Arts and Culture
Superlative Gastronomy in an Idyllic Setting
Authentic Canadiana with European panache in an Algonquin hideaway
The haunting call of the loon. A moose grazing at the roadside. The murmur of a paddle dipping into the lake in the mist of early dawn. In short, a portrait of Algonquin Park.
A century ago, Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven immortalized the iconography of Algonquin’s landscape, bequeathing a profound legacy to Canada’s cultural profile. Their depictions of its breathtaking wilderness reached across the ocean to European galleries, enticing international travellers to experience the allure of Algonquin.
The birth of Arowhon Pines
Not long after the artists of the Group of Seven had begun to make their mark on history, a remarkable woman with her own vision established a children’s camp in Algonquin Park, followed in 1938 by a lodge to house the visiting families. The determined Lillian Kates engaged local woodsmen to hew and hand-notch the property’s pines for the hexagonal dining room perched over the waters of Little Lake Joe. It is still a magnificent achievement, distinguished by its rustic timbers and a massive central stone fireplace with an iron chimney that rises ten meters high to a cathedral ceiling.
In 1970, ownership of the Arowhon Pines Resort passed to the next Kates generation, Helen and Eugene, both dedicated to the ideal of an authentic Canadiana retreat coupled with the elegance of European cuisine and hospitality. A stickler for culinary perfection, Helen developed hundreds of recipes and hired a European-trained chef. Arowhon Pines was honoured in 1987 with an invitation to the elite membership of Relais & Châteaux, a European association that acknowledges the most outstanding and unique hotels and restaurants.
The gastronomy and décor of this log-cabin restaurant is exceptional. Day-trippers and resort guests enjoy imaginative and hearty fare made from local seasonal ingredients. Chef David Cooke works closely with the area’s farmers and producers to ensure that the commitment to healthy, fresh food is reflected in every dish.
The European influence
Europe has long held the reputation of being a prime training ground for superb chefs, embracing a breadth of cuisine evolved from centuries of experimentation. David’s own European experience began with the intervention of fate. “I was biking through Europe when I got a flat tire in Stratford-on-Avon; and, perhaps brashly, I decided to ask for a job at the Hilton,” he explains. The young man became the supervising chef in their cold kitchen. However, his self-proclaimed ‘wake-up call’ came with his training in a Swiss Michelin-star hotel. “It was a tough regime, especially for foreigners who didn’t speak German,” he says, “but I learned a great deal about food.”
Returning to Canada, David responded to an ad for a position at Arowhon, undergoing a rigorous interview by Helen Kates, and stayed for some years before heading back to England to launch his own business. Coincidentally (or perhaps it was destiny), a guest from Arowhon dined at one of his two British restaurants, and told Helen. “She basically hunted me down,” says David with a smile. “I signed the contracts in March of 2002 and I’ve been here ever since.”
David is a true proponent of down-to-earth cuisine. “It’s all about authenticity,” he says. “I’m the ‘Grandma’ in the kitchen.” That may be so, but this is one very talented Grandma! The menus, which are changed daily, reflect the hand of an experienced and creative chef who enjoys culturally diverse influences. An Arowhon evening meal begins with a buffet of tantalizing appetizers. Meal entrees are served at the table, with dishes like lobster over noodles with julienne of vegetables, roast chicken, loin of venison with pea and prosciutto risotto, and a vegetarian choice.
The dessert buffet showcases the exquisite art of pastry chef, Heather Mordue, who previously worked in Toronto’s Yorkville area. She is adding house-made chocolate truffles and cremini to her repertoire this year, following a recent training course with master chocolatiers in Italy.
A celebration of local food
Arowhon hosts an annual 100-mile barbecue on the August civic holiday weekend, serving nothing that has been grown beyond a 100-mile radius. “It means no tea, lemons, vinegar, or sugar,” says David. “We sweeten with local honey, maple syrup, and stevia from the garden … and serve rhubarb-ade.” The menu includes salads, vegetarian options, heritage meats, homemade ice cream and desserts. Plus David’s personal favourite — fresh fish — which he declares is the yardstick by which you measure a chef’s skill. “It needs a very light touch,” he explains.
David and his crew cook to the highest standards, with a classy, clean, Canadiana style. A sign in the Arowhon kitchen decrees: “If you’re not proud of it, don’t serve it.” The cuisine at this Algonquin hideaway fully measures up to this motto. It is truly a virtuoso performance, inspired by tradition and honed by sophistication. CCH
Photos: Robert Nelson