AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES: MARVELING AT KEYSTONE HOSPITALITY’S FOODIE EMPIRE
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
‘The recipe for that dollop of peri-peri alone was years in the making,’ Chef de Cuisine Julian Palmer tells me as I scoop a bit onto my fork and touch it to my tongue. The flavour is electrifying – smoky, spicy, complex. A triumph. Julian continues: ‘Chef [Arron Carley] and I began experimenting with ingredients three years ago – trialing with smoked chilies, white onion, lemons.’ I portion a few dropsof the sauce onto a piece of the succulent duck with which it’s been paired and take a bite. The flavours of the peri-peri and duck are definitively complementary – and utterly satisfying. As I bask in the flavour rush, Julian continues what has been an illuminating commentary on the fabulous items he has prepared: ‘We blanch and shock sixteen lemons worth of peels three separate times for each batch of peri-peri – and add lots of white vinegar.’
White vinegar? ‘It’s often used in South African cooking,’ Julian adds matter-of- factly. Ah, of course. South African cooking: the (wonderfully-)inescapable theme ofthis whirlwind junket of Stratford-based Keystone Hospitality’s triad of South African- inspired culinary gems. There’s BRCH & Wyn: a daytime café that transforms into a tapas-style wine bar in the evening. And Brü Garden: Keystone’s fantastic backyard beer garden. And this place: Braai House. Located downtown, this upscale restaurant – which specializes in South African-inspired, open- fire cooking – is the jewel in the Keystone cap. And our destination for this dinner.
I turn my attention back to the dish in front of me, gently gather up a bit of rapini and freekeh onto my fork, and lift it to my mouth. The subtle bitterness of the rapini and slight graininess of the freekeh serve as perfectfoils for the duck with peri-peri. Enthralled, I turn toward my TOQUE partner-in-crime, Cai, to see how she’s getting along. We make eye contact and nod at each other in celebration of this most fortunate situation. From my perch at the bar facing the open concept kitchen, I note Julian – tongs in hand – working on our next offering: lamb, with berbere, carrot, and injera. Probably our ninth or tenth course by now. Entranced by the cornucopia of culinary pleasures, we’ve lost track of time. Over Cai’s shoulder, through the door leading to the restaurant’s second storey patio, daylight is slipping away. ‘This has been a most delicious day,’ Cai observes. I can’t agree more. And to think it all started – as many good things do – with a bike ride. Let’s go there now.
‘Kyle and I thought we’d work up your appetite before digging in to the day’s itinerary,’ Chef Arron remarks over the crunching soundsof tires on gravel. It’s just past eight in the morning, a few kilometres outside Stratford, and Arron is leading Cai and me and Kyle Nesbitt – the brewmaster at Keystone – by bike down a bucolic country road. As Keystone’s Culinary Director, it was Arron who invited Cai and me to Festival City for today’s visit – and Arron who insisted that we begin the whole affair on our gravel rigs. After all, cycling is what got Arron here in the first place.
When Arron and I pull a few metres ahead of Cai and Kyle, he explains: ‘A few years back I was in a rut – not loving my former job, myself, or my life in general. I needed a real change.’ It was then that Arron found cycling – which, in turn, led him to this gig with Keystone. Arron goes on: ‘Cycling has reinvigorated my passion for food. It’s made me a better cook. It’s helped me fall in love with life again.’ What a truly wonderful thing. ‘In the past,’ Arron continues, ‘I’d work upwards of sixteen-hour days in the kitchen [at Copenhagen’s Noma – ranked best restaurant in the world – and at other culinary destinations]. Now, I realize how important it is for cooks to find time outside the kitchen to do other things.’
Ah, yes – a balanced life. Every cook’s aspiration. And one that Arron now realizes, in no small part because the owners of Keystone Hospitality – Anthony Jordaan (originally from South Africa – hence the focus of his businesses) and Kim Hurley – are supportive of this goal. ‘Anthony and Kim are the nicest owners I’ve ever worked for,’ Arron remarks. ‘Salt-of-the-earth folks. Hard working. But also committed to making Keystone a place where staff can enjoy the fruits of their labour – both at work and outside of it.’ As we crest a hill, Perth County farmland sprawls out in front of us all the way to the horizon. Above us, the morning sun beats down on our backs. Behind me, I hear Cai and Kyle – spinning away – chatting about beer. Not a bad way to begin a day.
