Maple Syrup Magic, Farm Animals, and Fried Chicken with Chef Matt Demille
We followed chef Matt Demille of the Drake Devonshire around for a day while he procured chicken and maple syrup from his favourite farm and whipped up some insanely Canadian dishes.
Maple syrup has magical properties.
It can act as a time machine, transporting those who eat (or drink) it to a different time and place. It can take a quintessentially American dish, like fried chicken, and make it instantly Canadian, with just a few glugs from a tin can. Heck, it might even prevent Lou Gehrig's Disease one day. And it also tastes pretty good, too. Not bad for reduced water.
Chef Matt Demille believes in maple syrup magic. "Without being too stereotypically Canadian, it transports you somewhere, it literally brings you to a place," he says. "Very few foods do that to me." Demille is head chef at the Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County, Ontario, the most recent in the ever-expanding portfolio of the Toronto-based Drake hotel group. It's also a project that epitomizes growing outside interest in the County's wine boom.
For Demille, and many other chefs, maple syrup is one of the few ingredients to look forward to during the cold early spring. "Spring is always an exciting time for chefs, but right now, there's nothing green. It's too warm for ice fishing, and too cold for most vegetables, so we're still using goddamn turnips."
"Maple syrup is so versatile; you can marinate with it, make a vinaigrette, you can sous vide with it, or roast it. It works with sweet and savoury, but it's also smokey because it's been infused with the smoke from the boiler. There are so many applications." But Demille's love of the sweet stuff goes far beyond his current kitchen surroundings and right back to his childhood.
"My mother's side of the family was French Canadian and had a huge culinary influence on me. When I was a kid they would make creton or head cheese or beef bone soup or seared calf's liver. Every family has their stews and soups, but there's just something about classic québécois cuisine that's so real and different. So, this whole maple thing ties in very well. It brings me right back to when I was a kid my mother used to just make toast with peanut butter and dip it in maple syrup."
This morning, it's off to Nyman Farms in Picton—where Demille sources his maple syrup—to pick up some liquid gold, and some chicken to go along with it. "There aren't a lot of places where you can stand among trees, the chickens, the sheep, and the cows and then an hour later you're tasting it and eating."
Down on the farm, owners Michelle and John Nyman are letting the chef get friendly with the farm animals.
"It's basically a hobby that is totally out of control—that's essentially what this farm is," Michelle Nyman says, adding that she is much more concerned with the happiness of her livestock than any kind of certification. "Being certified organic is really expensive, so our philosophy is just to have healthy, happy, and sustainable animals. It keeps the costs at a place where a mom with two kids can come and buy healthy meat."
Her husband John has been tapping trees since he was six-years-old, though he has replaced his childhood ice cream bucket taps with a modern tube system. Nyman grew up in Prince Edward County, once the canning hub of Canada, and now home to 35 winemakers who have rejuvenated the area since the lean years following the collapse of the canning industry.
Unlike some locals who aren't too pleased with the influx of wine-guzzling tourists and bachelorette parties, Nyman welcomed the wine boom which began at the end of the 90s. "The vineyards drove the land prices up like crazy," he says "You used to be able to get a chunk of land here for $1,000 an acre, now that same acre costs up to $7,000. It's gone insane that way. But for us, and what we do, it brings in tourists and it's great for selling our products. Bring it on!"
Having been open for less than two years, the Drake Devonshire hotel may be the new kid in town in terms of hospitality, but Demille is intimately acquainted with the area. His father's family moved to the County from Holland six generations ago, and Demille spent much of his youth growing up in the area.
"Me being from this area helps," he says. "We really make a no-bullshit effort to get into the community to do things that help out and show that we care. We try to hire locally as much as possible; there aren't a lot of jobs in the County, besides trades. As a company, we have three properties and we're really structured to give people a career if they really want it. If you come in here as a busboy and stick it out and work hard, you can really build a career."
Demille figures he's got a pretty good finger on the local pulse but that's not to say that he hasn't let his chef's instincts get the best of him on occasion.
"You've got to speak the language and know what people want. But we've had also few items which failed horribly, for obvious reasons," he recounts. "Like this raw shrimp dish last year, it was this beautiful fucking BC spotted shrimp with a few a few dabs of olive oil and caper berries and parsley. It was like 18 bucks, it was on the menu for four months and we only sold three, I think."
For the most part, the Drake Devonshire menu revolves around upscale comfort food like burgers, schnitzel, and fried chicken, which is why one of the happy chickens we procured from Nyman Farms is destined for the deep fryer.
"Being in the County is not like downtown Montreal or Toronto, where it's mostly a bunch of young people who want to eat small plates. The burger sells like crazy and you can't argue with that—it's putting clothes on my kids' backs.
"If people roll their eyes at an $18 burger, you can't tell them to go fuck themselves, right? You have to say, 'Well it's got local beef and the milk bun is made in-house.' That's tough sometimes, but we have to cater to all these different crowds."
Still, like any hotel, the Drake's kitchen is focused on guests above all else. "There are only 13 rooms here and you can really touch each guest—not literally. But the food has to match the rooms. If you check in and come down to the dining room and get a bowl of fucking burned soup or shitty service, it's like, 'I just spent a lot of money on my room!'"
It's also a chance to riff on classics and personalize dishes. "Sometimes you know that Room 208 doesn't like green beans but loves chocolate cake, or that Room 207 owns a horse farm or whatever, so you can really fine tune it and send up some one-offs."
One-offs like the buttermilk pancakes and sous-vide pork shoulder inspired by the good, wholesome fun we had at Nyman Farms.
"Everyone talks about farm to table, or lake to table, or fork to mouth, or fist to face, or whatever (laughs). People expect that a lot, but being a high-volume business, it's hard to support the lady who only makes six cans of jam per year, or the guy who only has 12 lambs. At Nyman's, all of the lamb we saw today would last us a month during busy season, but they're pretty much the only place that can keep up with our demand for maple syrup."
"During the winter, there were a few days that were a bit like The Shining in here for me. We had really really bad weather. In the winter time, you really have to wear different hats. If the patio needs to be shoveled, then you just do it. If someone can't get in because their car is broken down, then you've got to do it, because we're running thin. There are some days where you're looking out of the dining room, and the snow is gently falling and you're like 'If I screamed right now…'"
But with the difficult winter months behind, the slow, steady flow of maple syrup reminds Demille that it's an ingredient so simple and perfect that it also has the power to rejuvenate and inspire. "In conclusion, it's pretty fucked up that you can take this water from a tree, reduce it, and just pour it on food."