springthawWhat better way to celebrate the start of warm weather than a gathering on the lake appropriately known as Spring Thaw? The gala hosted at Palais Royale by the Canadian Chef’s Congress (CCC), offers fresh organic foods and wines, great conversation and even a bonfire overlooking Lake Ontario.

Spring Thaw is the first mini-congress that has been hosted by the CCC, inviting the public to taste-test cuisine and mingle among some of Canada’s most respected chefs. The event was created to raise awareness surrounding food consumption; especially concerning GMO products and organic, sustainable ingredients.

“All this stuff is GMO, and I think a lot of people really don’t know about it”Michael Stadtländer, owner of Eigensinn Farms and Haisai Restaurant and Bakery, is one of the primary founders of the CCC, and a supporter of fresh-ingredient access for all Canadians. Stadtländer discusses the importance of educating the public through galas like Spring Thaw.

“Usually it is always the chefs keeping to themselves and we have our congress and our ‘pow-wow’… all this stuff is GMO, and I think a lot of people really don’t know about it and a lot of media kind of don’t talk about it and I think [it is a] very important question,” said Stadtländer.

For many of the chefs taking part in Spring Thaw, it’s about more than simply raising awareness.

“[The] chefs, tomorrow when they’re all coming to my restaurant and my farm, we are going to discuss how we have input into this whole issue and we cannot let it happen,” said Stadtländer. “I mean chefs really are in a great position because we’re the link between farmers and fishermen and foragers and so on, and we are in the middle.”

Where the real creativity, passion and talent of the chefs was displayed was in star of the event—the food. From the moment you step in the door there are dozens of aromas from all 21 chefs. With a wide array of beautifully arranged foods (from maple-glazed frog legs and braised boar to poached pears and crême brulée), there was at least one dish to suite anyone’s palette. There was even a puffed maple ‘cotton candy tree’, with the cotton candy on branches that people could take as they walked by.

Pair this with a live jazz band, lake-view patio with a bonfire, and great company – you’ve got one intimate venue with a friendly, bustling atmosphere.

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“We’re just here to help the community because Michael is a good friend, and most of these people are good friends, so we just think that if we can grow local food then we’ll be in a better place as a country,” said Ruth Klahsen of Montefort Dairy.

“It’s about getting back to the root of cooking, getting back to the earth as a chef.”“Any time you’re doing an event with Stadtländer it’s about  getting back to the root of cooking, getting back to the earth as a chef. I mean I would hope as a chef that’s your purpose of cooking is to get the best purest product possible and to give back to the community. That’s definitely why I do these kinds of things,” said Alexandra Feswick of the Drake Hotel.

Though most chefs promote purely locally grown and accessible foods, some find this to be a trying task during the winter months in Canada. Renee Bellefeuille from Frank Restaurant in the Art Gallery of Ontario said that online shopping can be harnessed as a useful tool for chefs in times where the climate may pose an issue.

“I find a lot online. I Google so many things today, whether it be a GMO product or to buy a mason jar, it’s a vast resource,” said Bellefeuille. “The winter is hard, but we can do winter dessert, utilizing what we have. We do try to be a bit of a global bistro where different cuisines come into play.”

Spring Thaw has a range of chefs from up-and-coming to widely recognized, regardless of whether a restaurant has been around for five years or multiple decades. Some of the restaurants, like Canoe and Frank Restaurant, change their menus depending on what is freshest on the market—not only does this keep their ingredients fresh, it also inspires creativity.

“Oliver and Bonacini is a big company, but we think small, we think about you know sustainability and making sure to keep people in business, to keep all my staff. The restaurant business is a small market so we have to be realistic, we have to be diligent,” said Chef Anthony Walsh of Canoe.

On the newer side of the food business there is Ursa, (which only opened two years ago) yet has a passion for sustainable serving.

“We were invited by Michael Stadtländer himself to join the [Canadian] Chef’s Congress. This is our first event, the first time we’ve taken part in this in entirety. We decided to get our name out and see what people think of what we can do,” said Cody Wiokes of Ursa Restaurant. Ursa’s table was serving up their signature house-made tofu with a dashi broth, yuba skin and watercress garnish.

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While this event has been opened up to the public, some chefs have hopes of higher awareness and more support for their congress.

“It’s important to support the [Canadian] Chef’s Congress because this is kind of a union of chefs from around Canada that get together once every couple of years in a chill environment and we can be comfortable to talk to each other, exchange ideas, and do what we always do…We’re influential and we influence the public, so from what we understand of what’s really going on in food, it’s better that we can represent to the public,” said renowned Chef Jamie Kennedy. Kennedy was serving up a tangy fermented vegetable salad with poached egg and crisps.

With the growth of food-driven events that promote organic, sustainable and local foods, there is a promising future for Canada’s food scene. Jason D’Anna of the Magna Gold Club warns consumers to be weary of what he refers to as “convenient” products—taking that little bit of extra care to support a local farmer or business could collectively make a big change.

Photos by Veronica Sheppard