The streets are slick with black ice, and the radio weather reports warn of pending doom of storms. It’s been an unusually mild winter, but now it’s’ spring, and on this one day the heavens decide to gang up on me. I’ve been holding my breath for weeks, excited and nervous, getting ready for what is one of the most important exhibitions of my life. No, it’s not the Tate Modern or the Chicago Institute of Art. In some ways, it is more than that. It’s the Backhouse, my first solo show at home in Niagara, exactly a quarter century after leaving for Toronto.
Backhouse is an exquisite restaurant built on love by locavores Bev Hotchkiss and her husband chef Ryan Crawford. It’s about a mile from my childhood homestead among acres of vineyards. My brother lives a few doors away from the nondescript plaza. Open the door to the Backhouse and you find yourself in another world. The scent of roasting chocolate marshmallows in the fire is a sweet side to the umami of fresh steak. Skinny fingers of tempura home-grown carrots wait heaped for you to dip into aioli. The Chardonnay grown down the street is as cold and bright as a jewel.
I couldn’t feel more at home, at home, than here. The exposed brick and soft luminaries combine with an open, spacious design concept that is intimate but not demanding. The DJ is spinning trance and other anthemic, unexpected feats of music. I would have guessed jazz, and I’d be right, on some nights. The ambience is as organic and natural as the food, and gives an experiential quality to the evening.
Our hostess, Bev, worked generously to give my paintings an unusual and reverent venue, and her confident reading of me as an artist has really touched me. She senses me wringing my hands and staring nervously towards the door. An artist is always afraid that no one is going to come. We can and do exist without earnings and savings, but we cannot exist without being seen. She places some wine bottles along the bar and refills my glass with the Henry of Pelham’s Pinot Noir. They’ll come, she assures me.
It turned out Bev was right, and it was a fabulous night.
But while we waited, I ask her some questions about the Backhouse…
Good Food Revolution: It’s a big risk to open a restaurant and try to bring something new to the table, but you and Ryan had a vision. Tell me about that.
Bev Hotchkiss: Ryan and I laid everything on the line for this endeavour. We sold everything, became debt poor, and take the minimal amount of money from the business to live. However, we have never felt more blessed, more gratitude, more exhilarated, more optimistic, and more satisfied than we have right now. I believe as people we are at our bests when we are challenged and opening a business and striving to always bring your best to the table is challenging… Plus we are both a little crazy and I think that helps.
GFR: How do you see art fitting into your business?
BH: Art fits into all aspects of our business. From Ryan’s culinary creations, to the layout to the soundscape. Ryan lives, eats and breathes food, wine and spirits. He is happiest when he is working. When I was working with Kim Van Stygeren and Luke Gillet from the Brain Farm to design the interior of the space, we were most definitively on the same page. We wanted clean lines, neutral colours and hints of whimsy or fun to pop out.
The collages on the ceiling in the dining room and bathrooms, as well as our menus, are all original designs of Kim’s. She is spectacular and has such a keen eye for colour, shape, mood, and texture.
The walls were kept light and neutral as it was always my intent to showcase visual artists in the space. You are officially our first feature artist! Your work pops off the walls with its movement, conversation and vibrancy.
GFR: You are also an artist. Does your work as hostess, promoter, curator, and events planner fulfill your creative talents? How, and why?
I think life is a highly creative project. This role takes a tremendous amount of on-going caring, open-mindedness, thick skin, quick thinking, intelligence and creativity.
I love designing and implementing special events. When they materialize and you watch the joy you have brought to people it is such a satisfying and fulfilling moment. I am currently working on a really high-end event with the winemaker Michel Gassier from Southern France and a more fun and easy spring time cocktail party with Dillon’s Distillery.
Yet, I do miss the time I have had in the past for painting and writing. I still perceive it will exist in my future and I struggle with making time so that my future is always part of my now.
GFR: Your partner, chef Ryan Crawford, is also a wine maker.
BH: Ryan got involved with his wine project as a direct outcome of his commitment as both a chef and a sommelier. He wanted to understand the process of fermentation and the effects of yeast, wood and steel on grapes, varietals and outcomes. His 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2011 Pinot Noir were both well received in restaurants across Toronto, in Collingwood and as far east as Fogo Island Inn.
GFR: Can you suggest a handful of wines you serve from local wine producers, and what it is that you love?
BH: Big Head Red: Andrzej Lipinski makes a great big fat round red. He employs Appassimento winemaking techniques as one method to achieve his results. I had a lady in from California who was looking for that southern fat chewy red style and when I gave her Andre’s wine she was in love.
Featherstone Rosé: David Johnson and Louise Engel are both such committed, engaging, interesting and generous people. Dave’s Rose is a labour of love. It is captivating listening to him talk about it. What is revealed in the glass is magical. It expresses red fruits, and an herbaceousness balanced with a hint of residual sugar. The colour is perfect.
Ravine 2013 Sauvignon Blanc: Marty Werner is not only a hardworking winemaker, he’s a great friend. He is always thinking about ways to creatively enrich and enhance the Niagara Region, through promotion of young up and coming viticultural and hospitality people, and his passion for wine has far reaching effects in our region. The Ravine 2013 won gold from Decanter Magazine.
GFR: What does Niagara wine have to offer that is unique or special?
BH: Niagara wines and winemakers are exceptional. I believe that because they have had to overcome an historical association with sweet fizzy reds and some not-so-good wines, alongside an international stage of deep rooted old-world chateaus, they have worked their asses off. They now compete internationally and this area boasts some of the best wines in the world. Our Chardonnays, Rieslings, and Sauvignon Blancs are outstanding. Our Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Francs have showed extremely well.
The next new movement that seems to be coming out of this area is sparking wines. We have the perfect balance of climate and terroir alongside years of mentorship and collaborative learning that can produce some of the best sparkling wines in the world. It is a very exciting time for Niagara winemaking. I think wise connoisseurs have probably already started filling their cellars.
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It’s worth the drive to Niagara-on-the-Lake from wherever you are, to visit Backhouse at 242 Mary Street. Try some of the areas most delicious wines, and enjoy outstanding cuisine. Don’t miss my art while it’s on display!
Lorette C. Luzajic is a Toronto writer and artist. Her collage-centred paintings use mixed media to explore ideas from art, literature, history and culture, always fascinated by the intersection of human creativities. Exhibition of her work is ongoing throughout Toronto, including such venues as the Spoke Club, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Flying Pony Gallery, Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, and the Artist Project, and it has been shown in Belfast, Brisbane, Los Angeles, Edinburgh, and beyond. In addition to occasionally writing about her other passions, food and wine, she is the author of more than ten books of poetry, short fiction, and essays, including Funny Stories About Depression, Fascinating Artists, and Kilodney Does Shakespeare. She is the editor of the new online journal, Ekphrastic. Visit her at mixedupmedia.ca. Photo by Ralph Martin.