Chef, event planner breathe new life into dated resorts in 'Dining INNvasion'

TORONTO - When chef Victor Barry visited struggling resorts and inns to help them revamp their menus as part of a new television series, he found many of the owners and chefs of the cottage country properties were simply trying to do too much.

"There was a common trend of really large menus because they thought that giving people more choice would make people happier," said the owner of Toronto's Splendido restaurant and co-host of "Dining INNvasion."

"That might be true, but I believe that the less choice that I give someone the more I can concentrate on doing the three or four things that I'm doing and I think it's better to give somebody three or four great choices as opposed to 20 terrible ones because I really think it makes or breaks a stay is the food at a resort."

Barry and his co-host, event planner Rebecca Wise, attempt to revitalize 13 dated resorts and inns by rejuvenating their menus and dining rooms in the new series, which premieres Friday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Cottage Life and is produced by General Purpose Entertainment.

In each episode of "Dining INNvasion," Barry designs a specialty menu for the featured resort, often with locally sourced food. Then he mentors and works alongside his host chef and the culinary staff as they execute his creation together. Meanwhile, Wise injects new life into the dining area, with an eye on everything from service to silverware.

When he arrived at each property he sampled food prepared for him and was dismayed to find in many cases that the items had been supplied by massive food service companies.

"That's kind of a really bad start. ... There's no real quality, no real sourcing in their food and every single resort I went to I'd get a striploin with mashed potatoes and a piece of broccoli, a piece of carrot, a piece of zucchini, a piece of cauliflower and a rosemary sprig. I can't even tell you how many times I had that," he said in a telephone interview.

"It's not precooked, but a striploin would come in already portioned in the individual packages. I don't think a place that's not really high end needs to serve tenderloin or New York striploin. Serve beef cheeks and braise them. Serve shortribs. ... You're getting a lesser cut, but you can spend a little bit more money on better-quality meat as opposed to the meat that they were getting."

He urged property owners and chefs to build relationships with local suppliers, though he acknowledged the process can be time consuming and require planning.

"I must have 300 contacts just for food at Splendido who I get one thing from for two weeks of the year because that's the only time that they have it for. It's too bad because they're in these beautiful locations that if they had a little more ambition they could do a lot of cool stuff," he said.

"They're in the wild, there's beautiful fish available to them, but it's strange, you'd think they'd be serving pickerel or trout, but they're serving mahi-mahi and tuna. Well, why would you buy frozen fish from the middle of nowhere when there's all this beautiful fish around you?"

The reason? "Money. Straight up. Imagine getting a hamburger from a good butcher or a good restaurant versus going to (a fast-food chain restaurant). Huge companies have huge buying power." He added the caveat that these companies do offer a "great service," being able to offer consistency while keeping prices down.

A common complaint he encountered among resort owners was the large number of guests who are vegetarian or need a gluten- or dairy-free diet.

"They made it like it was such a challenge, it was so hard and it was costing them so much money to accommodate them." He told them they were looking at it from the wrong perspective. "To cook for a vegan or vegetarian is cheaper than cooking for someone who wants to have beef tenderloin. Just let your chef make something creative. It's not hard."

Barry thinks some resorts will adopt his suggestions.

"But I definitely think some of them won't just because some people are really receptive to what I had to say and other people are like, 'You don't know what you're talking about; you don't know what it's like to be up here.' OK, you know what, I know what it's like to be in the biggest city in the country and cooking with 10,000 restaurants every single day, so I know what competition's all about."

Follow @lois_abraham on Twitter.