Jeff Heuchert, Stratford Gazette
The start of Stratford’s culinary scene can be dated to 1975, when Joe Mandel launched The Church Restaurant.
Within a few years two more restaurants and a theatre pub opened, and the demand for quality chefs led to the opening of the Stratford Chefs School in 1983.
The school’s graduates stayed in the city to work and open their own restaurants. There was a demand for quality ingredients, which inspired suppliers throughout Perth County to grow speciality produce, raise organic stock and manufacture unusual cheeses.
That brief summary of the city’s food history was put together and visualized on a “culinary tree” mural specially created for this year’s Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival, held this past weekend.
The theme for the fifth annual food fest, which turns the spotlight on Perth County’s farmers, artisan food producers, chefs and restaurateurs, was “Celebrating Our Culinary Roots.”
Food heritage was the focus at the festival’s inaugural gala reception Saturday evening in the Chalmers Lounge at the Avon Theatre.
In attendance were some of Stratford’s founding chefs and restaurateurs, including Eleanor Kane from the Chefs School, James Morris from Rundles and The Prune chef Bryan Steele, who shared stories from the city’s not-so-distant culinary past.
“Since this was our fifth year, we really wanted to focus on heritage,” said Savour Stratford director Danielle Brodhagen, during a break in the schedule Sunday.
The festival received a federal heritage grant this year which, in addition to the culinary mural, was used to bring in vintage tractors and garden beds, and to feature more local musicians.
While Savour Stratford celebrated the past, it also was sowing the seeds for the next great group of culinary leaders.
Friday’s opening night ceremony at the Veterans Drive band shell featured chefs and students from Fanshawe College’s culinary, hospitality and arts and media programs.
They prepared and served smoked salmon, short-rib sandwiches, potato latkes, cr?me br?l?e and other dishes.
Over the next two days, Veterans Drive, York Street, parts of Downie and Wellington and Market Square were transformed into culinary villages with street food stalls and live music. Tents housed the culinary demonstrations, learning centres, and tastings.
Brodhagen said it would be a couple of days before attendance figures for the festival were known. Organizers were anticipating about 30,000 people.
While she suspected the cooler temperatures would impact the overall turnout, she said she had heard many positives from the vendors, security and surveyors on site.
“From the first day we heard from our surveyors that most people they’ve talked to are from out of town. So hopefully the Stratford residents are taking advantage of the bus and coming downtown as well. Maybe they’ve just been outnumbered,” she added.
One of the changes that made an immediate difference was moving the tasting tents up to Market Square from York Street, which helped disperse crowds and ease traffic near the river.
“It’s definitely bigger and feels bigger,” said Brodhagen. “It’s a lot easier to get around.”
Brodhagen said people were also impressed with the variety of attractions.
“If you’re a hardcore foodie, just cook at home or don’t even care about local food, there’s still something for you to enjoy.”
One guest who came away impressed was celebrity chef David Rocco, whose cooking demonstrations at the food fest showed the audience how to prepare a mushroom and radicchio risotto.
The star of his own television show and bestselling cookbook author, Rocco said he was surprised to find a city like Stratford that is known for its theatre and quaint way of life has been able to develop such a progressive food scene.
He also had some advice.
“Don’t get big like Toronto,” he said. “It’s certainly so unique here. There’s a real heart, a real sense of community.”
Rocco said an event like Savour Stratford was not like anything he’s seen in a bigger cities like Toronto, but was good enough to attract people from as far away as Toronto.
Rocco noted he had tried some local pork that was fantastic but was most impressed by what he sampled from Monforte Dairy.
“They have a tuscan cheese that is wonderful,” he added.