has not slowed. It’s evolving menu offers an intimate glimpse into Niagara’s culinary landscape; demonstrating how well our local produce pairs with harvests from across the country to make dishes come alive in stunningly bright, fresh and flavourful creations.
“It’s not about ‘What grows together, stays together,” said Peacock. “Yes, we are in love with everything local and the produce during each time of year, but we are also using fish from British Columbia that is wild and sustainable.”
“It’s about bringing together foods that are from the same time frame,” said Peacock. “Salmon from B.C. is kind of on the way out, Halibut is on the way in – but it makes sense that we would be holding on to the end of that season and loving every second of it. So we roast salmon with our leftover heirloom tomatoes – that to me makes all the sense in the world.”
Standing by his belief that ingredients should not be overdone, Peacock said he changes his menu at an irritating rate – sometimes at least once or twice during the week. Currently the menu features plates such as wild salmon carpaccio with wasabi avocado and sesame, harvest vegetable tagine with pistachio quinoa and mint yogurt, beef cheeks with roast squash and – Peacock’s favourite protein – chicken served with mash and wild mushrooms.
“People will come in and ask for the cured salmon dish and you have to tell them sorry, it’s gone, because that season is over,” said Peacock. “It is about tying together what is here and now; whether it is the beginning or end of its season. So we match a squash puree with roasted fish and add those tiny little cured tomatoes that are sh*tty and tough because it gets cold at night – but we make them great with salt, sugar, garlic and basil and cook them not gently but slowly under the heat lights. Then they wilt and become raisins and they’re so tasty.”
But one vital component of Peacocks’ dishes must remain the same; it has to have a story.
“I feel like everything in the restaurant world needs a bit of a story,” said Peacock. “We get pictures sent to our phones on Sundays from fishermen on the west coast of Canada; they are using Facebook and Instagram to keep us all intrigued. You can say we want that 45 pound Halibut or that 60 pound fish we saw in the photo; so all of a sudden it’s Wednesday and you’re getting your 35 pound halibut and you say, I feel like I know you – I feel like we were just talking.”
This commitment and passion to providing the most fresh, locally inspired cuisine in a fun atmosphere has grown far past Wellington Court’s kitchen over the past couple decades. His mother’s once small catering company continues to be a huge success in the region; progressing over the years from its meager beginnings of catering small scale cocktail parties to now feeding grand functions for over 600 people.
Peacock has as well been an active chef with Henry of Pelham winery’s seasonal café The Coach House in St. Catharines; having worked with the Speck brothers for the café’s over 12 years of operation.
And though Peacock has developed close relationships with Henry of Pelham and a number of wineries in the region, Wellington Court continues to evolve and stay independently unique – continually changing their wine lists to pair with their innovative menu.
“The fun part of Wellington is it’s not about confinement,” said Peacock. “I have had a love affair with a number of wines from all over the region. I feel so privileged to be a part of these wineries and their celebrations and I have so many wines that I love.”
And though the restaurant may be continuously evolving and growing from its beginning as a small town café, it plans to stay rooted at its flagship location adjacent to the newly revitalized St. Catharines core.
“I don’t think Wellington Court can ever just end,” said Peacock. “It will never just be, ‘that’s it, and it’s over. It needs to get passed on and will continue to grow for a long time to come.”
Housing a high concentration of unique world class restaurants, the Niagara Region is bursting with fresh, innovative food with a purpose– driving restaurants around the country to raise the bar in their own kitchens.
But what is the secret ingredient behind these groundbreaking dishes? The answer is simple: fresh Niagara produce. Chefs are now being challenged to create Niagara centric dishes focused on celebrating what is grown in our very own backyards. To some this may pose a difficult challenge; but to Chef Ross Midgley, it has come naturally.
No stranger to the Niagara kitchen, this vanguard chef has traversed the country, discovering his passion for classical French cuisine amongst some of the top kitchens in the world. And though a native to Prince Edward Island, he has securely dubbed Niagara his home; dedicating his passion to celebrating home grown produce and a commitment to the land through food for 20 years. And while he has held the lead positions in several of Ontario’s most renowned restaurants, Midgley has found his place in Ravine Vineyard’s self-standing, farm-to-table kitchen.
Morally rooted with the philosophy that food should be uncomplicated but evocative, Chef Midgley has navigated Ravine’s 100 per cent organic playground with ease; challenging himself and his team to embrace the true flavours of the ingredients grown on site and create seasonally inspired menus that are satisfyingly uncomplicated. Because unlike most who try to elevate and recreate the wheel in their kitchen, Chef Midgley is embracing that wheel, and the result is mouthwatering.
“As a chef, [Ravine] is an absolute playground, but I want to be the first to say that my whole raison d’être is not to do things that are outside of the box for the sake of things that are out of the box,” said Midgley. “My food is very safe, very rooted in classical French cuisine. The measure for me is, is it delicious?”
