Let me tell you a little story about the first time I visited the Flying Chestnut Kitchen. It was February 2013, and I’d secretly reserved a table for a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner at the charming looking restaurant I’d heard rumours about. My then girlfriend and I drove up from The Big City (where we were living at the time), built up an appetite on the Bruce Trail, and checked out the nearby, picturesque Eugenia Falls before strolling over for our evening meal. It was, if I can say so, a pretty perfect date. Fast-forward ten years later: we’re now married, have a kid, and live up the road from the place. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Shawn Adler is the mastermind behind the Flying Chestnut Kitchen. Growing up in Orangeville, he got his first real job as a sixteen-year-old at a local resort and banquet hall, where he quickly fell in love with the pace and creativity of the culinary world.
Though he clearly had an aptitude and natural talent in the kitchen, he dutifully went on to pursue some higher education, enrolling in Chef School in Stratford before taking Indigenous Studies at Trent University. As a member of the Lac des Milles Lacs (135 kilometres west of Thunder Bay) first nation on his mother’s side, this was a subject personal to him. This, paired with later formal training at Stratford Chef School, led him to open his first cafe, Aasmaabik’s (his Anishinaabe name), a bustling Peterborough bistro drawing on both first nations and multicultural cuisine.
An ethos of far flung and close to home flavours continues today at the Flying Chestnut Kitchen. “I’m not necessarily trying to do very traditional food,” Shawn tells me. He’s wearing a ballcap and a loudly bright orange tee-shirt emblazoned with a Woodland School style painting by Isaac Murdoch of Serpent River First Nation, and popularized by the influential Ojibwe artist Norval Morriseau. “If other chefs want to do pre-Columbus, hundred-mile ingredients, that’s cool, that’s their thing. But I want to cook what excites me. I want to use lemon and chocolate. And,” he says with a bit of a smirk, “I like to break rules.”
When you first walk into the barnboard clad farmhouse turned general store turned restaurant, an irreverent stained glass FCK hangs above the entrance door. “All that’s missing is ‘you,’” Shawn chuckles. The brief, weekly chalkboard menu offers an eclectic mix of enticing options like smoked duck poutine, maple autumn salad, cheesy crab dip, broiled beef kofta, and deep-fried pickerel with mussel and corn chowder. An adjacent board lists a dozen Ontario microbrew beers.
Before your generously portioned meal, you might be treated to a surprise bonus amuse bouche–something like cured rainbow trout on a tasting spoon bed of wild rice, tempura battered wild puffball mushroom, or warm toasted sunflower seed rolls with a side of maple and curried butters. Though I get the feeling Shawn would cringe at the trite label of fusion cuisine, there seems always to be a thread of Indigeneity woven through his dishes that also gather widely from global culinary ideas. Or, in some offerings, like a house made soda water lightly flavoured with aromatic sweetgrass, the traditional First Nations elements are proudly front and centre.
“I like to break rules,” says Shawn Adler.
Shawn is a busy guy. When he’s not at his homebase of the Flying Chestnut, he’s often catering events and weddings. Throughout the summer, he’s nearly nomadic– travelling to powwows around North America filming Pow Wow Chow for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, and serving up modern Indian festival grub under the banner of Pow Wow Cafe (also the name of a hole-in-the-wall taco joint he ran for a few years in Toronto’s famed Kensington Market). Recently, he’s taken possession of an impressive, though long neglected 19th century redbrick mansion just a stone’s throw from FCK on the Beaver Valley’s scenic Grey Rd 13. When I ask him what exactly he has in mind for that property, I can see the gears immediately turning in his head. ”An inn,” he says, eyes lit up. “Maybe a patio.” The restless creative in him clearly hungry for a next big project.
But in the meantime, though the hours are somewhat unpredictable. “We like to fly by the seat of our pants” Shawn is happy to tell me. The Flying Chestnut Kitchen remains open to give diners a truly unique experience in the small cottage community of Eugenia. Adorned with well-worn antiques, folk art, and taxidermy relics, the rustic dining room feels more like a friend’s house or family home than high-end dining establishment.
“We want people to come in however they are, wearing whatever they want,” Shawn says. The table we’re sitting at has two thick hinged iron rings folded into it, and a farm-like pulley system hangs above us, allowing the whole contraption to be hoisted and suspended mid-air to make room for a live band to play underneath. It’s low-fi and cheeky and purpose built to allow for a kitchen party atmosphere. A fusion of traditional values, ingenuity, local flavour, and unpretentious good times. The kind of place you want to live near to, and visit again and again.
Words by Joel Loughead
Photos by Frances Beatty