Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2017
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Style & Sustenance

Ontario's Chez Soleil is a quirky B&B that takes cooking to heart

Your first clue that something's a bit offbeat inside the wacky B&B, located just around the corner from Stratford's Avon Theatre, is that the big tree on the front lawn of the classic English Tudor-style cottage is ringed by an edible garden. The combination of pansies, cabbages, johnny-jump-ups, horseradishes, lavender and Jerusalem artichokes, not to mention a few herbs and budding medicinal species, is a far cry from the typical rose and floral menageries that grace most Stratford-area establishments. Step inside from the front porch, and you're instantly taken by the definitive lack of the "Laura Ashley" posies habitually lavished on B&Bs. But then again, Chez Soleil's owner/innkeepers are not typical proprietors. They do love flowers, mind you, but they'd rather eat them than display them, and definitely don't use them to chintz up the furniture.

Liz Mountain and Janet Sinclair concoct cooking-school vacations spiced up with a generous dollop of serendipity in the funky fantasy of this eclectically styled B&B. Liz, who warms up with "first names, please," trained at the Windsor Arms Hotel. She opened Chez Soleil six years ago strictly as a bed and breakfast. Janet Sinclair, who studied at the Stratford Chefs School, joined her a year later. The duo began serving dinners and catering, and soon started cooking classes and cooking weekends (which, by the way, run on any three consecutive days, not just weekends).

Their passion for food is as contagious as their zest for life, which they've articulated with creative aplomb and ingenious style. With the tons of B&Bs I've checked out in the past for doctor's review, I can't recall ever visiting one where the decor stirred chuckles, as Chez Soleil does.

The sweet little sun room and roomy parlour are serious enough, I suppose -- never mind the bold green striped chairs and odd tchotchkes -- for quiet reading or listening to music. But the 1950's-era vibrating "hot chair" tickles your funny bone. And, even though homey aromas of bread and pastry waft in from the kitchen, just knowing what awaits you upstairs is a kick.

At first glance, each of the three bed-and-bathroom units is a lark. "We didn't want intimidating rooms. Nothing's precious," says Liz. "We want people to feel like kids at a cottage." Really.

The "Through the Looking Glass" room is a clever take on Lewis Carroll's novel, with a faux cupboard " la "Alice's window," a quirky chessboard with ceramic characters (the King and Queen are cheeseburgers) and the curved, glass-block wall to the bathroom that illuminates at night like "the looking glass."

The "Porgy and Bess" room, with its bright harlequin-print duvet and vintage 1960's accents, is attended by two precocious looking papier-maché pigs. The "Year in Provence" suite, inspired by the experiences of the couple that tucked into the south of France, has a king-sized bed and a double whirlpool. Pretty romantic. Back on the first floor, guests usually gravitate to the cozy kitchen with its chock-a-block clutter of vintage and classic utensils. Inevitably, a soupìon of unpredictability flavours the weekend once the wine and conversation start flowing.

MENU MAGIC
Before I digress, let me start at the beginning. Chez Soleil limits each cooking weekend to six guests. Liz says, "Perhaps three couples, complete strangers, book individually. Or groups of friends, mothers and daughters, or fathers and sons... whoever. They're usually well-read, well- travelled, and enthusiastic." At the time of booking, they discuss with Liz the cooking theme for their weekend: "If they'd like to learn to prepare regional cuisine, say, a taste of Tuscan Spring, or Bordeaux Fall, or Indian vegetarian dishes, or their dream meal. We tailor the menu entirely to their likes and dislikes, and research each dish to create it authentically. We believe there's a lot of magic in food: It's a mix of science, history, art, anthropology, nutrition. Food is a way of nurturing yourself, and it's a great excuse to travel. By the time they arrive, after faxing menus back and forth, they're so passionate about creating this meal they can almost taste it."

What happens if three individual couples book? "First come, first choice, as far as the menu goes."

On Fridays, or the first afternoon, guests often see a Stratford Festival play or ramble around on the hiking and biking trails in the nearby Wildwood conservation area. Some choose to do something funky, like try their luck in the town's old 1929 bowling alley, or scour the many local antique shops, or peruse the shelves of the wine store for special Niagara vintages. Still others simply relax indoors, studying the recipes for the next day.

That night, guests have free run of the kitchen. Some bring their own fixings for a gourmet meal. Others dine out in one of the town's choice restaurants.

Saturday morning, Janet and Liz prepare and serve exotic breakfasts like poached eggs on saffron- and-artichoke risotto, or a quiche of grilled vegetables with asiago cheese in a sweet-potato pastry, with homemade bread, scones, chutneys and fruit butters. Then guests embark on the culinary trek of the day, as noted on the slate-board menu in the dining room. "They spend four to five hours working in the kitchen to prepare dinner. Before they know it, they're flipping spirited quips of life and love with every slice of the knife and turn of the saucepan, sharing stories with every knead of the dough during pastry class." Along with cooking techniques, they learn to co-ordinate an action plan, considering the methods of cooking and the temperatures required.

After a lunch break, which usually centres around Mediterranean breads and, say, a roasted yellow pepper zuppa, guests relax or head outdoors again. After final preparations, in which the budding chefs help style and plate the food, dinner is served in the dining room, whose decor was "inspired by a Tuscan sunset," with festivities lingering on into the wee hours of the morning. "It's phenomenal to see people connect. By Saturday night, three completely different couples often become great friends." Another delectable breakfast is served on Sunday morning, after which Liz divulges her recipes for favourite goodies, like homemade scones, and discusses the best cookbooks and TV programs.

Then it's off to a Stratford matinee, or more outdoor fun.

If Laura Ashley stayed at Chez Soleil, she might nix trading her bouquets for stripes, but she'd certainly learn a good recipe or two.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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