Beverly Hotchkiss and Ryan Crawford have come home again at Backhouse, their new Niagara-on-the-Lake restaurant, which happens to be in the same location as the old Stone Road Grille. The Stone Road Grille was known as a hangout for the winemakers in the area, and on a recent visit, it seems like Backhouse is also quickly becoming a local favourite (two vintners spotted) and a destination for culinary tourists in the know.
The husband and wife team (he’s the chef, she’s at the front of the house), opened Backhouse at the beginning of July, after completely renovating the interior and building what Crawford calls his “chef’s bar”, where diners are treated to a locavore version of omakase. This was after a period of several years where they were without a permanent space to serve the public. Hotchkiss and Crawford were to have been involved in the restaurant at Red Stone, but had to move on (amicably) from the association when planning challenges postponed the opening too many times. During that period Crawford and Hotchkiss launched Gastrohomestead, catering events with foods grown on their own farm. Now that they have a restaurant again, the couple are extending the ‘gastronomic homesteading’ concept to the menu and kitchen at Backhouse. “Gastrohomestead has found a home!” Hotchkiss cheerfully explains.
The Hotchkiss-Crawfords cite both Michael Stadtlander and California chef David Kinch as inspirations. In particular, Crawford says their ambition with their Gastrohomestead farm and Backhouse is to replicate the relationship between Kinch’s Manresa restaurant and Love Apple Farms, whose symbiotic relationship was documented int he 2014 film The Farmer & The Chef.
Indeed, the food at Backhouse is aggressively locally sourced. Event he cheese is made in house. Crawford also eschews imported goods like lemons and olive oil. And yet, for however avant garde the Backhouse’s procurement concept may be, chef Crawford’s food in entirely approachable, as it was at Stone Road Grille. This is, after all, a restaurant designed to welcome both locals after a long day at work and savvy wine tourists. I visited recently with my mum and 12 year old son, and we all easily found something to suit our tastes from the short lunch menu. The kid had a burger, that we watched being cooked over hardwood flames across the chef’s bar and poutine made with chicken skin gravy. My mum had a summer squash soup, of the most velvet consistency. And I had a salad of tomatoes picked a few hours before and a pizza that featured their friends, the Pingue family’s n’duja sausage. This we washed down with wines from their neighbours at Stratus and a non-alcoholic cocktail from their large list.
The interior, which filled up over lunchtime with couples, tourist families (like ours), business meetings and a long table of ladies looking like they intended to seriously lunch, is bright and spacious. The polished barn board furniture made by a friend of Hotchkiss’ family, and original art work by another. Every piece and design was carefully, if quickly, designed and thought out by the couple.
Like Michael Stadtlander, for whom he was an apprentice, Crawford has found and developed a new role of chef-farmer. It’s not an act: at lunch before I returned to chat with him and Hotchkiss when things were quiet, Crawford showed up to the restaurant with a delivery of produce and genuine dirt under his fingernails. Unlike Stadtlander’s Eigensenn farm, however, Backhouse has the advantage of being in Niagara, which is both intensely rural and agricultural as well as developed. Bacchus is no more than a few minutes walk from the town’s hotels and theatres, and ten minutes drive from the gastrohomestead farm. Hotchkiss hopes that once they are settled in at the new restaurant to be able to show and tour the farm for those who are interested. Professional interest is mounting in the project, the couple hired on another couple who act as pastry chef, and cheesemaker-farmer, and the kitchen is full of young culinary college graduates eager to participate in this new way of cooking and hospitality. Things look very promising indeed.
To find out more check out the backhouse.xyz where the couple have posted stories about their inception, videos and all manner of supporting narrative.