Michael Olson is a Niagara treasure. Pelham Slow Food enjoyed one of our gourmet outings early in April, trekking out to Benchmark Restaurant at the Niagara on the Lake Campus of Niagara College. Recently re-branded by Michael, Benchmark is more casual, less upscale than the dining room it replaced; in fact, at lunch, tables of students can be seen enjoying a really good hot meal for $10, a meal that blows away anything they could get at a fast food joint for the same or more money. Try “Mild Curry Chicken with Cucumber Raita and Coriander Flatbread” or “Pork Schnitzel with Spaetzle and Sauerkraut” or “Steak Frites with Shallot Butter” each for only ten bucks! No wonder the students are joining discerning Niagara diners for lunch at Benchmark.
Slow Food Pelham’s big dinner was admittedly more lavish, with four delicious courses, featuring a main of “Roasted Filet of Homer’s Black Angus Beef with Maple Glazed Root Vegetables and Horseradish Hollandaise.” And Michael conspired with Maitre d’, Sarah Scott, to create the most convivial of dining experiences at a cleverly designed table setting that encouraged conversation. We had the option of choosing the chef’s wine pairings, which included the College’s own 2009 “Deans List” Chardonnay that won the top honours at this year’s Cuvée.
But quite apart from our glorious gourmet experience created by Michael Olson and his student assistants, in a region that is blessed with great chefs and wonderful restaurants, Michael is unique. He first came to the attention of Niagara diners when he headed Inn on the Twenty, at the time, arguably Niagara’s best upscale dining room. And while there, he was among the first to put the emphasis on local products and fresh ingredients, going so far as to actually put the name of the local producer on the menu. This practice is now commonplace, but back then it was a revelation: a chef crediting the farmers and producers who supplied the food he was presenting! Toronto food critic, James Chatto put it this way: “In Chef Michael Olson’s hands, the produce of local farms and market gardens found new expression – simple, sophisticated, seasonal – a way of thinking that has since inspired the cuisine of the whole region.”
Michael has espoused Slow Food ideals and put them into practice wherever he has presented his enormous culinary skill. I was at the “Cassoulet Eh!” Competition in Toronto where he presented his version of the savoury bean dish to critics, judges, and fellow competitors with a poetic speech on the values of comfort food, the virtues of slow, painstaking attention to detail in cooking, and the joys of convivial dining. This was long before I had heard of the Slow Food Movement, but Michael’s words struck a chord that continues to resonate today. His introductions to the courses at our dinner at Benchmark emphasized the connection to Niagara terroire and showed his enthusiasm for local products and local producers.
Among his many accomplishments, Michael has co-authored several award-winning cookbooks with his wife, Anna. Their Inn on the Twenty cookbook, their first, has pride of place on our kitchen shelf, battered and spattered and well-thumbed though it is. From it, I have gleaned at least a dozen of my all-time favorite recipes: the “Lamb Shanks in Gamay with Rosemary Scented White Beans” is second only to
“Seared Duck Breast in Sour Cherry Cabernet Gastrique”
1 ½ C Niagara Cabernet Franc
1 ½ C red wine vinegar
2 C sugar 1
C Niagara pitted sour cherries
6 duck breasts (boneless, skin on)
For the gastrique sauce, put the wine, vinegar, sugar, and cherries in a saucepan and simmer until the sauce is reduced by 2/3 and coats the back of a spoon.
For the breasts, preheat the oven to 375 and heat an oven-proof sauté pan over medium-high heat. Place the duck breasts skin-side down in the pan and season lightly with salt and pepper. Sear the breasts for 5 minutes and the place the pan, uncovered, in the oven for 15 minutes for medium rare (20 minutes for medium). Remove the duck from the pan and let it rest for 5 minutes (and please save the duck fat to sauté potatoes!) Slice the breasts thinly against the grain and spoon the sauce over to serve.