Maple Leif

Leif Friedmann looks out from behind the stove, ensuring that glasses are filled and guests are happy. Satisfied, he turns to his sister Daiva and asks her to check on the remaining diners in the room around the corner. Leif turned 14 two weeks earlier. Today, he’s the head chef. Daiva, age 12, is one of three servers in matching striped blue aprons tasked with helping him serve a crowd of 25 paying customers. Their eight-year-old brother Evan looks on from a distance, unsure what to make of all these strangers in his home.

Like everyone else, I’ve come to this restored 200-year-old home on the outskirts of Dundas, Ontario for the first annual Springhill Eating Club Sugar Shack Lunch. The gluttonous multi-course meal centered around maple syrup tapped from trees on the 12-acre property was conceived by Leif along with his father Scott, my first cousin and an innovation consultant by trade. This is the first time they’ve welcomed paying guests, but the Springhill Eating Club plans to host events every month or two going forward—workshops on fermentation and sourdough bread baking, outdoor feasts cooked over wood fire, and intimate tasting menu dinners served in the home’s original formal dining room have all been penciled into the calendar.

As family, I have a seat at the kitchen counter where I can see the slow scrambled eggs that open our meal coming together. Once Leif is happy with them, they’re plated along with duck fat pancakes and fire-roasted bacon. Finally, everything’s topped off with maple syrup and extra duck fat for good measure. Three types of fish, foie gras, two kinds of homemade bread, beans, greens, pork, cheese, three desserts, and more follow. It was lunch in name only. I couldn’t eat dinner that day.

Two weeks later, I once again make the hourlong drive west from downtown Toronto to the Springhill property. Located high up on the Niagara Escarpment with views of Lake Ontario and the Ancaster Valley, the grounds are especially picturesque as flowers come into bloom on this warm spring day. Leif and his family moved here three years ago, after spending his first 11 years in Toronto. He loves nature. He’s happier here. After all, in the city we probably couldn’t go foraging for green garlic.

On our way to the garlic patch he scoped out in advance of my arrival, Leif—today sporting a gray hoodie and navy baseball cap in place of apron and chef’s toque—stops at a small creek that runs near the front gate of the property to pick dandelion greens. I tell him that at his age I was instructed to remove dandelions from our garden because they were weeds, not lunch.  “Stuff that everyone thinks is weeds is actually edible,” Leif replies, though he warns that it’s important to be careful when foraging. He always checks three sources to make sure anything unfamiliar isn’t toxic, and even picks dandelion with care, avoiding its “slightly fuzzier” lookalike. “It’s not poisonous, it just doesn’t taste good.” Even so, his haul sometimes ends up in the trash. “People always throw out stuff that I forage. Like, ‘it looks like old bark, why would he need bark? It’s been sitting there for a week, I’m gonna throw it out.’ But really, it’s fermenting!” I’m told his family is starting to learn. He’s also getting better at labeling.

As we leisurely harvest common garden weeds, Leif’s reminded of the first time he discovered ramps—the wild allium with a unique blend of garlic and onion flavors celebrated as a culinary herald of spring. “I had been looking for ramps for the last little while cause I wanted to eat ramps. I hadn’t found any, but I bike to school every day and knew that was an area they should grow in. All the conditions were right. So, I just saw them on the side of the road, these huge ramps. I had to stop obviously. My friends were up ahead, so I just screamed ‘I found ramps,’ but of course, they didn’t know what ramps were.” His friends biked on to the school, only later realizing they had lost Leif. “But then I came 15 minutes later and I had just like tons of ramps in my bag.” When I ask how his friends at school react to his obsession with food, Leif responds without skipping a beat, “Oh, they all think I’m crazy!”

None of this strikes me as all too crazy, but then again I have some idea of where this passion for food originated. When Scott and I were growing up in Montreal, our fathers were in the food business. They mostly sold frozen chicken products, but also dabbled in crepes and olive oil. We weren’t exactly “foodies,” but we talked about food all the time, and we definitely ate a lot. Something about that upbringing had a lasting effect. Scott’s two brothers own a restaurant together in Montreal, while he has a Master’s in Hospitality Management from Cornell, previously worked in the hotel industry, and years ago founded a beverage company. Even as an innovation consultant, Scott often works with clients like Campbell’s and Pepsi, helping them develop and market new products. He’s also taken Leif on many great eating trips, including a father and son blitz through Scandinavia with stops at Fäviken, Magnus Nilsson’s celebrated restaurant and inn located in middle-of-nowhere Sweden, and Noma, René Redzepi’s temple to modern Nordic cuisine in Copenhagen. So is Scott the source of his son’s passion? “I like to say that it’s channeling multi-generational culinary interests. I think there’s some truth to that.”

