Chef Michael Stadtlander with his wife Nobuyo and their son Hermann in the kitchen at Haisai
Serendipity sometimes happens.
It was on a Saturday evening in November when we drove on dark country roads from the Blue Mountains in Collingwood to the little village of Singhampton about two hours north of Toronto. The small restaurant Haisai was our destination.
The happy happenstance: Michael Stadtlander was cooking in the restaurant’s kitchen. Nobuyo, his wife, instantly recognized me and Hermann, their son, was in charge of the dining room. The chef at Haisai Min Young Lee left in July. “I am looking for a chef,” Michael said after our dinner.
I have a history with Michael. I met him more than 40 years ago when he was a newcomer to Canada. I remember chatting with him in the cafeteria in the Toronto Sun where I worked as the first food editor in the 1980s. His idealistic philosophy about sustainability, artisanal foods, organics and the idea of farm to table was ahead of his time. It’s now timely, fashionable and urgently needed.
I’ve been to his 100-acre Eigensinn Farm, also in Singhampton near to Haisai, to gather with “foodie pilgrims” at sprawling picnics in the fields. I also ate an eight-course dinner in the rustic farmhouse.
Michael’s farm is closed for the winter and the COVID crisis hit them. Eigensinn will be open in June, 2022. The aspiring chef apprentices called “stagiaires” will be back – they want to learn from their tall (he is 6’6″) and inspired mentor.
The upside is – Michael is now cooking at Haisai. The cozy eatery has a small-dish menu nailed with a cork on a wooden board. The room has all-natural decor designed by Michael with stones, wood, tree trunks and recycled material. My partner Ross commented, “The room has a Flintstone look.” Nobuyo, who served us, said with a smile, “It is Michael’s playhouse.” A note: Cellphones do not work at Haisai.
Me at Haisai with the menu
I’ve always admired Michael Stadtlander. He’s creative. He’s an artist and an activist. He is a visionary. He thinks outside the box. He is humble and soft-spoken. Last, he cooks like an angel.
For about 20 years, he worked at restaurants in Toronto. Some of them he owned. He met celebrity chef Jamie Kennedy in Europe. Michael collaborated with Jamie at the still stellar Scaramouche. But he longed for the countryside and a farm.
He moved to Eigensinn Farm in 1993. He’s returned to his roots. He grew up on a family farm in Lubeck, Germany. He uses 80 to 90 per cent of ingredients grown on his farm to prepare his dishes. He practices what he preaches. He is sincere and true to his word.
Most of Haisai’s produce and meats come from Eigensinn. Most of the fish – whitefish, trout and pickerel – come from Georgian Bay. That Saturday evening, more than 15 savoury items were on the menu, each priced at about $14. We chose four.
Eigensinn Farm Kale and Beet Salad came first. Green and red kale torn and pieces and shredded beets tossed in Caesar-like dressing was a sensation of taste and texture. Nobuyo said, “We picked the kale today under the snow.”
A dish of Cold Smoked Wild Rainbow Trout with Green Onion Chervil Horseradish Yogurt and Potato Rosti was sensational. Cut in chunks, the fish was delicate combined with the creamy sauce and crisp Rosti.
Raisin Bread Cheese Griller with Jam was a tiny square of warm, crunchy, slightly sweet bread encasing salty melted cheese with blackcurrant and rhubarb preserves on the side. The tiny square of this packed a big punch. Quality, not quantity exemplified.
Eigensinn Farm Red Wattle Pork Tonkatsu with Potato Puree and Cabbage was a Japanese-style kind of schnitzel – nicely chewy and crispy breaded and fried pork.
We had two desserts: Michael is well known for his divine strudel. I chatted with Michael after our meal. He said Vienna Apple Strudel was filled with “wild apples growing on Eigensinn Farm the size of baseballs.” The flaky pastry encasing them with cinnamon sugar and chopped toasted almonds was scrumptious.
Dark Chocolate Cognac Cedar Ice Cream with Plum and Apple was the other divine dessert. I’ve always liked chocolate with fruit, especially the chef’s deeply dark ice cream with pieces of roasted plum and apple. Sweet!
Currently, Michael is in the kitchen at Haisai. The 28-seat restaurant is open for dinner in December three days a week – from Thursday to Saturday. It is also open for Sunday lunch.
“Eigensinn Farm is not a typical restaurant,” Michael said. “I haven’t been on the line for 20 years. I am on the line at Haisai – it’s fun.”
He constantly has ideas percolating in his brain. Recently, he has had several projects. He created a forest dining room called the PineSpiel Project, his fourth farm-to-table venture at the farm. Michael wants to use the pine trees “to connect people to nature” – he came up with the concept while cross-country skiing through the farm.
In 2018, he commemorated his 25th anniversary at Eigensinn Farm. Eigensinn, a German word, means “single-mindedness” or “obstinacy.” It comes from an essay by Hermann Hesse. It’s appropriate for a family determined to follow a spiritual path.
Temple of Love, Peace and Tolerance
Talking of spiritual, Michael built the “Temple of Love, Peace and Tolerance” in 2019. It’s a bakehouse where they make crusty and toothsome sourdough bread. Love, peace and tolerance are key concepts that are necessary in our dangerous times.
He is timely on the climate change front and he is right about humanity. “The world needs more connection with our environment. We need more time and connection with each other.”
On living in the country: “I love it. I feel privileged to grow and raise your own food. To have a direct connection with the land and other people is a privilege.”
Michael has plans for world peace in 2023. He will invite 12 to 15 artists from Canada and several other countries each to instal a sculpture on his farm.
The talented chef is a leader and he keeps on cooking!
Eigensinn has a Christmas Market on December 19th from 1 to 4 pm. There will be holiday foods to take home and eat there. All proceeds will go to the women’s shelter My Friend’s House in Collingwood. Click for the details on the latest news.