“If it is something that has pumpkin in it, the true question is, does it taste like pumpkin?” said Midgley.
“We live in an accelerated culture; everything is immediate and we need everything now and that programs us as humans to want new things immediately. I find that if you give people sustenance that is satisfying or evocative of memory, you will always win – and that has nothing to do with reinventing the wheel. That is everything to do with embracing the wheel.”
But this less is more attitude has not resulted in the creation of a simple, ho-hum menu. Holding an educational background and diverse work experiences – including positions in some of Ontario’s most renowned kitchens including The Globe Restaurant, Tiara at Queen’s Landing, Hillebrand Estates and Windows by Jamie Kennedy as well as a turn at the 2 Michelin star restaurant Chewton Glen in Hampshire, England where the philosophy is live to eat, not eat to live – Midgley has transformed Ravine’s self-proclaimed “ever changing carousel of ingredients” menu into elevated plates you can’t help but scrape with your spoon.
Popular dishes have included smoked Huron Whitefish cakes with curried Niagara peach compote, black lager braised lamb shank with goat’s cheese whipped potato and hearth oven vegetables, sesame and parmesan crusted St. David’s eggplant alongside tomato fondue and so many more.
It is with these dishes that Midgley has proven that excessive innovation does not define a high end menu; and that a simple chicken and mashed potato combo can be mind blowing.
“If you’re committed to the classical preparation of a dish, there is a reason for everything,” said Midgley. “There is balance, there are flavour profiles that work and they have worked like so for centuries. So if you perfect that, even if it is as simple as a chicken breast on mashed potatoes, they’re going to be friggen good mashed potatoes.”
Ravine’s 100 per cent certified organic plot of land is tended to year round. With meetings continuing well after the season has produced its last squash in order to determine what they will plant the next year; creating a plan for more rotation in order to farm continuously on premise as long as the season permits.
“We live in the fruit basket of Canada and we celebrate that here,” said Midgley. “Here, we grow endless varieties of heirloom tomatoes, squashes, microgreens, herbs, asparagus and peppers. Next year we hope to get some organic garlic, a few onion varieties, more summer squashes, patty pan squashes and zucchinis.”
Ravine has even begun to harvest their own honey and honey comb – a project that will be expanding in 2017 with honey having an impact in both their beverages and on the menu.
“Every season we are introducing something new,” said Midgley. “Next season, we will have fresh honey comb on cheese plates, any honey we use in baking will be our own, even our straight up vinaigrettes will often have a touch of sweetness so we will start using honey in that.”
It is this kind of on premise produce and production that Midgley said helps to keep him inspired.
“I am more rooted in the seasons with the more seasons that go by,” said Midgley. “I think there is truly something special about working that way in a kitchen. I have all this excitement of new things at Ravine and this analyst appetite, but the seasons stay kind of the same. Intuitively, I am starting to know what to do with what at what time and I think it broadens the creativity and how I go about menus.”
This inspiration has resulted in many award worthy dishes over the past few years and Midgley is being recognized in tandem with his food. In 2016 he was chosen to compete as one of Toronto’s top 10 chefs at the Canadian Culinary Championships Gold Medal Plates. This fundraiser for the Canadian Olympic team is known as the ultimate celebration of Canadian excellence in cuisine, wine, the arts and athletic achievement. Celebrated in eleven cities across Canada, Gold Medal Plates features the premier chefs in each city in a culinary competition for gold.
Midgley said his chosen dish for the event will highlight Ravine’s latest beverage accomplishment – a dry hard apple cider – alongside their on premise honey.
“I designed a menu around [the cider] and it’s pretty exciting,” said Midgley. “We are making a play on surf and turf; a smoked potato and scallop mousseline with little mini porchettas confited and sous vide. Then we are doing an apple relish to go hand and hand with the cider, and of course, presented with our fresh honey comb.”
And while the produce and seasons help to keep Midgley inspired daily, he said it is his diverse team of sous chefs and kitchen staff that truly make the difference.
“I like to refer to chefs as being kind of like pirates,” said Midgley. “We are all pirates in our way. Some are really smart pirates, some are not so smart pirates, some are rough pirates and some are nice pirates; but piracy means, whatever the endeavor is, every service we are in it 100 per cent together and kitchens are a place where you can be comfortable if you are kind of a wonky person cause you’re not judged in the same way. Sleeved out tattoos, prison record, none of that matters to me; what matters is can you show up and be a part of this band of pirates and do what we need you to do.”
And in the intense world of kitchens, Midgley has found his new home and chosen band of pirates at Ravine Vineyard.
There is nothing more daring then a confident chef who is eager to cook in front of an audience. Witnessing the art of cooking is what makes dining at Backhouse Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake an experience to be sought after. With a chef’s bar, wood-fired open grill, impeccable cool climate cuisine, and “enlightened hospitality,” Backhouse Restaurant remains a cut above the competition.