Once we’ve picked enough dandelion greens, along with a few flowers for garnish, we head to the garlic patch where Leif unearths the most beautiful green garlic imaginable—the pungent aroma breaking through the dewy spring air making me wish I could get ingredients this fresh at my local Loblaws. We then pass by Scott, now busy picking flowers to decorate the family dinner table, before visiting the beehives they’ll use to make honey, and finally moving further up the property to get a taste of wasp larvae. “They taste kinda like shrimp, but they’re like kosher shrimp.” Then, after a beat, “I don’t actually know if they’re kosher.” They’re probably not, but neither was the maple-brined Berkshire pork that culminated the savory portion of the sugar shack lunch.

Eating wasp larvae is where it possibly gets a little crazy, even for our family. Leif cuts open the bulbous portion of a goldenrod branch, describing how the plant forms these bulbs around the wasp eggs to protect them from the cold of winter, and I dutifully taste the tiny wiggling white proto-wasp found at the center. It’s subtle. A little citrusy, a little shrimp-like as advertised. A guide on a camping trip introduced Leif to larvae, but somewhat more conventional discoveries on the property—wild strawberries, onions, various herbs, even crayfish—often come by chance, while simply enjoying time outdoors. “Food is a big passion and nature is a big passion, and people ask me what I like more. But it doesn’t have to be two different things because I’ve found a way to incorporate both of them.”

Back in the kitchen, Scott opens up a bottle of the first batch of Springhill Cider, made from the five heirloom apple trees that stand at the center of the property’s main lawn, and now a year and a half old. “It’s not bad for our first time, not knowing shit about doing anything,” Scott says. It’s actually very good. Somewhere between French and Basque styles, dry, with a vibrant nose and a hint of sour beer style funk. Leif and Scott are already planning a cider making workshop when the next crop is ready, along with a meal paired with various ciders. “I have no interest in going and getting drunk,” Leif remarks, but he does like learning about the process behind wine, beer, and cider. He’s drinking the cider along with us, and comparing it to the versions he tried on a family trip to the Basque region of Spain last summer: “Basque is drier.”

Before apple season, next on the Eating Club schedule is a day of foraging for ramps followed by a ramp-inspired meal. When he found those ramps near school, Leif folded them into soft-scrambled eggs and sold the dish at the school café he’s been running every Friday for the past two years with help from his fellow students. At the first mention of the café, Leif shifts from chef to editor, telling me not to write about it. “He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Scott says, “because he thinks it’s not up to his quality standard. I think it’s notable because it’s been foundational in helping him organize a team of people. He has to create the menu, he has to cost the food, he has to manage the front of the house.” At Springhill, where he has a more seasoned kitchen staff (in the form of his father), more tools, and an audience willing to provide a bigger budget, you can bet the ramp feast will have more than just eggs. It will be up to Leif’s standards.

While Leif cooks up an early spring snack—the dandelion greens are blanched, the green garlic is chopped and sautéed, then it’s all mixed together with fermented green garlic, chopped Castelvetrano olives, lemon juice, and the dandelion flowers—we sip on our cider and talk about future plans for the Eating Club. Some, mostly from Scott, sound more far-fetched: “It’s reality TV. Basically, the idea is kids turn their house into a high-end restaurant.” Leif, while creative in the kitchen, is slightly more pragmatic: “What I also want to do, is overnight events and then breakfast the next morning.” The Fäviken of Ontario, perhaps? As you might expect, Leif’s also excited that earning an income through cooking and hospitality could save him from gigs his friends have to take, like “babysitting or working at Shoppers.”

With the sun beginning to set, our conversation diverges into other areas—slowly even to non-food topics like our various weird relatives and what they’re up to—before editor Leif swiftly reappears, wondering if there was anything else I needed to ask him.

“What, something like what do you want to be when you grow up?”

“Well...that’s a dumb question.”