Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CAMBRIDGE, ONTARIO — An amuse bouche is supposed to do as its name suggests: create a fun experience for the tongue and the palate. The most creative chefs, though, make sure the playful morsel to start a meal also foreshadows the dining experience to come.
So it is with Jason Bangerter, whose amuse bouche arrives in a miniature terra cotta pot that might compel you to ask for an equally small watering can, because what appears before your eyes looks like a house plant not food.
When you peer closer, however, you see the detail and skill involved in this intricate and humorous dish, an example of why Bangerter has won enormously high praise since taking over as Langdon Hall’s executive chef in 2013.
It is one of the most esteemed positions in the Canadian culinary industry yet Bangerter initially shied away from the role. When Jonathan Gushue, the previous executive chef, vacated the position, Bangerter says some of his colleagues suggested he go after it. He balked. He was working in downtown Toronto, overseeing operations for Oliver & Bonacini restaurants at the TIFF Lightbox movie house, and making good money.
Bangerter hadn’t even visited Langdon Hall since 2002, despite the fact it is a short drive from Toronto. The acclaimed Relais & Chateaux property simply wasn’t on his radar. That changed when Langdon Hall reached out to him. He came back to the stately manor house built in 1898 by American aristocrats and recalls the eventful day that led to his dramatic career change. Bangerter describes how a meeting he believed was only a casual discussion over coffee with Langdon Hall’s general manager turned into a full tour of the property with co-owner William Bennett and then a get-together with the property’s board of directors. Within a few hours one of the nation’s landmark establishments had offered him a job, charging him with invigorating its culinary program.
Bangerter had a fine reputation in Toronto for being both a talented chef and detail-oriented leader; traits required at Langdon Hall. What Langdon Hall brought to him was an asset he craved while working in the urban environment of downtown Toronto. The Langdon Hall garden is a gorgeous, flourishing, rich field full of goodness and quality. When Bangerter delivers the amuse bouche, he does it with genuine pleasure.
“What a great way to give the diner that connection with the garden,” he says when he presents the terra cotta pot. It is quinoa, made to resemble grains of soil, and embedded with miniature bits from the garden: carrot and stalks of herb.
It’s a touch of whimsy, a bit of playfulness that restaurants such as Atelier in Ottawa have done well with. The difference with so many of Langdon Hall’s dishes since Bangerter has taken the reins is how much of his produce is sourced from within a few hundred feet of his kitchen.
“Everything in here,” he says with pride and enthusiasm while gesticulating to the amuse bouche, “was picked from the garden less than two hours ago.”
Each morning, members of his brigade grab a steel pot and head to the garden to pluck items for that day’s menus. In some cases, they would have planted the ingredients months earlier, too. Such focus on freshness and quality is what has made Langdon Hall not only a major attraction to Waterloo County but a perennial presence on the Vacay.ca Top Restaurants in Canada Rankings.
The connection to what’s on the plate also extends to ingredients sourced from outside the property. During a divine caviar dish served with creme fraiche and a large, tasty madeleine cookie (in place of a blini or crepe), Bangerter trots out a massive piece of fish skin that looks like something you would find in a dinosaur museum.
“It’s a sturgeon skin,” he says. It was given to him by one of his caviar suppliers. Bangerter had the skin tanned and keeps it as a display piece. “They just throw them out and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ I have it hanging outside my office but will bring it out for the caviar course. It gives us that connection with the food on the plate. It makes the diner feel that much closer to the experience of what they are eating.”
MORE ABOUT LANGDON HALL
Address: 1 Langdon Drive, Cambridge, ON (see map below)
Room Rates: Prices vary by season but you can expect to pay about $400 per night; several packages, including gourmet dining features, are offered.
Notable: Jason Bangerter is one of the 20 top chefs who is participating in the “Inspired Cooking” project, a charity cookbook that will be released in fall 2016 and which will benefit InspireHealth, a not-for-profit agency that provides supportive cancer care for Canadians. You can find Bangerter’s recipes in the cookbook, which is being edited by Vacay.ca’s Adrian Brijbassi. Pre-order “Inspired Cooking” here.