© Katherine Elphick
To cook or not to cook?
A culinary school in Stratford, Ontario takes the drama out of preparing high-end fare
When friends asked me to join a weekend cooking school getaway in Stratford, Ontario, I found my answer rather easily — a resounding yes, without even checking the calendar. The offer was just too tempting. Enjoying a mini vacation in one of Canada’s great arts towns with girlfriends appealed to both my foodie side, and the busy working mother in me looking for a break.
For weekend destinations, few places in Ontario are more alive with culture and character than picturesque Stratford (tel: 800-561-7926; welcometostratford.com). The charming Victorian city nestled in rural countryside a few hours' drive from Toronto is best known for its world-renowned theatre company, innovative cuisine and artsy boutiques.
After signing on, my travel companions, who’ve been making the same cooking pilgrimage for over a decade, revealed the weekend’s delicious details. The hands-on cooking series takes place at one of Stratford’s most popular gourmet restaurants, Rundles (519-271-6442; rundlesrestaurant.com). Classes are led by Neil Baxter, the restaurant’s renowned chef de cuisine and former master of cookery at Stratford Chefs School.
Since 1986, the culinary expert has offered the weekend cooking series which has an almost religious following. Without advertising, the classes book up every year through word of mouth. “Many of my students never miss a year,” admits the 52-year-old chef, who has trained (and continues to train) both in Europe and North America under the tutelage of modern masters at various Michelin-starred restaurants.
After rolling into the historic city, we did a luggage drop at Bentley’s Annex (tel: 519-271-1121; bentleys-annex.com), a cosy inn in Stratford’s charming downtown. Then it was off to enjoy a late afternoon latte and biscotti break at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters (tel: 519-273-7909; balzacscoffee.com). Balzac’s offers delicious coffee in a trendy setting, and is a must for coffee lovers.
With a caffeine boost, we made the short walk over to Rundles for 6:30PM to be greeted by Baxter who offered us an apron, a glass of sherry and a cookbook (complete with class recipes, an index, and shopping suggestions for uncommon ingredients). Because classes run during the restaurant’s off-season, the entire professional kitchen and dining area was ours for the taking.
Looking around, I counted 18 participants, along with Baxter, a sous chef and two apprentices. There were couples, siblings, families with adult children, and groups of friends from all walks of life. Some participants had clearly taken these classes before and seemed completely relaxed in the restaurant’s kitchen. But newcomers were warmly welcomed, even if their culinary experience was minimal. “The classes are aimed for people at all skill levels,” explains the chef. “The only prerequisite is interest.” Instruction focusses on the things he is passionate about: tradition, experimentation, quality, flavour, purity, perfection and pleasure.
Friday night feast
After a full explanation of how to tackle the multi-course menu, we divided into groups and quickly got our hands moving. The scrumptious dinner featured pepper shrimp on a stick; mushroom and ginger broth with scallops and crab; pork tenderloin picatta, brussotto and diable sauce; and lemongrass soup with mango salad and star anise ice cream.
Baxter, who creates every menu, offers recipes that he would enjoy eating and cooking himself. “We do lots of multicultural and Asian-inspired cuisine,” he explains. Because the menus are labour intensive and require planning, the meals are better suited to weekend gourmet dining, rather than busy weeknight cooking.
While pounding pork tenderloin into thin scaloppini strips, I discovered that Baxter’s creativity comes from his desire to constantly further his training. He’s often found regaling students about his latest cooking adventure, and easily livens up any kitchen conversation with notable food tales. Last winter, the Stratford chef spent time working in Copenhagen, Denmark at the world famous Noma Restaurant (noma.dk).
“Travelling and visiting other chefs is a perfect way to get inspiration, and that’s important for creative people,” explains Baxter, whose next sabbatical takes him to Stockham, Sweden to work at Frantzén-Lindeberg (frantzen-lindeberg.com), an innovative restaurant currently generating a big-time buzz on the international food circuit.
With so many cooks on hand, we were able to whip up the multi-course meal in no time. Our efficiency was greatly aided by Baxter and his staff who were constantly touring around offering assistance or direction when needed. After devouring the appetizer in the kitchen, we were off to the dining room to enjoy the fruits of our labour. As an added bonus, bottles of perfectly paired wine were set out with each course. Our scrumptious meal was the main topic of conversation and with so many courses to enjoy, there was plenty to chat about.
The cooking continues
Over the course of the weekend, our group constructed several elaborate meals. We returned to the class on Saturday morning to make a spectacular multi-course lunch which started off with exotic juices including beetroot and grapefruit. Next it was onto arugula and spinach salad with grilled king oyster mushrooms; eggplant involtini with piquillo pepper, basil and buffalo mozzarella; topped off with a bitter-chocolate roasted-hazelnut torte. Like all meals served over the weekend, each course was paired with wine and enjoyed in the dining room.
We waddled out after lunch, only to return four hours later to start preparing dinner. During the break, we toured around Stratford’s historic downtown and did plenty of shopping. Even though our lunch was filling, I was surprised to discover that I had no trouble first cooking, and then enjoying every morsel of our dinner. Dishes included chicken samosas with charred pepper and galangal salsa; pan-fried pickerel with curried celery root and bok choy and a sesame seed vinaigrette; grilled chipotle turkey breast; and poblano peppers, roasted corn and bacon. For dessert we enjoyed steamed ginger pudding with warm sabayon.
By the time Sunday morning arrived, everyone in the class was completely familiar with the restaurant’s kitchen, and were working together like old friends. With more of a brunch theme, Sunday’s menu included: crab dumplings with fresh kimchi and a soy vinaigrette; smoked-trout salad with poblanos rajas and vegetable escabeche; beef panang curry, grilled shrimp and pineapple with mung bean salad. For dessert, we finished off with melon and passion-fruit soup accompanied by a grapefruit and orange salad.
While most students cook and eat every meal, the school does offer flexible options. For example, if your partner or spouse doesn’t share your love of cooking, they can still partake in the dining delights (for an extra cost). “We encourage non-cooking spouses or partners to attend the meals to be part of the weekend — but from the sidelines,” explains Baxter. Some students even break up the weekend by sharing the cooking and dining duties with a partner.
Many cooking students, like Sheila Delaney, are extremely loyal and never miss the weekend cooking series. “It’s something that I look forward to every spring,” says Delaney who first discovered the classes in 1999.
The weekend getaway in Stratford with friends is a definite bonus, but the real draw for the Midhurst, Ontario resident is the educational slant. “I really enjoy devoting an entire weekend to an activity that I love. It’s very purposeful,” she muses. “Neil has taught me how to be a more confident and skilled cook. I’m no longer afraid to experiment with new recipes.”
Thanks to the weekend classes, Delaney feels she’s honing her culinary prowess. “The biggest thing I’ve learned from Neil is how to organize the preparation of a complex meal. He teaches you the importance of having all of your ingredients around you — prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. He also teaches you how to have a tidy work station. Because of Neil, I don’t scramble in the kitchen anymore.”
My friend Heather Morris, who has attended the classes for 12 years, says her admiration for the Stratford chef keeps drawing her back. “When you’re in the kitchen with Neil, you’re under the spell of a highly disciplined and respected Canadian chef. Every year, he teaches me how to be a better cook.”
As for me? Well, let’s just say I’ve already sent in my deposit for next year.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.