Fast forward an hour or so, and Cai and I are dropping our bags and getting ready to settle into our Airbnb – a Keystone accommodation abutting Brü Garden. (‘Bru’ – South African slang for a close male friend which, in this case, also plays more ‘sudsy’ phonetic games in the brain.) The place is slick. Located in an old red brick that also houses Keystone’s main offices, the Airbnb is two storeys, features multiple bedrooms, an open concept kitchen with stocked fridge, fuzzball table, and an expansive second-storey balcony that looks directly down onto the beer garden below. And while I could relax on that balcony all day, now’s not the time. Instead, we head back outside to meet Arron so he can lead us to our first Keystone stop of the day: BRCH & Wyn.
Located just a couple blocks from Brü Garden and our Airbnb, and in the basement of The Bradshaw – a wonderfully-restored factory on Downie Street that’s just a stone’s throw from downtown – BRCH & Wyn exudes a bohemian-hip vibe that instantly has me imagining I’m in SoHo (or somewhere equally inspiring). Floral wallpaper. Poured concrete floor. Exposed ducts. Large windows. Minimalist tables. Clean bar. Modern chandeliers. I could stay here all day to enjoy the aesthetics alone.
As we walk into the space with Arron, we’re greeted by Jonny Kirwin – Keystone’s Food and Beverage Director, part-owner of BRCH & Wyn, and some time South African resident. ‘Grab a seat by a window,’ Jonny calls out before disappearing into the kitchen, ‘I’ll be right over.’ Cai and I get comfortable at a sleek six-seater near the bar, while Arron goes straight to work curating two platters for us: one laden with carrot cakes, sausage rolls, scones; the other packed with craft cheeses – including Handeck from Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese (awarded best farmhouse cheese in Canada), 5 Brothers from Gunn’s Hill (awarded best firm cheese in Canada), and other equally delicious varieties. Soon Jonny emerges with the most rustic dish – morsels of fresh-cooked pork shoulder. ‘Don’t take photos of this one,’ he tells us with a chuckle as he sets the pork down in front of us, ‘it’s not on the menu.’ He pushes the plate towards me. ‘But eat up,’ he motions, ‘eat up.’ Jonny certainly doesn’t have to twist my rubber arm.
For the next couple of hours, Cai and I are attended to by Jonny and Arron – most gracious hosts. We enjoy the array of goodies set out before us, including carrot cakes (baked by Jonny’s mother, who packs them with pineapple to keep them moist), and coffees. While we take the opportunity to sample everything, Jonny tells us about the place. ‘During the daytime,’ he begins, ‘this place functions as a typical café, BRCH, with a menu that includes everything from pastries to power bowls and grilled cheese sandwiches.’ And of course lovely espresso-based drinks – featuring beans roasted by Jonny with KW Coffee Collective. ‘And in the evenings,’ he continues, ‘the place transforms into Wyn [South African for ‘wine’], a fantastic wine bar specializing in flights, tapas-style dishes, and cheese and charcuterie boards.’ While the wine is curated by Jonny and Joanna Henderson – both sommeliers – the meat and cheese are (appropriately enough) selected by Arron.
As noon approaches, we say goodbye to Jonny, making plans to see him later at The Alley where he’ll make us pre-dinner cocktails. Cai and I then follow Arron down the street to The Little Green Grocer – Keystone’s boutique grocery store. Stocked with local produce, food items with little to no additives, zero-waste product, and in-house prepared foods, it’s got real Dundurn Market-meets-Full Circle Foods vibes. While Cai and I peruse the aisles Arron grabs us a couple power bowls – a ‘Hawaii Ohana’ and ‘Hippie Bowl’ – and cans of coconut water which we’ll enjoy back at our Airbnb before strolling around town and then meeting brewmaster Kyle in the basement of The Alley and Braai House (which are stacked on top of each other) to check out Keystone’s brewery and sample some suds.
