My Secret Life as a Closet-Chef: Apprenticing at Eigensinn Farm

I have a confession to make: for the past six months, I have been living a double-life.

Monday to Friday, I lead the Customer Success team for a Toronto-based software start-up, and one of the fastest growing companies in Canada. I have nearly a dozen direct reports across four different teams, and am responsible for managing our most valuable asset — our customers. It’s a dynamic, fast-paced, chaotic, whirlwind of a role, and I think I am great at it.

However, every Friday night since the end of April– after a week spent in the office, or travelling across North America to client sites — I drive two-hours North of Toronto to work weekends at one of the top restaurants in the world: Eigensinn Farm.

I am a closet-Chef in training.

Eigensinn is much, much more than a restaurant, though. The brain-child of Chef Michael Stadtlander — one of the most celebrated and respected Chef’s in Canada — Eigensinn is a 100 acre canvas where Stadtlander merges art, nature and food into one. He raises the best free-range pork, chicken and duck you will ever taste alongside 20 foot sculptures of trees made from wine bottles and bake houses made from broken dinner plates. The herb and vegetable gardens burst from the ground surrounded by fences made from fallen trees and salvaged scrap metal. All along the property — in forests, clearings and in a myriad of hand-built structures — are dining room tables, chairs and fire pits built from the earth on which they stand. They are used in each of the exclusive (and expensive) outdoor dining events that dot the seasonal calendar at Eigensinn.

The food at Eigensinn can best be described as German-inspired, French-executed, Canadian-grown farm-to-table. Chef Michael cooks almost exclusively with organic and locally grown ingredients, many of which are harvested on the farm. Stand-out dishes from my time in the kitchen included pan-friend yellow perch with a maple and sea buckthorn reduction; black currant and chartreuse sorbet; pigs-head sausage; asparagus and herb soup with pike dumplings and wood sorrel; maple peach strudel; milkweed flower beignets; stinging nettle ravioli.

As you read this and wipe the drool from your mouth, you’re probably wondering how I landed an apprenticeship with one of the world’s best chefs? The same way I’m telling you about it: I wrote him a letter.

On New Year’s Day 2017, I made two food-related resolutions. First, I wanted to cut down on packaged and processed foods and start caring more about where my food came from. And second, I wanted to take real steps towards cooking professionally.

My love for cooking goes way back. Born to Canadian and Portuguese parents, some of my earliest memories are in my Grandmother’s kitchen. From an early age, I was encouraged to explore my palate; when most kids were struggling with broccoli and Brussels sprouts, I was eating dim sum, octopus, pig’s tails and tripe. I was cooking Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner on my own at 14, and have done so almost every year since. I had worked in kitchens all through University and College, and while I continued cooking for friends, family and at special events, I began trading in my Chef whites for suit jackets and ties shortly after school.

Cooking at Eigensinn, though, was a different thing, entirely. For starters, in my five months on the farm, I spent nearly as much time doing farm work as I did in the kitchen. For those of you who have not had the fortune of living the farm life, that means rising early to feed and care for the animals, gardening, harvesting, foraging, lifting, fixing and building. And all of that was followed by dinner prep, service, clean-up and assisting, where needed, at Eigensinn’s local sister restaurant, Haisai.

Dinner service on the farm — while informal in many ways compared to other fine dining restaurants — is extremely special. Never mind the cost ($300 per person, BYOB), the exclusivity (15 people maximum per night, reservations many months out), the location (it’s two hours North of Toronto, quite literally in the middle of nowhere) or the space (Stadtlander’s living room). Every single one of the eight courses draws inspiration from what’s grown on the farm. This is real, hardcore farm to table dining, embracing all the challenges and rewards that come with it.

While my time at Eigensinn was exhausting — averaging 80-90 hour work weeks, seven days a week, for five months is hard! — it was also transformative and inspiring.

The menu’s at Eigensinn and Haisai, as with any true farm to table, shift with seasonal availability. I will say, in earnest, that there are ingredients here that have been entirely redefined for me because the quality is so exceptional. The first time I ate ______ (insert any of the following: carrots, beets, eggs, radishes, several lettuce varieties) grown at Eigensinn Farm, it was like the first time I had ever tasted it.

I believe that there’s something special in food that’s been grown and cooked with real love. I tasted it when my Grandmother cooked for me as a young boy, and I taste it in everything that comes from the farm. There’s an ethereal ingredient here that is unique to the land, and the people who care for it. It’s beautiful.

To eat at Eigensinn is to learn the existential truth that we have a duty to uphold the relationship between man and planet, and when we do, we are rewarded with beautiful and delicious things.

I wrapped up my time at Eigensinn on October 1st. What’s next? I’m still figuring that out, but I know where my heart is, and I know I’m one step closer to where it belongs.

 

Note: A very special thank you to my wife, Amanda, who put up with me being away from home every weekend for five months. I could not have done it without her love, support and encouragement. Thank you!

 

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Brewery Visit: The Rare Barrel (Berkeley, CA)

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Based out of Berkeley, California, The Rare Barrel is an exclusively-sour beer brewery at the forefront of the sour beer renaissance (currently the hottest trend in craft beer). In a pool of heavyweight breweries– think de Garde, Jolly Pumpkin, Lost Abbey, Almanac, Jester King, Wicked Weed — The Rare Barrel is, arguably, the best in the world right now at what they do.

Sour beer is complex, expensive and still largely misunderstood by the majority of beer drinkers. While almost always fermented with tart fruits, it is, in fact, the unique bacteria strains and barrel aging process that give sour beer their unique tart and funky taste. If you’ve never tried one, the best description is like drinking a cross between white wine and lemonade, with varying degrees of tartness. Sour beer is on the opposite spectrum of the bitter hop-bomb IPAs that have dominated the craft beer landscape over the five years. In that respect, they are refreshing, in more ways than one.

Situated in an industrial neighborhood, The Rare Barrel’s facility looks more like a warehouse than a brewery. It’s 20+ foot ceilings are stacked to the brim with rows of barrel racks, each filled with beers that need time (some, several years) to mature. Each barrel is like a fingerprint, imparting it’s own unique flavor profile to the batch as it ferments.

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And there really is a search for that rare barrel amongst their collection. Each year, beer sommeliers and enthusiasts alike sample from each of the barrels in the warehouse, until they’ve come to a consensus on the best batch. That barrel is deemed the Rare Barrel.

I’ve visited The Rare Barrel a half dozen times, and each time they have an array of blends on tap, several bottles for purchase and a delicious sourdough grilled cheese to pair with your beer (and pair you should!). Unlike most other breweries today, The Rare Barrel does not offer growler fills to the general public. Given the rarity of what they’re producing, they simply can’t keep up with demand. If you want a growler filled, you need to be one of the lucky few who lands a membership in their Ambassador of Sour club. If I l lived in NoCal, no doubt, I’d want to join that club!

Tip: Finding The Rare Barrel’s bottles outside of the brewery is legendarily difficult. On my last trip, I was led to a local grocery store down the block from the brewery called Berkeley Bowl West. Here, you’ll find several bottles that you can’t get in the brewery, along with bottles from many other fantastic breweries. The grocery store is also a great spot for hard to find cheeses and delicious ethnic treats.