Toronto chefs seek locally grown, brain food

02/24/2014 11:56:00 AM
Cynthia David

TORONTO — As they prepare another batch of butternut squash soup and roast another bunch of heirloom carrots, Toronto chefs are dreaming of spring.

“Fiddleheads are coming soon and wild leeks in late April, and we’ll get fresh morels from Forbes Wild Foods and asparagus from Barrie Hill Farms in June,” said Jamie Meireles, who plans menus for up to 600 at the five event venues run by Oliver & Bonacini Events.

With O&B’s focus on local, seasonal ingredients, Meireles has been using plenty of Ontario beets and celery root this winter while divvying up last year’s house-made fruit jam and pickled vegetables.

He said his corporate customers want healthy “brain food” after a day of meetings, and everybody’s on a kale kick, raw in salads or quickly sauteed with a little garlic.

The same customers are shying away from chocolate desserts, he said, in favor of healthy berries and other fresh fruit.

For a change of taste, Meireles and his team have been vacuum-packing fresh fruit with different flavors. He’s packed large pieces of cantaloupe in a bag with pickled ginger, watermelon with mint or basil and pineapple spears in vanilla syrup.

After sitting four to six hours, the fruit becomes infused with flavor and almost neon in color, he said.

At bustling Richmond Station in downtown Toronto, chef-owner Carl Heinrich also is dreaming of wild leeks and the first Ontario-grown kennebec potatoes for his fries.

“By summer, we’ll be dealing with 40-50 local suppliers,” said Heinrich, who won the Top Chef Canada competition in 2012.

“It’s a little bit of work,” he said, “but we know the best food comes from the best ingredients, and the best ingredients are usually a result of a relationship you have with the people that make the food.”

Though there’s plenty of meat on his menu, the Stratford-trained chef is equally proud of his vegetable preparations.

“Critics have been surprised at the number of vegetable dishes on our menu,” he said. “I think it’s really smart, especially here in the financial district, to serve lighter fare.”

He serves smoked trout over local Jerusalem artichokes slow-roasted in butter, puréed sweet onion, sauteed swiss chard, pickled pearl onions and oyster mushrooms. The fish is topped with a little salad of hydroponic pea shoots and shallot rings.

A recent couscous salad was a vegetarian’s delight, paired with local carrots from organic producer Soiled Reputation, toasted hazelnuts, brussels sprout and celery leaves, dill and mint, with a sprinkle of dukkah spice mix and a drizzle of tandoori honey around the plate.

As for trends in Toronto, Heinrich sees blistered shishito peppers as hot, cauliflower is on the rise, parsnips are popular in everything from soup to dessert, and brussels sprouts are showing up everywhere.

At least until spring brings the first wild things.



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