There are many reasons to visit Muskoka: the small town ambience; the pristine lakes; its world-renowned golf courses. These days, the region offers another excellent incentive thanks to the tremendous growth of its dining scene. We asked some of Muskoka’s most prominent kitchen captains about their restaurants, their cuisine and the area’s emergence as a foodie-friendly destination. Watch this space for a new chef every week of the summer!
CHEF RORY GOLDEN
Deerhurst Resort, Huntsville
Can you tell us a bit about your restaurant and its philosophy?
Deerhurst has two restaurants and a bar/lounge, as well as seasonal outlets. In 2010, the focus at Eclipse, Deerhurst’s showcase restaurant, is to truly capitalize on Canadian produce, cuisine influences and cooking traditions. For us, this enhanced coast-to-coast emphasis comes for three reasons: First, it’s practical, as the Muskoka growing season is limited and it makes more sense environmentally to source as close to your own backyard as you can and work with growers directly; second, diners have become more interested in their food’s provenance; finally, we also want to show pride in being Canadian. We all loved how the Olympic torch relay tied our country together, and in June, Deerhurst will host the G8 Summit of world leaders and Toronto will host the G20. One of the best ways we can showcase our nationality and our diversity is through food.
The Muskoka region is gaining popularity as a dining destination. Why do you think this is?
I would say it’s a combination of two factors: Muskoka now offers more variety in terms of quality dining options, from low to high end, and the growing Savour Muskoka culinary trail is starting to give visitors access to a wide range of products. The trail map we introduced in 2009 has really helped with having people explore “off the highways” and try food from our many members.
What are your thoughts on the local food movement?
It’s vital, it’s growing and it needs everyone’s support. Deerhurst is fortunate enough to have cultivated producer relationships for many years, so now we have growers and others asking on our input on what’s needed and what will sell. For us, the only challenge is being able to plan and source with enough consistency and quantity to branch out from our restaurants into our conference and catering dining supply. For a large resort, consistency is critical, so that’s one of the aspects we’re collaborating on.
What culinary trends do you predict in Muskoka in the near future?
I can’t say if it will become a Muskoka trend in particular, but we are seeing a big return of interest in “old fashioned” food gathering and preparation techniques like foraging, pickling, preserving and smoking. These methods really help us to showcase ingredients with limited seasonal availability to our guests year-round, like pickling spring’s wild leeks and summer’s heirloom beets, and turning the last of our mushroom crop into shiitake dust that we roll beef tenderloins and other meats in for additional flavour.
Can you give an example of your signature dish?
At Deerhurst we like to find new ways to reinvent traditional favourites. Two current examples of that would be our savoury Milford Bay “cheesecake” topped with Niagara Vidal vinegar-spiked caramelized onions. It’s kind of like blending two New York favourites—cheesecake, and lox and bagels, with a distinctly Muskoka and Ontario spin. Deerhurst has always been known for using local squashes and our resort-produced maple syrup in soups and vegetable dishes. Now we’ve transformed that into a savoury butternut squash “crème brûlée” that’s delicious, different and easier to eat than soup. We think a lot of the extra taste in our dishes comes from using herbs, maple syrup and honey produced right here at Deerhurst, as well as the ingredients from over 18 different local producers we’re very fortunate to work with. It’s also important to balance salty and sweet, savoury and spicy, and colours and textures in a dish and throughout a menu, to eat with the eyes and not just the mouth.
What are the benefits and challenges of cooking in a resort setting?
The biggest benefits are having a whole brigade of chefs and cooks (Deerhurst employs 40 to 65 kitchen staff), having land to grow some of our own supplies, and the variety of meals we get asked to serve—from intimate dinners for two, to BBQ Point events and meeting lunches for 700. The challenges are sourcing local food in sufficient quantity to meet demand, making each meal we serve as personal and as perfect as we can given the speed and volume required, and, in the case of senior chefs, getting to spend time actually cooking in addition to preparing menus, managing budgets, hiring and all the other business of running several kitchens.
Aside from indulging in fine dining, how else would you suggest visitors to the Muskoka region make the most of their time?
Get off the highway and make a point of going to farmer’s markets, fruit stands, small bakeries, family- and off-the-beaten-path eateries. Food also makes a great souvenir to take home and share, from Muskoka microbrews and fruit wines, to locally roasted coffee.Get out in the forest that surrounds us—just make sure to pack your boots and bug spray. Algonquin Park is a must-do that’s close to us, and you definitely have to get out on the Muskoka lakes in summer, early fall and also winter—for snowmobiling, skating and pond hockey or ice fishing.