Once a year, Chef Ryan Crawford cranks Roxanne by The Police and takes a shot of bourbon in honour of his most loyal and longest running help in the kitchen.
Her name, fittingly, is Roxanne, and she’s been with Crawford, proprietor of Backhouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake, since he graduated culinary school in Stratford in 1999. The duo have travelled Canada together, journeying to Fogo Island and Prince Edward Island to work magic in kitchens there. And they’ve forged a strong partnership here in Niagara, where Crawford has garnered national and international accolades over the past 15 years — the last four at Backhouse — for his innovative approach to regional, seasonal cuisine.
No matter the attention he gets, Crawford always honours his tireless kitchen aid with a course of wood oven-baked sourdough on both his chef’s menu and à la carte. Roxanne, you see, is his 20-year-old sourdough starter, figuring prominently in baking at Backhouse, and in the homes of diners gifted some of the fermented flour that makes up Roxanne’s being.
“Roxanne is a mom and she has babies all over North America,” Crawford said proudly. “I’ll get pictures once a month of (other people’s) sourdough. It’s very exciting.”
Crawford is the father of cool climate cuisine here in Niagara
As much as Roxanne is the prolific mother of bread loaves everywhere, Crawford is the father of cool climate cuisine here in Niagara. It’s his unique take on using Ontario — and Niagara — produce almost exclusively, save for the lemons required by Backhouse’s bartenders, or the chocolate that appears in the petits fours. Even the salt Crawford uses to season dishes, such as wood-fired squab with rutabaga gratin, 90-day dry aged beef, or the duck liver mousse beignet with apricot compote, comes from close to home. He sources it from Goderich, Ont., which boasts the world’s largest underground salt mine, or from New York’s Finger Lakes.
Crawford’s dedication to showcasing local never wavers, even during dessert when many bakers reach for vanilla from far-flung places to flavour nearly anything sweet that follows dinner. Backhouse’s vanilla ice cream? It’s only eggs, cream and sugar but they come together to produce intense, authentic flavour, Crawford explained.
“Take vanilla out of your baking and you’ll taste what everything should taste like,” he said. “It’s not making things with other flavours. It’s letting things speak for themselves.”
That’s easy to do here in Niagara. Crawford cooks in the cradle of the region’s finest farmland. He has connections galore to local producers, but he also has a farmer on staff, Ashley Burnie, who grows fruit and vegetables on three acres behind Crawford’s home, a two-minute drive from Backhouse.
Crawford and Burnie sit down together in the winter to map out planting and harvest schedules, which helps the kitchen with menu planning. An additional unheated greenhouse starts the growing season early and prolongs it come fall. The goal is to get nearly all of the restaurant’s produce from the Backhouse farm, which grows everything from peas, bok choy and asparagus in spring to berries, apricots, cherries, and tomatoes from 800 plants in summer, and squash, rutabaga and other storage vegetables in autumn.
What isn’t served fresh is preserved to see the restaurant through winter.
“We planted everything we could. It was ‘Hey, what do you want to cook? We’ll plant it,’” Crawford said.
It’s not as though farm and restaurant only meet in the kitchen when harvests are ready. Everyone who works in the restaurant spends time on the land, learning about the ebb and flow of the bounty through the year.
“You’re sitting there with your hands in the dirt and feeling the energy and life of what’s growing there,” Crawford explained.
That desire to put in such effort comes from when Crawford helmed the kitchen of the former Stone Road Grille, under different ownership but in the same unassuming strip mall location that’s home to Backhouse. Back then, Crawford got his hands dirty raising heritage pigs with Paul Harber at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery.
“It is so much work,” he said about the endeavour. “It taught us a lot about how much work farmers really put in. It really got me thinking about sustainability and waste. My thing about sustainability here, I’m giving Ashley, a young farmer, a job. It’s helping the restaurant. If it all works out, it’s less money for us in vegetables, it’s fresher, and it’s giving younger chefs and apprentices the opportunity to respect the vegetables because they know Ashley grows it.”
It’s also giving Backhouse diners an experience. They hear the story of 4 o’clock asparagus — quite literally harvested at 4 p.m. the day it’s served — with 24-month house-cured prosciutto and Ontario-grown saffron. They’re exposed to flavours like white asparagus and rhubarb in a savoury soft serve garnished with seed asparagus and served as an amuse bouche.
“They want to hear the story. We’re trying to tell the story of food in Niagara,” Crawford said. “It’s having that interaction with people and giving them something special.”
There was a time when it looked like Crawford would fulfill his dreams of such an endeavour elsewhere. He spent three years searching for the perfect location to open a Canadian version of an agritourismo, those farmhouses that combine gastronomy and overnight stays in Italy, after he left Stone Road Grille. He was close to inking a deal on land elsewhere in Ontario when his former bosses let him know they were closing the restaurant.
Coming back to the location where he repeatedly earned praise from out-of-town media for his inventive take on fine dining made sense. The relationships and his reputation were established in Niagara, but it’s also where Crawford could work with grape growers and vintners to make his own wine, a hobby he hopes to pick up again this fall after a few years’ break.
Really, though, cooking with local produce — and, of course, baking sourdough bread starring Roxanne — over wood fire in a space that belies its strip mall location is about something else, something more intrinsic.
“For me, it’s being true to my world, Crawford said. “It’s teaching the general public about respect (for the ingredients) and giving people jobs and and opportunities. Profitability, for me, is rooted in happiness. It makes me happy serving people. My staff comes first, making them happy and energized to be here, excited to be and work, and that comes through in the food.”
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242 Mary St, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON L0S 1J0