STYLE

Purely Canadian: Stratford chef uses domestic ingredients and cooks seasonally

09/26/2013 04:42 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST
STRATFORD, Ont. - If it's not a Canadian ingredient, Robert Rose doesn't want it in his restaurant.

That even extends to the fittings and furnishings, which he builds himself or sources from Canadian companies.

The chef and owner of Canadian Grub to Go opened his doors in this theatre town just over a year ago and, judging by the lineups to nosh on his uniquely Canadian and seasonal fare, has found a niche in the marketplace.

Last weekend, his Ontario Grains Arancini — barley, wild rice, quinoa and sunflower seeds stuffed with hot pepper brick cheese — was voted best vegetarian dish at the Sunday Tasting event at the Savour Stratford culinary festival. He supplied the dried peppers that Oak Grove Cheese in nearby Wilmot added to the cheese.

"The total mission for this place is to be 100 per cent Canadian based," Rose says.

"We won't import anything ourselves ... We're not trying to give you lemon when we can substitute, say, sorrel or lemon balm or find another flavour that is actually grown in the country.

"If we can find it in the country we'll use it. If we can't find it we just won't import it."

The decor of the take-out space — painted green in a tribute to his mother's favourite colour — is dominated by a Canadian flag and a map showing where his ingredients are sourced. A few examples include hazelnuts, crab and prawns from B.C.; wheat, quinoa and chickpeas from Saskatchewan; bison and hemp seeds from Manitoba; lamb, strawberries, peaches, pickerel, elk and blueberries from Ontario; Oka cheese and brie from Quebec; molasses from New Brunswick; lobster from Prince Edward Island; and birch syrup from Dawson City in Yukon along with arctic char from the far north.

"It's not like you're ever pinched," Rose says after a recent lunch-time rush before an afternoon performance at the nearby Avon Theatre.

"You just have to look harder and that's kind of our challenge. We've had as many as 37 different suppliers that I've called in a one-month span."

Rose took over a former shipping store and opted to start small, using less than half of the building's 30-metre length for a take-out area with seven stools. In April he added tables in the back section, and is installing a prep area in hopes of launching a cross-Canada tasting menu there. That space is ideally situated to accommodate theatre patrons with the exit from the Avon emptying right at his back entrance.

When you walk in the front door, you see Rose hard at work, whether he's making stock, smoking meats or preserving items that are placed in countless jars lined up on shelves and even along the crown moulding.

"As far as we know — we researched this heavily before we opened — no other restaurant in Canada serves exclusively Canadian. And I love when they say they do because it takes me about 20 seconds (to prove them wrong).

"Just click on the dessert menu and they're out — someone's got chocolate, someone's got lemon, someone's using sugar of some sort and that's just not what we're doing."

Sugar is not grown in Canada, but sugar beets are. "But we can't get the refinery to sell us sugar beet sugar. We will use a product that's refined in Canada. So Redpath Sugar, we'll get a product that at least has been refined by Canadians."

Several flats of local strawberries lay waiting for him to pick through later that day to freeze for use in the winter. "Then when you order a strawberry smoothie in January you'll be getting fresh Ontario strawberries."

Last winter, he used greens from Canadian companies grown using hydroponics.

The day before he'd broken down 20 whole turkeys from an area farm and has had live lobster flown in from the East Coast to avoid using frozen.

"I have a whole cow in our basement right now that we broke down and froze and we're slowly working off that," says Rose.

"To me that's a lot more fun than ordering in your tenderloins in packed bags and it's got blood in it. I'd rather go and see the farm and go and see the cow."

Rose, who's done stints at the tony Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., and as chef at The Belfry, upstairs at the acclaimed Church Restaurant in Stratford, grew up in Wawa, Ont. In an ode to his roots, the website for his business is wawagrub.ca.

During construction of the restaurant's take-out area, he hired a contractor with the understanding Rose would be the apprentice and learn how to do everything to code. "There is no use not knowing every aspect of the business, and when you can save a buck, you save a buck."

He's toiling away on the back section. He's building barstools in the basement and the barnboard installed on the walls came from a vegetable farm at Baden, Ont., where he worked for 4 1/2 years.

The closure of Zellers meant Rose could purchase some of the Canadian department chain's appliances, tables and sinks.

Rose is passionate about promoting Canada.

"I love the challenge of it. It's so easy to order a case of lemons. Try not doing it. Try telling 15 people a day you don't sell coffee. I know we could be a heck of a lot busier with higher sales, but this is what I want to do. I'm happy to do this."

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If You Go ...

Canadian Grub to Go is at 85 Downie St., Stratford, Ont., 519-814-4782, wawagrub.ca.

The restaurant is one of the stops on the Bacon and Ale Trail, a self-guided tour of food shops and pubs. Try Rose's smoked maple bacon BLT sandwich. Passes cost $25 plus HST for five tickets that can be exchanged at five participating stops for a tasting. Contact Stratford Tourism Alliance at 1-800-561-7926 or visitstratford.ca.

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