4 Local Chefs have got it Growing On!

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Chefs who garden.

They are a unique multi-tasking breed who work busy kitchen hours and yet still find the time to plan, plant, cultivate, nurture and harvest herbs, vegetables and even the honey that will make its way into their menus and onto your plates. It speaks to their passion and the dedication to their art and craft – and it helps make Waterloo Region a delicious dining destination.

Here’s short selection of local cooks and how they describe what they grow and produce.

Jacob’s Grill Sous Chef Colin Lloyd’s hot peppers

At home, Jacob’s Grill sous chef Colin Lloyd has three planter boxes and several planter pots for hot peppers, tomatoes and herbs.

“It’s something I enjoy working on, and I use the produce both for myself, family and friends and the restaurant,” Lloyd says.

Among those peppers are some pretty hot ones – “super hot,” Lloyd says: Carolina reapers, ghost peppers and Armageddon. “Many of the hottest peppers aren’t easy to find grown here. Over the years, I’ve been testing and trying different ones,” he says.

From roughly 60 pepper plants, he calculates that he gets about three quarts of peppers every two weeks. He uses them for making salsas and pickles, and he puts them into the Jacob’s Grill “Colin’s Inferno Sauce (HOT!)” for the chicken wings.

“I’ve been starting to look into fermenting them too,” Lloyd says of his annual bounty of hot peppers.

The restaurant also has an on-site herb garden near their large outdoor tent including dill, chamomile, parsley and mint, to name a few. The milder herbs are certainly a contrast to the fiery heat that he brings in to the kitchen from his garden.

“I enjoy being able to share the peppers,” Lloyd says. “Customers are interested in the heat, and the staff here like to test them out when I bring them into the restaurant and experience the burn.”

Four Fathers Brewing Co. Head Brewer Curtis Jeffrey’s Honey and bees

Head brewer Curtis Jeffrey is starting his second season tending to the Four Father Brewing bees and using the luscious honey as an ingredient for some of the Cambridge company’s beer.

“This is my first solo year as a beekeeper and brewer,” says Jeffrey, after getting the basic training from a local pro apiarist.

The hives are near the brewery in what Jeffrey calls a nice natural area; he gives the bees most of the credit. “The hive is basically on autopilot. Nature finds a way,” Jeffrey adds.

So far, production has been good: last year, one hive produced nearly 200 lbs. of honey. Jeffery says that some of that became Four Father’s “Honey Badger” saison (historically, a seasonal light-bodied and low alcohol beer) and “These Pretzels Are Making Me Thirsty,” an Oktoberfest-style beer that gives a nod to a classic Kramer line from “Seinfeld.”

Excess honey that can’t be used in the brewing process is jarred and sold in Four Father’s retail store.

“We add the honey at the back end of the boil as a fermentable sugar source, so it doesn’t boil off and lose flavour. It’s relatively easy,” says Jeffery, who notes that he will be adding honey to other beer creations. “The honey is tricky to harvest because it’s so sticky, but I’m getting more efficient. And the bees are no problem. They are pretty docile.”

For Jeffrey, collaborating with 80,000 bees has been a joy – and tasty. “Working with honey is fun. It’s great to be able to taste the ingredient during brewing. We’re giving people some terroir – a little sense of what Hespeler tastes like.”

Red House Uptown Chef Dan McCowan’s garden

When he bought his home, Red House Uptown chef and restaurateur Dan McCowan brought the gardening he dabbled with at the restaurant to his backyard. Over the past several years, the green thumb has slowly been improving, he says.

“I’d call myself a rookie. But I’m learning something about gardening each year,” says McCowan, who has grown tomatoes, a variety of hot peppers, radishes, kohlrabi, yellow squash and beets.

“I grew some tomatillos one year. They grew like crazy,” he adds. On the other hand, Brussels sprouts are a work in progress, he quips. “The plants grew like crazy too, but the actual sprouts were little nubbins. I planted some cucamelons and we’ll see if they come up.”

Food, obviously, is a passion for McCowan: he’s been cooking for nearly 25 years and has owned and operated Red House, a 44-seat restaurant with an additional 60 patio seats, for nine of them. While gardening is a hobby – “it’s mostly for personal use,” he says – but it does play a role for the restaurant as a sort of overfill. “I usually get more tomatoes than I could eat myself, so a lot goes to Red House.”

While the quantities aren’t large enough or consistent enough to serve the restaurant in any significant way that cuts costs, he says it can have a small impact on purchasing. More importantly is the freshness and sense of a hyperlocal crop that he can share with his Red House customers and a chance to introduce them to ingredients that he’d be hard-pressed to find through the normal channels of product sourcing – some of which includes sharing his cultural background.

“I’ve grown Guyanese wiri wiri peppers and used them in the restaurant, as well as broadleaf thyme. They’re hard to find, so I’m seeing if I can get them to thrive again this year. Starting from scratch is a lot of work, but I discover more each year.”

Odd Duck Wine and Provisions Chef Jon Rennie’s garden

His gardening efforts make their way into the restaurants Jon Rennie has worked in for about a dozen years.

“Every year, I look at the yard and ask, ‘What can I bring into work today?’”

From there, Rennie explores with edible flowers or yarrow and wood sorrel; perhaps a syrup from echinachea root or a fritter from day lilies.

“The first thing is I really like to be outside. Feeding the soil, connecting with nature,” he says. “It’s therapeutic now, but my parents always had a big garden so it was something I grew up with. Just grabbing something fresh.”

Over the course of the summer, and depending on the time of the season, Rennie ways he will first have herbs like chervil and cilantro. “But I’m also growing a Chinese pink celery. It has beautiful colour and a very pronounced celery flavour.” Pod peas will arrive soon and will go into his chilled pea soup. By using the pods to make a stock, he will extract deep flavour.

Bringing fresh produce to a restaurant, whether it’s his own or from a farm he’s visited is a philosophy. “There’s a personal connection, and I know where the produce came from,” Rennie says adding that the shorter the distance from farm to table the better the quality and the flavour.

He looks forward to soybeans and marigold leaves, the latter of which add incredible flavour. “Tomatoes I will use to for fried green tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes, when you pick them off green, can be pickled. They’re almost like a tomato caper.”

Rennie’s colleague, chef Teneile Warren, introduced him to new ways to use a tomato leaf. “Tomato leaves in oil are delicious and just a great use of the whole plant,” he says. “Tomatoes plants have a lot of leaves.”

Eventually edamame will make their way into his kitchen, destined, in part, to become a puree, along with sunchokes. “They start small and become plentiful. I also will have a heatless Habanero – it tricks your brain into thinking it’s a Habanero but it’s not hot. It’s really floral and delicious.”

In general, customers have become more aware of what’s available, Rennie says. “They’re interested in different and unique vegetables and know that they taste really good. These are products from local people rather than always shipped from California.”

While he points out that “meat tastes like meat,” fresh vegetables add complexity to your plate.

“The variety in vegetables, plants and herbs is really where the flavour on your dish is coming from.”

Look for Rennie, with his sommelier business partner Wes Klassen, to offer pop-up events around the region as they plan a bricks-and-mortar venue.


Andrew Coppolino is food columnist with CBC-KW and Metroland newspapers. The author of Farm to Table (Swan Parade Press) and co-author of Cooking with Shakespeare (Greenwood Press), he is the 2022 “Joseph Hoare Gastronomic Writer-in-Residence” at the Stratford Chefs School. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @andrewcoppolino. 


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