I am greeted by Chef Michael Stadtlander in the parking lot of his latest venture, Haisai. He is carrying a brown paper Pizza Pizza bag. He offers me a slice. Imagine the look on my face. Michael Stadtlander? THE leader in the movement to support local, honest, seasonal ingredients? Pizza Pizza? With a sly smile, he reveals that the bag is actually full of mushrooms, freshly harvested from Eigensinn Farm. They’ll be featured on tonight’s menu, which I will have the very fortunate opportunity to help prepare.
Through two very generous friends with amazing bidding skills at a charity auction, I was gifted the opportunity to spend the afternoon in the kitchen at Haisai. To say I was intimidated would be an understatement. Turns out my worries were all for naught, as everything about the afternoon was surreal and almost magical.
First there is the dining room. Walking into Haisai is like entering a different world. Tree trunks wind across the ceiling and climb the walls. Mosaic tiles mix with stone and wood in colourful clusters throughout the space. Hides hang over the backs of chairs. It is raw and rugged, yet warm and inviting all at once.
Then there is the kitchen. It is eclectic and unconventional. Pots and utensils hang from a set of antlers affixed to a stone covered column. And it is calm. Almost too calm. Given the small team, and the complex menu they have to prepare, I was expecting the chaotic rush you see on Food Network TV shows. But at Haisai there is classical music playing and serenity in the kitchen. There is no clock counting down. No chaos.
Instead there is a team of enthusiastic young apprentices who have all made a minimum six-month, unpaid commitment to live and breathe the Stadtlander philosophy. The staff get room and board at Eigensinn Farm, where they actively cultivate the bulk of the ingredients that go into Haisai’s seasonal menus. Each staff member participates in all roles at Haisai – farmer, baker, chef, and server – so that their experience is a full immersion into the life of the restaurant.
So committed is one of the apprentices, that, after finishing the early shift in the bakery, he leaves to head back to the farm for an afternoon rest before he returns to work as a server for dinner. He is gone no more than 10 minutes before he re-enters the kitchen with a prize for Chef Stadtlander. Driving along Singhampton’s country roads he spots a cluster of oyster mushrooms as big as a cantaloupe. He presents his trophy and the mushrooms are quickly integrated into the evening menu.
And now the food. Ah, the food. 10 courses, with each portion just enough to give you a taste and leave you wanting more, each one wowing your taste buds. Then the next course appears and you think ‘no, this is the best one yet.’ There are oysters, delivered to the kitchen by Oyster Boy himself, served alongside sea caviar, a specialty Japanese seaweed Stadlander’s wife, Nobuyo, has brought back from her recent trip to Japan. There is Jerusalem artichoke soup, white lake fish, thimble carrots (peeled and prepped by me earlier in the day), sorbet served inside a hollowed-out apple. To finish, there is a tarte tatin, mint tea, and more wine.
By the time the meal concludes, I am stuffed from the food and the energy of the day. It is an experience I will never forget. And a meal that will inspire my adventures in the garden and in the kitchen.