Three years ago, Ryan Crawford and Bev Hotchkiss left Stone Road Grille, the iconic Niagara-on-the-Lake restaurant where they made their names and honed their crafts. Chatter abounded: they were going to Prince Edward County…the Rideau Valley…Collingwood…elsewhere in Niagara. For three years, locals hoped beyond hope that we wouldn’t lose their talents to points afar.
When Ryan and Bev announced at the beginning of the year that they would be taking over the space they had helped put on the map, fans were thrilled. Once again, the unassuming plaza at the corner of Mary and Mississauga in Niagara-on-the-Lake would be a destination for locals and tourists alike.
The new restaurant—Backhouse—is clearly an intensely personal labour of love for Bev and Ryan. The food and the space will reflect their values: the produce will be grown on the land they live on; the tables are being built by a good friend from locally reclaimed barn boards; anything that can be made in house, will be. Backhouse will be a celebration of all things local.
The Niagara Local recently took a tour of the space in progress. The former Stone Road Grille and Rest To Go spaces have been combined into one large space, and glimmers of Backhouse-to-be can be seen in its outline. Locals will have to be patient—Backhouse is intended to open by late May or early June. In the meantime, fans can stay abreast of developments by following Backhouse on Twitter and Facebook.
Bev graciously sat down with The Niagara Local to answer some of our questions about Backhouse. Her thoughtful answers have made us even more eager for opening day. Article and Interview by JoAnne Wang.
Thanks to both Ryan and Bev for humouring us and striking their best “American Gothic” pose.
There was quite a bit of rejoicing in Niagara-on-the-Lake when you announced your impending return. What was behind your decision to return to NOTL?
Ryan had never really wanted to leave Niagara on the Lake. He was passionate about his farming, wine making, chef network, friendships—basically all of the bounty that the region has to offer. I was the gypsy. I have travelled extensively and saw our decision to open our own restaurant as an opportunity to explore the world. I fantasized about remote locations—Nunavit; my first country-England; east/west coast Canada; warm locations… Ryan is different. He’s more rooted and grounded. I believe he humoured me and allowed us to search throughout eastern Canada.
We were pretty spirited about starting something up in Prince Edward County—we have been doing a charity event there every summer for 8 years—yet the seasonality and rural services challenged our decision. We then entertained the Maritime Provinces but the economy and tourism are far different than what we have in Ontario, and without friendships or familial support we thought it might become too isolating. It was then the Collingwood area—and we almost made two deals up there but both times we pulled out at the last minute. I have decided it was the “mothership” calling us home. When we sold our second home, we knew we had to make a decision—we were using Niagara as a base as we searched for a place to land—and that decision was to move back to Niagara-on-the-Lake. It felt tremendously right for both of us.
Was there any hesitation in moving back into the same space where you were first established? Or is it more of a homecoming?
We didn’t know that the same place where Ryan became established would be becoming available when we made the decision to move back to town. We were actually in negotiations with another business and we were also looking at other real estate opportunities. When we found out that the former Stone Road Grille was available it felt tremendously weird and right. We were sad to hear of the Stone Road Grille closing. Perry and Heidi are fantastic people and have done so much for the community and for both me and Ryan over the years, but it felt very fated that we had just decided to move back to town and within 2 month the space had become available.
How have your culinary and hospitality philosophies evolved in the last few years?
I think our culinary and hospitality philosophies are perpetually evolving. We both love nothing better than to host a dinner party. Ask our friends. We just recently spent 6 months in a very small cottage where it was not possible to entertain and within 5 days of moving we had a dinner party. But on a much grander scale, we have become more socially conscious about where our food comes from, how we source food, prepare it and serve it. The big shift for us has come through farming and being intimately connected with our food. It slowed down our relationship to all things culinary.
From a front of the house perspective, I am acutely aware that people engage with hospitality for countless reasons—from celebrating to forgetting, to getting engaged to breaking up, for job promotions or connections—it’s boundless why we dine, but almost always very emotive. I believe that a good restaurant provides an experience where life’s challenges become a little bit easier and life’s joys a little more robust. As for the back of the house—their role has often been shrouded in mystery—hidden behind walls and down the backs of corridors. It is at times a very laborious profession and so many times the diner and the chef never have the opportunity to meet. We very much want the whole experience to be integrated so that our guests are enveloped in the Backhouse experience.
What type of experience can we expect from Backhouse? Will it be casual? Fine dining? Something entirely different?
Backhouse features a communal chef’s table where a spontaneous menu is served. It is really the theatrical journey of hospitality, telling the tale of Backhouse, through sights, sounds, smells and tastes. The chef’s table is the center of the restaurant. The guest and the kitchen team are in direct contact with each other. The diner can expect a slow conversation with food. There is also a small 30-seat dining room that offers both an a la carte menu and a 3, 5, or 7 course tasting menu. And finally, a 20-seat lounge that is more casual—offering a chalkboard menu. We are hoping to provide 3 different dining options for our guests—from a more low key evening out to a something a bit more formal and traditional to the ultimate experience of simply allowing yourself to be entrusted to the chef.
We are fortunate to live in an incredibly bountiful region, and it’s clear that you’ve always had a love of growing and raising food. How will we see that manifest at Backhouse?
We have our own farmer on staff, Rick Jackson. We have worked with him previously. We also have our own private farm, where we hope to source the majority of our food for the restaurant. Ryan is really and truly a pioneer and besides farming and foraging he makes his own butter, syrups, vinegars. I have no idea what he will do next. We will also be growing herbs and will be working with Pluck Tea and Jennifer Commins—a tea sommelier—to create our own house blends. Also, our cocktail program will have a small patch of herbs and edibles on the farm for infusing syrups or spirits. We are very lucky in this region—I know in winter we can sometimes lose sight of that, but the extent of our growing season is extremely rich.
What are you most excited about in your plans for Backhouse?
The people. We are really chomping at the bit to open—to be able to welcome the “locals” to see what kind of atmosphere we have created, to see people enjoying themselves and knowing that we somehow had something to do with that. Hospitality is fantastic!! It’s very giving.
And you know we have to ask about the name “Backhouse”. There must be a good story behind it.
Backhouse was my grandmother’s maiden name on the maternal side of my family. My family is from England and my grandmother had wanted to go to school to become a nurse but she wasn’t allowed to fulfill her dream. We want to honour the idea of fulfilling dreams. Also, there is no divide between the front and the back of the house and Chef Crawford is back in the house!