Whatever happened to Michael Stadtländer?
The renowned chef is alive and well, cooking up a storm and fighting to save local farmland
Michael Stadtländer has an invitation for all Ontarians. The acclaimed chef and activist wants tens of thousands of people to join him on Oct. 16 to protest one of the largest planned quarry developments in Canada, by Highland Companies, on prime southern Ontario farmland.
Foodstock will take place on farmland northwest of Orangeville, with big name Toronto chefs cooking and musicians such as Jim Cuddy and Sarah Harmer set to appear.
Now 54 years old, chef lives on 100-acre Eigensinn Farm near Collingwood, where he has grown and raised his own ingredients for his on-site restaurant for nearly 20 years. He is also a culinary activist and co-founder of Knives and Forks — an alliance between chefs and organic farmers to promote chemical-free food — with long-time friend and collaborator chef Jamie Kennedy.
“The chef is the middleman between farmers, gardeners and the public,” Stadtländer says.
Born in Lubeck, Germany, a large port on the Baltic Sea, Stadtländer grew up on a farm. The oldest of three brothers, he learned to raise ducks and pigs from his parents and grandfather and tended to the family’s large vegetable garden.
He says the experience gave him an early appreciation of eating and cooking what was available locally.
“In the fall, we harvested everything and preserved wild raspberries and vegetables out of the garden,” he says.
Growing up in Lubeck, Stadtländer says he had a Huck Finn kind of life: paddling canoes and fishing for eel. When he saw a National Film Board movie about Canada, he was enamoured by the natural beauty and knew he wanted to live and work here.
“I started reading books about Canada and had it in my brain: ‘One day I’m going to emigrate to Canada,’ ” he says. “But I wanted it to be somewhere in the wilderness in Canada — in nature.”
At 14, Stadtländer left school to apprentice at a traditional north German–style restaurant in Lubeck, followed by a stint in the navy, when he worked on a ship as a baker and chef. But it wasn’t until Stadtländer found employment in Switzerland as a cold kitchen chef, where he first worked alongside Kennedy, that he saw his dream starting to take shape.
A friend of Kennedy’s mother was looking to hire a chef for a new midtown French restaurant in Toronto named Scaramouche. Kennedy and Stadtländer applied and were hired as a team.
Before heading to Canada, Stadtländer worked under German chef Vincent Klink, a prominent supporter of local, organic farming. Through Klink, the young chef was introduced to nouvelle cuisine, a movement toward pure ingredients. “It was really coming back to the taste and flavours of the farm,” Stadtländer says. “It was an enlightened cuisine.”
Starting at Scaramouche in 1980, he says it was overwhelming in the beginning.
“That was my first ever ‘I’m in charge’ position — I could hardly speak English.”
Stadtländer says he made pastries during the day and sauces at night while Kennedy was in charge of buying and chopping.
“I was not satisfied,” Stadtländer recalls. “The [food] was brought in big boxes and we had no connection with the farmers.”
On their days off, Stadtländer and Kennedy would take drives in the country outside of Toronto to introduce themselves to farmers.
After nearly two years at Scaramouche, Stadtländer opened his own place and then worked out west at Sooke Harbour House where the idea for Eigensinn Farm was hatched.
“We were working like morons, and that’s when I figured out the idea in my brain for Eigensinn Farm — because I like cooking, but I like other stuff, too,” he says. “I had visions of a farm, but I had no money, so I just kept dreaming and working toward it.”
In 1993, on a drive in the Ontario countryside, Stadtländer finally found a place where he could experiment and hone both his farming and cooking techniques.
Securing enough financing from an aunt in Germany and a loan shark, Stadtländer bought a property near the town of Singhampton at the top of the Niagara Escarpment, and this would soon become Eigensinn Farm.
He and his wife, Nobuyo, first opened it as a B & B before turning it into the restaurant often cited as one of the top restaurants in the country. Diners, only 12 per night, visit the farm for an eight-course meal.
Stadtländer raises his own ducks, lambs and pigs; grows and preserves in-season vegetables; and gets most of his fish from Georgian Bay.
“It [the farm] has allowed me to develop as a human, allowed me to become myself,” Stadtländer says about running the farm. “You don’t become rich here, but you have an excellent life.”
Nobuyo runs the dining room, and five cooking apprentices live at the farm and train with Stadtländer.
Stadtländer won a Governor General’s Award in 2010 for his contributions to the organic and locally grown food movement in Canada.
In 2009, chef opened Haisai, his restaurant in Singhampton, Ont., where he offers a five-course menu. Consider it Eigensinn light.
During Foodstock, Stadtländer is hoping that thousands will gather on four farms that did not sell out to Highland Companies for a celebration of local food and fresh water and to voice their opposition to the quarry plans.
The fields where the quarry is planned are 20 kilometres south of Eigensinn.
“It’s one of the best farmlands in Ontario,” Stadtländer says. “That area grows 50 per cent of potatoes for all of Toronto.”
The quarry is also planned to run 200 feet into the ground in an area that is home to the headwaters of five rivers, Stadtländer says.
“It’s some of the purest water around and you don’t want to monkey with that,” he says.
But above all, Stadtländer is most concerned about protecting Canada’s food resources.
“We have to look after our resources and the land capable of producing food for Canada,” Stadtländer says. “We cannot waste this land.”
For more information go to canadianchefscongress.com.