[Story first appeared on Vacay.ca]
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO—Survive war and you’ll have friends for life. For chefs Frank Dodd and Jason Parsons, the field of battle was Cliveden House, a 160-year-old manor built along the Thames in a suburb of London. With a turreted roof and massive opulence, it looks like the kind of place a tyrant would call home and, according to the chefs who’ve apprenticed there, one has.
Dodd spent six months training in the British armed services and says the best thing about that experience is it prepped him for Cliveden. Parsons calls the 12 months he spent at Cliveden between 1995-96 the toughest of his 37 years of life. His wife, Meg, says the man who used to run this particular hell’s kitchen “makes Gordon Ramsay look like a pansy.”
His name is Ron Maxfield. During his time in the Cliveden kitchen, he churned out a good amount of chefs and at least one pair of brothers in arms. Dodd is the executive chef at Hillebrand Winery and Parsons runs the restaurant at Peller Estates, both prestigious establishments owned by Andrew Peller Ltd. Although their restaurants are only eight kilometres apart and compete for the same fine-dining dollar in Niagara-on-the-Lake, both chefs say there’s a benefit to being in the same town, working for the same corporation.
“We work under the same umbrella, but the restaurants are separate in concept,” says Dodd, who was born in Bristol, England, and arrived in Canada in 2000. “This place is styled on a California winery, so it’s a little more relaxed, more easy going. We’re not imposing a fine-dining attitude on you. Peller is designed on a French chateau, so it has more of that traditional winery feel.”
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The chefs talk several times a week about recipes, staffing, and the quality of local produce and suppliers.
“Frank would not think twice of saying, ‘Use the same duck supplier as me,’ for instance, because he knows that what I do with the birds and what he does with them are different,” says Parsons, who has been the executive chef at Peller for the past seven years.
He and Dodd worked in tandem to open Biff’s, the 11-year-old Oliver & Bonacini restaurant on Front Street in Toronto. Now, both are enjoying the unique benefits of cooking at a winery.
“The best place to be right now is in a winery because people will never stop drinking wine, no matter how bad the economy is. So if the restaurant is flat or a little under, it’s okay. We have the national umbrella over us that is still selling wine and we can weather that storm,” says Dodd, who joined Hillebrand in 2006. He has also worked in Australia, the Netherlands, Vancouver and twice cooked for the Bush family while at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine.
At Hillebrand, he says he not only uses copious amounts of wine in his dishes, he’s encouraged to. Hillebrand goes through 50 cases a week, says its chef. “I can use ice wine by the gallon, and I do.”
Dodd says he’s braised pork bellies in eight litres of ice wine and Parsons also uses Peller’s collection liberally. For example, he soaks a mound of blue cheese from Quebec in six litres of ice wine for two weeks before plating it. To showcase the transformation, he serves it alongside slices of the same cheese that weren’t drenched in the wine. The sober portion is sharp and tough; the slice whose veins have been saturated with alcohol is sweet and soft like brie.
“We’re trying to show that ice wine is not a dessert wine,” says Parsons, whose restaurant, like Dodd’s, is a CAA four-diamond winner. “We do ice wine marshmallows, we do ice wine cotton candy, we also use it in the beginning of the meal with foie gras.”
Such display of bacchanalia is rare for chefs because, as Dodd points out, the cost would be prohibitive. Whereas, at the winery, “I have 60 litres of ice wine in the fridge right now ready for cooking.”
Cooking in Niagara-on-the-Lake is surreal, says Parsons, who recently won gold from the Canadian Culinary Awards for a cookbook co-authored with Michael Bonacini and Massimo Capra. Doing so with his close friend around the corner makes the experience more unusual and pleasant. The men are such good friends that the Parsonses are godparents to Dodd’s 4-year-old daughter and Meg Parsons introduced Dodd to his wife.
“We went through the wars,” says Parsons. “Now, we’re almost like brothers.”