One can’t talk about Canada’s, particularly Ontario’s, eat local and sustainable dining scene without mentioning Michael Stadtlander, his wife Nobuyo and Eigensinn Farm. Celebrating his farm’s 25th anniversary this year, Stadtlander seems no less inspired and excited about the future, as he recalls the recent past.
“I feel very lucky and privileged that I can do this, that it’s actually still in big demand,” he shares from his farm in Singhampton, Ontario, near Collingwood. “Sometimes when you become well established, you kind of slowly fade out, but that kind of feeling is not happening here at all. Last year we could have had two Eigensinn Farms, we had such high demand. I’m really happy about that. And still having this connection with younger people, the idea of them experiencing the raising and growing and cooking and building, that’s what I’m always looking forward to as well.”
Some might be reluctant to mess with a winning formula, but Stadtlander, sadly, has decided to sell his acclaimed restaurant HaiSai, located just 10 minutes from their farm. “When we started to build our restaurant and opened it, it was a thing on the side for my wife and me. It doesn’t allow you total freedom, you always have to look after it, be there. So we decided that we want to sell it; it’s going on the market next week, so that will be a big change. It was a big change when it came into our life and will be a big change when we don’t have it anymore.”
Fans will continue to be able to get a taste of his work at Eigensinn, where Stadtlander and Nobuyo host events throughout the summer. “Here, it’s more like coming into someone’s place, I like the idea of doing one thing only, rather than an a la carte menu. With a restaurant you have to do the whole thing.”
And he has big plans for it: “I’m building a bake house, with a wood fire oven, on the farm; I’m really looking forward to that. Around the big house, in the future, we’ll maybe have more events outside, right in the farmyard.”
Philanthropy, as always, is also on his mind: “One of our apprentices, who is from Nepal, approached us, and asked if we could do a benefit dinner for Nepal after the big earthquake there. Me and a group of Canadian chefs, including Mark McEwan, Jamie Kennedy and Adam Colquhoun (Oyster Boy), raised nearly $60,000. I went to Nepal and connected with a gastronomy school there, and with them we are building an eco village, so you have this small farming community near Mount Everest that can have the opportunity to host those visiting and have more income, while becoming more self-sustainable. It’s called the Canada House,” says Stadtlander.
“These farmers are so remote from everything else there, they’re doing agriculture from 300 to 400 years ago. They don’t have electricity, and they use standard oxen, the wooden plow and seeds saved from the last harvest. They have a heavy diet, so my vision was to send an apprentice from here over there to help with ecotourism. The idea is to have an apprentice from the gastronomy school there come here and see what we are doing so they can reapply it there too,” he adds.
Stadtlander also hopes to extend his good works at home. “I want to get one class of less privileged children, who don’t get out to the countryside much from the city, and put a garden together with them, and then maybe they can come up again during the growing season, and then again a weekend after Labour Day to do a harvest dinner. We can invite guests and the money raised will go to the children,” he says.
Food and sustainability are always top of mind for the chef, who has been combining outdoor dining, foraging and art installations before the phrase “Farm to Table” entered the vernacular.
“Three years ago, I had a project called PineSpiel. We hosted a 12-course in our pine forest, and each course included pine,” says Stadtlander, who adds that “I really like to cook outside and on my farm.” For the event, he says, they used pine, cooked over a pine fire, made pine butter, made air dried ham with pine wrap, potatoes cooked in pine water, which were grown right beside the pine forest.This year, Stadtlander has seven projects planned, starting with his wild leek and maple syrup festival in May, which features 10 chefs creating dishes inspired by maple syrup and wild leek. “We go out back in the woods on my farm, and do things there usually,” he says.
The couple will also be hosting regular dinners in their farm house dining room throughout the summer. “It’s the base where all this food comes from. We serve an eight-course menu, for 12 people usually.”
Another weekend will host a three-day event, featuring a dinner in their original forest dining room. “It’s from 23 years ago, when I started going out and cooking outside. It’s a romantic niche between our pine forest and our maple forest.”
There’s also a music harvest festival in September, which features a combination of classical and jazz performers and, later in the night, some rock and roll. “It will be our third time doing that, and always with food,” he says.
Last year, they grew a whole hemp field for their music harvest festival. “We had seven different chefs, and each did a course with hemp,” he says.
The big event of the summer, however, will be the Trail 25, featuring a cross-section of art and sculpture installations, along with food, sprinkled throughout the Larch forest. The event commemorates 25 years of creativity and growth at Eigensinn farm, and will take place from August 17 to September 9.
All of the projects highlight the farm’s livestocks, pigs, ducks, chickens, geese, he notes. In addition to what the farm grows, Stadtlander also forages. “We have wild leek, we’re making maple syrup next month, there’s dandelion, burdock roots we dig up, wild strawberry, all our mushrooms—hickory, jack and morels. Stinging nettles, I use a lot also. There’s cattails, fiddleheads, we use day lily shoots when they come up, and there’s water cress by the creek across the street. I also like to work with our wild apple trees, the different flavours and textures. And we’re planting more pear trees this year,” he says.
It all sounds like a blast, but not necessarily easy to pull off considering Stadtlander works with a new team each year, most of whom only arrive in the spring. “Every spring I have a new team. We’ll have a gardener on staff. Then six or seven interns living here. It’s what we do for 25 years now, living communally throughout the summer,” he says.
Of the latest trend toward feasting in the woods, Stadtlander says, “I think for a country like Canada it’s a beautiful thing to do; it’s something we can do very well here, there’s so much geographically here to offer.”
Food intersecting with nature are perfectly natural for Stadtlander, who was born in Lubeck, Germany, but was drawn to Canada after reading about it in his teens, thanks to the country’s bountiful nature. “For one thing (cooking outside), comes from the way I grew up. I was very fortunate that when I grew up in 1960s and ’70s, my parents didn’t have much time for us, so we were left to ourselves, and spent time on the river and in the woods, fishing, drifting down on pig troughs on the river, in the woods, in the forests, camping. We took food with us from our parents, or fished what we caught. Then, when I was 17, 18, I started reading books about Canada, and that was what made me want to come to Canada, the nature,” he says.
“The camp is an outlet to ask questions about what we’re doing to the environment. At the same time, it’s connecting people back with nature—that’s another reason why I like to do this. If I’m here—half the year is time I can’t grow or raise anything, can’t do as much outside—so May to October, if I can spend time outside, and cook outside and be with nature, I would rather do that. I really love it,” he says.
“In my experience, over the years, it’s really that: People are really looking for that for themselves. I have made myself a name for that,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing, the combination of food, nature and art.”
Unique Outdoor Dining Experiences
Here’s a sampling of some spectacular outdoor dining experiences across the country.
This al fresco dining experience has served to a record-breaking 400 food lovers—the largest longtable meal in British Columbia’s history. In the valley beneath snow-capped Mount Currie, on scenic North Arm Farm, guests are seated at a seemingly endless table to dine family-style on a four-course menu featuring local ingredients, many plucked from the ground just hours before dinner.
From a handful of events in 1999, Outstanding in the Field annual culinary tour now includes 100+ multi-course feasts from coast to coast across North America and around the world. Partnering with top regional chefs at each stop, Outstanding in the Field’s #TabletoFarm tour season runs May through November, hosting pop-up dinners set between the earth and sky in the places where the food on the plate was grown and harvested—vegetable farms, urban gardens, big-sky ranches, orchards and seashores. Guests at an Outstanding feast may find themselves sitting next to the farmer who grew the greens, the fisherman who reeled in the fresh catch or the cheesemaker who separated curds from whey. Fellow diners at the long table may have traveled from across town or across the country. This summer, dates are marked for Zaklan Heritage Farm, Surrey, B.C., North Arm Farm, Pemberton, B.C., and La Ferme des Quatre-Temps, Hemmingford, Quebec.
Held late summer, early fall, Winnipeg’s Farmers’ Feast at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market celebrates the best of the Manitoba harvest, as local-vore Chef Ben Kramer and six St. Norbert Farmers’ Market farmers join you at our table, and take you on a culinary tour of our province. The gourmet outdoor dinner event, held under the canopies of the market, features five gourmet courses made with local Manitoba products. Each course highlights a farmer, who will tell their stories as the courses are served.