Despite having an undeniably enviable roster of speakers and presenters from all over, it is really great to see that this year’s Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival is celebrating homegrown local talent with the inclusion of a number of Chefs who today call Stratford their home.
In anticipation of this weekend’s upcoming celebrations we had quick chat with Stratford’s own Tim Larsen (Chef at Mercer Hall), who will be presenting a session along with Stratford Chefs School instructor Sean Collins this Saturday at 11am on the Toronto Star Culinary Stage.
GFR: Well hello again Tim. Now what have you been up to been up to since we saw you at Mercer Hall last year?
Tim Larsen: Learning a ton. As this is my first time running a kitchen, each day there’s a new challenge.
GFR: And what will you be presenting at Savour Stratford for 2013?
Tim Larsen: On the Saturday, we’re doing a demo for a dish called ‘A Bloody, Hearty Breakfast’. Basically an eggs Benedict with blood pudding and cured pig’s heart, using Church Hill farm’s amazing products. For the tasting tent, we’re paired up with Fred and Ingrid from Perth Pork Products, using some of their delicious wild boar, in particular the cheeks and fat, it’s going to be awesome.
GFR: What attracted you to Stratford in the first place?
Tim Larsen: A few things. One was a dinner at Bijou that opened my eyes to what was going on here. Then I got a chance to work a summer at The Church as an apprentice under Amede Lamarche and Dave Hassell. Then, during that summer, I fell in love with my wife, Jessie. How could I not move here?
GFR: You have worked with many an inspiring Chef in your relative youth… is there one that really stands out as a mentor?
Tim Larsen: None of this would be happening if I hadn’t worked under Derek Vagt. He pushed me to go to Stratford that first summer. He taught me a lot, and introduced me to people who taught me even more. To this day, every time I’m moving a bit slow, I can here his voice screaming ‘Faster, Larsen!’, still spurring me on.
GFR: What have been the biggest challenges in running an establishment such as yours in a seasonally busy town such as Stratford?
Tim Larsen: The winter is the biggest challenge, but in some ways it’s the most exciting. We get to be creative both in terms of the food and special events. To me, that’s when you really make a connection to the locals, which is paramount. I still think a lot of people in Perth county are unaware as to just how amazing the products are from the farms here. If we can give locals a fun night out in the middle of January, and expose them to some great local product, while supporting a local farm? Everyone wins.
GFR: You have received a lot of favourable press from both mainstream media and bloggers… how do you feel about food bloggers in your place?
Tim Larsen: I think blogging is great. I love it when someone is so into the food that they’d write about it, sometimes days later. The only time I’m not a fan (and this is rare, but does happen), is when a blogger uses their medium to try and garner special treatment. That bugs me.
GFR: What is your favourite Autumnal local ingredient right now?
Tim Larsen: Peppers right now are over the top. I took a bite of one of Antony’s (Soiled Reputation) the other day and you could eat it raw, like an apple. So sweet.
GFR: Since you first experienced Stratford (in which year?) how have you seen it change over the years?
Tim Larsen: My first summer in Stratford was 2007. Back then, there was still great food, just not as much a sense of community. Now, it’s almost family like (though I hardly leave Mercer, but when I do, this is what I see). I think places like ‘Your Local Market Co-op’ and the Local CFC have helped that, as well as the Slow-Food market on Sundays. These are kind of ‘hubs’ where chefs, farmers and locals all converge. We didn’t have that 5 years ago.
GFR: Last time I was in Stratford there seemed to be a major fascination with bacon… what’s hot in Stratford these days?
Tim Larsen: I’m not really sure there is a ‘hot’ item. Although Perth County is known for pork so there will probably always be a fascination with smoked/cured versions i.e. bacon. We have some of the best pork in the world. Incidentally, bacon was featured in our wedge salad which also appeared on other menus around the city. Maybe this is the year of the 1970’s throwback salad?
GFR: What’s your policy on music at Mercer Hall? To which school of thought do you subscribe? I worked for six years in a restaurant with no music… so I have gone the opposite way myself.
Tim Larsen: You should ask Jessie this. She works tirelessly on the playlist at Mercer and is never quite satisfied. We definitely are pro-music though we are still working on exactly what genre works in the space, as with our food we are trying to showcase Canadian artists where possible with the hope of playing over 50% Canadian content eventually. It just adds another layer of atmosphere to the restaurant. I don’t want people to walk into Mercer and think ‘man, it’s quiet’. I want them to walk in, hear a pixies tune and think: ‘cool, let’s eat’.
GFR: Can you give visitors any “insider’s tips” about where to dine during Savour Stratford? (Apart from Mercer Hall obviously!)
Tim Larsen: I’ve eaten at The Prune twice this summer and loved it both times. Seems more relaxed this year, and Chef Steele has this lamb tartare that is just stunning. The Bruce has just opened and the food is great (went with 2 friends and literally ate the whole menu). For lunch, you can’t beat the sandwiches at Grub to Go. All Canadian product too, which is awesome. And man, get a hot dog or sausage at Rob Bob’s and put some kimchi on it. $5 heaven.
GFR: And where are you normally to be found enjoying yourself when not working?
Tim Larsen: My couch.
GFR: Thank Tim, your time is much appreciated!
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he is getting excited about his trip to Stratford tomorrow.