Michael Stadtländer's Singhampton Project, and the Not-So-Simple Pleasures of the Table
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Michael Stadtländer’s Singhampton Project, and the Not-So-Simple Pleasures of the Table

Getting back to the land isn't as easy as it sounds.



For a photographic recreation of the meal, click on the large image above.

Our food culture has become increasingly infused with questions about the ethics of what we eat. Farmers’ markets, organic groceries, and community gardens are multiplying rapidly; calls to shop fresh and local, cook from scratch rather than out of a box growing ever louder. This is both important and right: for too long we’ve thought too little about the effects our food choices have on farmers, on our health, and on the environment.

Along with that shift in conversation have come new kinds of high-end food experiences: expensive restaurants that trumpet the provenance of each ingredient, food fundraisers that are built around local harvests and come with triple-digit ticket prices. Falling into this last category: iconic chef Michael Stadtländer’s latest culinary adventure, called the Singhampton Project. Installed on Eigensinn Farm, Stadtländer’s farm and restaurant that opened north of Toronto 20 years ago, the project is the latest in his attempt to get us to learn more, and care more, about where our food comes from.

There’s an uncomfortable tension that accompanies such efforts.

The Singhampton Project was created with the best of intentions, and is clearly a labour—emphasis on that word—of love. Essentially a progressive meal, on each day of the project (which ran from August 10–26) a small number of diners arrived at 3 p.m. and walked through the farm, stopping at seven outdoor gardens/dining rooms along the way, eating one course of a four hour long meal at each of the installations. The gardens were created earlier this year by Stadtländer and landscape artist Jean Paul Ganem; each was planted with ingredients that were used to prepare the dish that was served at that stop.

It was as fresh and local and as mindful a meal as you could ever hope to have, if you share Michael Stadtländer’s concerns about responsible agriculture, but it was also priced such that only a very small segment of the population would ever be able to attend; tickets were $275.

This is not to say that diners were gouged—quite the contrary. With just 35 or so at each meal, and two weeks of meals served, given the months of work that went into this, it’s unlikely that Stadtländer cleared much, if anything, by way of profit on the project. This is not the sort of undertaking you commit to if you’re trying to rake in cash. A great deal of care and craft went into the production of the seven courses we ate, none of it glamorous and none of it well-paid.

But there is still something worth noting about the fact that producing a meal that is in one sense so simple, so straightforwardly from the land, is also so cost-prohibitive.

The uncomfortable truth that underlies our turn to more sustainable, local food is that it’s a turn that only people with a certain level of privilege can easily make. Better food costs more (often a lot more), takes more time to prepare, and assumes greater awareness of the issues in play. In a certain way the Singhampton Project captures precisely this problem: the idea is to somehow return to a more direct connection to the land and to the food that we eat, but that kind of simplicity is actually—at least with our current food economy and system of regulation, which favours large-scale agriculture and processed food—quite inaccessible.

None of this is to take away from the meal, which was beautiful: gorgeous food, thoughtfully prepared, served in a stunning way. Stadtländer and his wife Nobuyo, who hosts the meal, created an afternoon that was charming, relaxed, and wholly unpretentious. It was, without doubt, one of the most memorable meals we’ll ever eat.

It’s worth noting, also, that Michael Stadtländer isn’t only interested in appealing to the well-heeled. He was one of the architects of last year’s Foodstock, a fundraiser that called attention to a controversial proposed giant megaquarry in southern Ontario, which would put the agricultural viability of nearby farms at risk. The event featured dozens of participating chefs, each preparing tasting portions of dishes that highlighted local ingredients. It was pay-what-you-can, with a suggested minimum donation of $10. An estimated 28,000 people showed up. (A follow-up event, Soupstock, is planned for October.)

There are no easy solutions here, and we are still at the beginning of what is likely to be a long evolution in our approach to food. In the meantime, we can only hope that marquee events like the Singhampton Project have a ripple effect, and reach more than the small number of people who were able to attend in person.

Photos by Hamutal Dotan/Torontoist.

The Singhampton Project, course by course: