Frank Ihrig is looking at the Hessenland Country Inn through fresh eyes these days. “I’m getting older,” he muses while surveying the family’s five acre property from a silo tower perch equipped with a small balcony. Somehow, he thinks that at 42 he is getting old. His wife, and business partner, Liz, is also wistful about being in her early 40’s. “We’re getting older,” he repeats, “so I’m trying to simplify things, not overly complicate the food and the experience.”
What neither of them acknowledges is that they have hit their full stride in mid-life, turning the quaint German-style inn into a spectacular event location with a kitchen so sparkling that you could literally eat off the floors — except who would want to do that when they could have Frank placing delicate modern morsels of European-based foods on the table? What he thinks is simple is, rather, full flavour, artfully presented and shows the maturity of his years of hard work and experience as a chef.
Take, for example his latest creation — a soup board of seasonal soups in shot glasses served on an ash tree branch which Frank crafted from trees on the property. Or the garnish of tomato compote for the hackbraten meatball burger, topped with shards of local Metzger bacon, shitake mushrooms and onions. Or the house-made Northern Spy sorbet served by the dollop on a slice of apple. No, the Ihrigs aren’t getting older. As the saying goes, they’re getting better.
Frank grew up at the Hessenland after immigrating to Canada from Germany as a child with his parents, Christa and Ernst Ihrig. They drew a loyal following to the Inn, of other Germans looking for classic schnitzel, rouladen, spaetzle and red cabbage. Frank went Guelph University and earned a Bachelor of Commerce/Hospitality degree, met Liz (also a Commerce graduate). Then he studied culinary arts in Germany, Whistler, Australia and Switzerland, and she learned corporate event planning at the Westin in Toronto. He returned to the Inn with Liz in 2001, and together they gradually took over the reins.
It was a big decision for the young couple, to set their careers in the small community of St. Joseph in Huron County. But by working hard through their thirties they built an impressive wedding venue business. With 20 staff in high season, they host 35 to 40 weddings each year, as well anniversary celebrations and other special events. Some are held in the main Inn and others in the adjacent coach house. Frank and Liz leaned towards modernizing the traditional German atmosphere, renovating and updating the 20 rooms and interiors. The dining room runs from spring to Christmas and is famous for special occasion brunches and evening meals. Frank continues to experiment in the kitchen, using more and more locally-sourced items to create such menu items as West Coast Lakefood Chowder, and various iterations of the Hensall white bean. “I’m always pushing the white bean,” he laughs. He added a popular “Mongolian Grill” every Thursday night in the summer where guests, and Frank, enjoy outdoor cooking in the beautiful gardens. “It gets me outside and interacting with people. I love it,” he says.
Now the couple find themselves coming full circle, sentimentally honouring the German traditions again but with a deliciously modern flair. Recently, Frank insisted on writing the menu in German, with English translations. Hauptgang, Kalbs Schnitzel Wiener Art, Suppe and Salat lead the pack. But so do the lip-smacking Burger Meister Plate – zesty beef and pork meatball patties on pretzel buns from Poganatz bakery at the Goderich market – and the white asparagus velouté and tomato bisque from veggies a few metres down the highway at Masse Farms. Frank now sells his tomato compote and strawberry sorbet in private label frozen batches at Hayter’s in Dashwood and at some markets.
“I really appreciate all we have in the area and I love showcasing it. Every year I discover new growers and producers [whose products] I can use for special meals,” he says.
After a recent kitchen renovation, Frank now offers a chef’s table for private groups of up to 16. It’s a chef’s choice menu paired with wines and sometimes with Hessenland’s own Hessenland Helles Bavarian style beer (made at the Niagara College Teaching Brewery). Guests might be treated to beef tenderloin with white bean risotto, Lake Huron bouillabaisse, and chocolate creations.
This spring, the Ihrigs planted their first trial crop of grapes to begin a micro-winery on site. They hope to make their first wine in 2018. Hessenwein labels will feature riesling (what good German inn can’t have riesling!), chardonnay, cabernet franc, fontenac gris, marquette and siegerrebe. “We’re taking it slow to see what can be done,” says Frank. Niagara-based consultants are working with the Ihrigs. Many believe that the micro-climate along Lake Huron in the area replicates the Niagara growing conditions.
“The older I get, I appreciate more and more where I am living. Living right on the lake — the seasonality of it is so special,” says Frank. The Ihrigs are raising their son Sebastian at Hessenland and have made a commitment to staying in the area.
If this is what growing older looks like, then it will certainly be interesting to see how the Ihrigs embrace their fifties, and beyond, and what that will bring those lucky enough to enjoy the fruits of their labours and talents.
Hessenland Country Inn
72981 Bluewater Highway, Zurich
Toll free: 1-866-543-7736
Dining room open: 5 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. nightly by reservation
JANE ANTONIAK is a regular contributor to eatdrink magazine, as a culinary travel writer in our region. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations at King’s University College, London.