Proprietors, Bev Hotchkiss and Ryan Crawford, had several conversations before selling their house, cashing in their savings, and taking the plunge. “The decision to open our own restaurant without investors was a turning point for us,” says Hotchkiss, CEO of Backhouse Restaurant.
Crawford, who is often referred to as the man who “eats, sleeps and breathes food,” has been in the kitchen for 25 years. Watching him cook, plate, and serve delectable dishes at his chef’s bar is a sure-fire way to see his motto in action. “To be a chef requires a fascination, appreciation, and respect for all food. Starting with this labour and love, I hope I translate that to our guests through my cooking,” says Crawford.
With Hotchkiss’ focus on the front of the house and Crawford in the kitchen, the two make a dynamic pair. “For me, hospitality is about slowing down and enjoying the experience of eating,” says Hotchkiss.
The couple has worked diligently and tirelessly since the launch of the restaurant in July 2015 to ensure their business remains on course. “We just recently took our first day off since the restaurant opened and we purchased pots and pans,” laughs Hotchkiss.
Realizing that in business one may have to adapt to survive, Hotchkiss and Crawford have revamped the format of the restaurant since its opening. “The core philosophy has remained the same, but we made changes based on customer feedback and our own observations,” explains Hotchkiss. “We were trying to execute too many concepts into one restaurant by having a lounge area with pizza and burgers as well as a tasting menu. It was a disaster and thankfully we are not so stubborn.”
Almost everything at Backhouse is made in-house and requires require extensive steps and preparation. One example being the scrumptious sourdough bread that takes two days to make or the green apple sorbet served with icewine. “Our cool climate cuisine means that we are hyperlocal and all of our produce is seasonal,” explains Hotchkiss. “We make all of our own shrubs and garnishes.” In addition to having their own three-acre farm on Concession Two in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Backhouse makes their own cheese, maple butter, olives, raisins, vinegar, balsamic, and ice cream.
“Having farmed animals and produce has given me a deeper appreciation for the products that I am fortunate to work with,” says Crawford.
“We bring in the whole animal,” says Hotchkiss. “We don’t buy our sausage we make it. Whether the meat is on the grill, bones simmering in a large steam kettle, or curing in the fridge, a walk through the kitchen at Backhouse is a demonstration of their butchery program.
Crawford also makes his own wine. His Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir from “The Crawford Wine Project” was featured in twelve restaurants across Ontario.
A truly rare feature of the restaurant is the open concept grill. “We are the first restaurant in Ontario to have a wood fire oven and grill in the centre of the restaurant, so chefs from North America travel here to speak with Ryan about the grill,” says Hotchkiss. “It is a cooker and a smoker at the same time, so you will see meat hanging from the ceiling above it,” says Hotchkiss.
“When Ryan and I designed our concept for the restaurant we wanted the back of the house to be up front. Our cooks are on the floor and they interact with the customers. Everyone learns each others jobs: which creates a synergy in the place that is extremely unique to our area,” says Hotchkiss, who is now booking three weeks in advance for reservations. This approach results in camaraderie and a friendly atmosphere full of discussion and laughter amongst everyone in the restaurant.
With bold combinations of wine and food such as Woodfired Eggplant Ravioli served in one of Hotchkiss’ grandma’s tea cups paired with Tiberio Cerasuolo D’Abruzzo, it is hard not to be enthralled by each item on the menu. With 10 to 12 different pairings that change daily, Backhouse is on top of their game with locally inspired dishes and craft cocktails. In October 2016, the restaurant was presented with the People’s Choice Award for one of the Best New Restaurants by Air Canada enRoute magazine in the eat and vote category.
Hotchkiss, who is also a sommelier, started in the business when she was 18 years old travelling around the world, working and gaining experience at restaurants in London, New York, Toronto, and Niagara. Hotchkiss teaches her staff how to execute “Enlightened Hospitality” as she guides them in learning how to read the mood of the customer. “Sometimes people dine out to celebrate life or to take a reprieve from it. I am always conscious of how much effort it took for someone to be able to get out for an evening and spend it with us. I want my staff to understand that as well,” says Hotchkiss who recently presented to a group of new entrepreneurs regarding the delivery exceptional customer service. “Ryan and I are so acutely aware that it is the whole package. You can’t have great food without great service,” says Hotchkiss. “We want each customer to enjoy their experience.”
Keeping in touch with local initiatives is also a passion of the couple as they are involved with Community Food Centres Canada (CFCC). “It is the evolution of food banks where fresh foods are grown and distributed to those in need,” says Hotchkiss who recently participated in a fundraising event where 100% of the food sales from the restaurant was donated to CFCC.
Whether it is local artists’ décor, menu, staffing, or product, a great deal of thought has been put into every detail for the benefit of the customer. “The atmosphere influences the experience,” says Hotchkiss. “All of our senses are tied together. The lighting, the staff they should all complement and work in harmony with each other.”
Written By Gabrielle Tieman | Photo: David Haskell