With newly-purchased Herschel caps in hand (from our fave Stratford boutique – WERK-SHOP), we arrive atThe Alley for our brewery tour just after three. ‘Watch your head,’ Kyle advises, ‘it’s a bit of a squeeze.’ He’snot kidding. Inside the brewhouse, my six-foot-five-inch frame aches for more space. ‘The brewery is a one-barrel set-up,’ Kyle tells us, ‘that produces one hundred and thirty litres at a time.’ Interesting stuff, no doubt. But the specs of the place pass right through me as I beginto fear that if I stay down here much longer I may never straighten up again. Sensing my physical discomfort, Kyle suggests we head upstairs to sample the beer.
And so we do. Soon Cai and I are seated at Braai House – with Kyle behind the taps. Some of the beers he hasus sample: ‘Lekker’ lager, Braai House’s signature 3.8% crushable brew made with South African ‘southern promise’ hops that give the light beer a hint of berry; ‘Tokyo Draft,’ The Alley’s 3.8% house beer made with koji rice that’s crafted in The Alley’s kitchen; a black currant lassi sour that’s sweet and tart all at once; a Belgian table beer that, coming in at only 3.5%, is one of Arron’s favourite drinks; and more. ‘We’ve got nine of my beers on tap here [at Braai House], and eight of them on tap at The Alley,’ Kyle tells us. We try them all – in sample sized glasses, of course. Hey – a job’s a job.
Before long it’s four-o’clock, and Cai and I are due back at The Alley – a Japanese-British forward restaurant – for cocktails with Jonny. We skip downstairs and grab a seat at The Alley’s bar which is an exercise in subtle art deco design. ‘What’s your drink?’, Jonny asks Cai. ‘I always fancy a negroni,’ Cai answers, stealing my customary reply. Jonny makes Cai his own rendition of the classic drink: The Alley’s ‘Negron-ish’. With strawberry-infused campari, coffee mezcal, and antica formula vermouth, it’s a hit. ‘And for yourself?’ I’ve always loved whisky sours – with their frothed egg white. Jonny makes me a ‘Watermelon Sugar High’ with roku gin, galliano, rose & cucumber, watermelon gimlet syrup, lemon juice, fresh mint – and egg white. As Cai and I relish these terrific concoctions, Julian (who, you may recall, made an appearance at the beginning of this tome) brings us a pre-dinner snack: an umami-forward dish of pork scratchings with nori salt and bonito aioli. ‘Your table upstairs is ready whenever you are,’ Julian tells us – reminding us that we still have a multi-course dinner to enjoy at Braai House.
And so here we are, Cai and me, back at the beginning of this tale, at Braai House, seated for dinner at a perch overlooking the open concept kitchen. Chef de Cuisine Julian is here, plating our lamb with berbere, carrot, and injera – as is Chef Arron, who has just arrived as part of his regular evening rounds of the Keystone kitchens. While he and Julian chat beyond my hearing, I think back on our day in Stratford – including all the wonderful foodie destinations we had the pleasure of visiting. It’s amazing, really, that a single hospitality group can put together such a killer lineup: BRCH & Wyn, The Little Green Grocer, Brü Garden, The Keystone brewery, The Alley, Braai House. Each has its own personality, and at least three are united by South African flavour.
After the lamb, there will be more courses to come. We’ve already enjoyed many, of course. The duck with peri-peri. And cod tongue glazed in aged miso and birch syrup. Fogo Island shrimp that was poached at sea. Nova Scotia scallops under a bed of fresh-picked strawberries. Canadian lamb sirloin (sous vide for ten hours) with coffee roasted carrots. It’s been an exceptional evening of culinary anticipation and consummation. We’ve been immersed in a seductive landscape of aromas, colours, textures, and flavours. And there’s even a promise of late- night mango vodka slushies back at Brü Garden, before bed.
What a delicious day this has been. And to think it all began on a bike, on one of our magnificent region’s pastoral country roads.