Stratford Next-Gen Chefs: Inspired, and Inspiring

Written by Bryan Lavery

The modern gastro movement began nearly twenty years ago in some of the world’s top kitchens. Groundbreaking technical applications to cuisine by boundary-pushing visionaries Ferran Adria, René Redzepi, Grant Achatz, and Heston Blumenthal revolutionized and scandalized the culinary world. Enthusiasm for a new Modernist Cuisine was based on a philosophical understanding of food science and gastronomy. Success came using non-traditional ingredients and experimental methods rooted in technical innovations and multiple scientific disciplines.

Restaurateur David Chang of Momofuku Noodle Bar was working on what Redzepi, in The Noma Guide to Fermentation, calls a “parallel track,” introducing the concept of microbial terroir, the hidden world of mould, yeast and bacteria for fermentation. And of course there was chef, writer and travel documentarian Anthony Bourdain, with a laser focus on global culture, cuisine and the human condition. He remains a powerful influence for next generation chefs (next-gen chefs.)

At the former Church Restaurant in Stratford, a dozen or so years ago, Chef Amédé Lamarche introduced molecular gastronomy on his tasting menus to both excitement and collective head scratching. Lamarche, Coordinator of Culinary Programs at Conestoga College and an uncompromising trailblazer, continues to be been instrumental in educating the next generation of chef visionaries.

Speaking of pioneering innovators, I recently caught up with Chef Danijel “Dacha” Markovic at the Terroir 2019 Symposium in Toronto. Markovic (a chef’s chef) left London’s former iconic Black George Restaurant and went on to work as an “extreme bush cook,” then worked alongside Chef Jason Bangerter at Langdon Hall. Now entrenched at Fogo Island Inn beside Executive Chef Jonathan Gushue, he utilizes ingredients dictated by the Island’s “still-wild” terrain to produce dishes grounded and articulated in the seasons and terroir. 

Cutting-edge chefs advancing the concept of modernist cuisine in our neck of the woods include Stratford’s Arron Carley of The Bruce Hotel. Carley defines and interprets “New Canadiana” on his terms rather than emulating mentors like René Redzepi of Noma, where he once staged.

Chef Kris Schlotzhauer burnished his name and reputation at Toronto’s Enoteca Sociale before returning to Stratford a few years ago. As a vocal champion for fair working hours and pay he opened Stratford’s AO Pasta on Erie Street, where he calls his own shots and makes work/life balance a priority. 

This year, Stratford Tourism Alliance celebrates next-gen chefs in the annual Stratford Culinary guide, a go-to staple source of insider information. The 25th edition was launched at a pop-up at Richmond Station in Toronto, owned by Stratford Chefs School graduates and partners, Ryan Donovan and Carl Heinrich. We caught up with Stratford Chefs School alumni chefs Jamie Crosby of The Prune, Meaghan Evely and Vincent Stacey from Pazzo Taverna & Pizzeria, and Ryan McDonnell of Mercer Hall. The 2019 guide celebrates twelve next-gens in photos by photographer and alumnus Terry Manzo. The print version features owner Trena Hough of The Pulp Fresh Bar, Suzie Svetlana Christensen and Dee Christensen of Planet Diner, Kitchen Manager Jill Thorpe of York Street Kitchen, owner Heather McArthur of Grounded, and Loreena Miller (formerly of Revival House). 

One of Stratford Tourism’s featured next-gen chefs is Windsor Hospitality Group’s Executive Chef Ryan O’Donnell. He works hard to incorporate the farm-to-table ideals espoused by the Stratford Chefs School while creating synergies for the culinary teams at The Prune, Bar One Fifty One, Mercer Kitchen and York Street Kitchen. O’Donnell’s clever menus feature locally-procured products from in and around Stratford, reflecting his focus and passion and a dedicated vision to building community in Stratford and beyond. 

Jamie Crosby leads the culinary team at The Prune as chef de cuisine. Raised in rural Huron County, Crosby worked at Eigensinn Farm and Haisai for Chef Michael Stadtländer in 2013, and did a three-month Stage at Noma in 2014 before taking over as chef at The Little Inn of Bayfield in 2015.

Another featured chef is Jeremy Hayton of Stratford’s Mill Stone, who literally walked through the kitchen door to assist on a busy night and never looked back. Three years later he is a staunch proponent of sourcing ingredients locally and has introduced his new-found passions for a late-night Laotian menu, a MexiLao menu and an all-day taco menu.

Recently, listening to chef panellists at the Culinary Confederation Annual Conference in Niagara Falls, I was reminded of the many types of intergenerational dynamics relating to kitchen disciplines. The next-gens tend to avoid the negative old school attitudes and habits that were present in some kitchens: misogyny, homophobia, excessive hours of labour, and lack of work/life balance.

With advances in POS terminals, online reservation systems, handheld server tablets, touchscreen terminals, kitchen display screens and inventory control, have come innovative and state-of-the-art kitchen tools and techniques that came into the forefront when the methods of molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine became viable concepts. Until recently there were no reverse spherification or sodium alginate to turn liquids into stable edible spheres. There were no vacuum chamber sealers, smoking gun infusers, refractometers, high-precision digital thermometers, culinary torches or Instagram accounts to document everything. There wasn’t the ubiquity of producer-only farmers’ markets or farmers selling their goods directly to chefs. The farm-to-table and the local food movements were not mainstream.

Randi Rudner

Randi Rudner

Chef Randi Rudner graduated from the Stratford Chefs School in 2012, worked at Rundles for six years, at Pazzo Taverna, and this season she will be at The Prune alongside Chef Jamie Crosby. Currently Rudner is the Program Manager and a core instructor at Stratford Chefs School. Wondering about the impact that emerging chefs have on the culinary scene in Stratford, I emailed Rudner who replied, “I think that the biggest impact that emerging chefs have had on the culinary scene in Stratford is a strong interest in collaboration, rather than competition. The young chefs working in Stratford today eat at each other’s restaurants, help at each other’s events, and share equipment (and some­times supplies). As a result, the hospitality industry in Stratford has become more collegial, more creative, and more inclusive. This generation of chefs is highly concerned with the provenance of the product with which they work and how something is produced, and by whom. Part of this concern stems from an interest in environmental sustainability and a growing awareness of the devastating repercussions of many conventional food production practices. Part of it stems from a genuine interest in the wellbeing of the broader culinary community in which they find themselves, a community not just of chefs, but also of growers, producers, and eaters. Just as significantly, today’s chefs are eagerly exploring the idea of terroir in cuisine — that food can taste of a particular time and place, that it can tell their story, and the source of their raw ingredients is of fundamental importance to this perspective.

Rudner elaborated, “In a significant sense, the curriculum at Stratford Chefs School has always addressed many of the issues that this new generation of chefs finds important. In addition to strong technique, we focus on collaboration and teamwork. Through various projects and assignments our students reflect on their own stories and mine them for culinary inspiration, and we examine Canadian gastronomy closely. Ingredient quality and ethical purchasing decisions are addressed in nearly every class. Our curriculum has evolved to include more in-depth instruction of equity in the workplace, worker’s rights, contemporary food movements, and food security, all of which are of increasing importance to emerging chefs.”    


Photos by Terry Manzo

About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.