Huron Farms to Tables: Chef's farm expands potential at Eddington's of Exeter
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
For The Citizen to publish stories under the “Huron Farms To Tables” banner, the discussion almost has to start with James Eddington, chef and owner of the renowned Eddington’s of Exeter.
The well-known restaurant and tourist destination is marking its 25th anniversary this year, nestled in a designated historical landmark home that was built in the 1870s. However, it’s Eddington’s commitment to using locally-sourced ingredients in the restaurant and the never-ending search for fresher, more local and more interesting elements that has made him the face of farm-to-table dining in Huron County.
In an interview with The Citizen, Eddington says he maintains excellent relationships with dozens of local farmers, producers and processors for many of the ingredients he and the rest of his cooks use in the restaurant. However, seven years ago he purchased some farmland where he now grows many of his own specialty products, in addition to still working with many of the area’s farmers and producers.
Eddington’s 25 acres of farmland is located on the shores of Lake Huron, where he grows different crops every year. He also has many raised garden beds, fruit trees and a greenhouse. This year, he said, the farm crop is a little less diverse than it’s been in past years, growing all soybeans, but in his raised beds, he’s growing a lot of unique herbs and edible flowers, hard-to-find ingredients he feels sets his restaurant’s food apart from the rest.
The farming he does on his land, he says, is done in conjunction with (in a way) the producers he works with every season. For example, if he knows one of the local farmers he works with is going to have an abundant broccoli crop, it doesn’t make sense for Eddington to grow his own broccoli that year, instead freeing him up to focus on growing something else for the season.
In an Eat Drink Magazine piece, Eddington said he is able to grow over 25 varieties of fruits and vegetables on some of the land at the farm. The greenhouse also allows him to stagger seed planting to allow for varied availability.
In that piece, Eddington said he was attracted to the restaurant business as a teenager when he visited a friend who was working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant (Eddington grew up in Thamesford, east of London, before coming to Exeter 25 years ago) and he immediately wanted to get his foot in the door of the industry.
He took on a one-year lease at what was then Robindale’s Restaurant in the year he’d turn 20, not knowing what the next 25 years would hold. He said he was “very green” in those early years as a young man just trying to figure out his own restaurant, but he’s continued to evolve and morph over the years into the chef he is today, just as the restaurant has changed and improved every year.
In that first year, he had established chef John Oliver working with him three days a week and that helped him learn a lot that first year, Eddington said.
Seven years ago, when Eddington bought his farm property, he said it was simply an extension of the search for great, fresh, local ingredients. He says he’s blessed to cook in Huron County, singling out the relationships he’s able to have with local producers and farmers and all they bring to the table at his restaurant.
Eddington says he works a lot with Masse Fruit and Vegetables, based in Zurich, which has helped him a lot, but he says he’s among the happiest when he has his hands in the dirt.
The work on the farm was very challenging at the beginning, he said. When he bought the farm, it was overgrown and run down, so he had to put in a few years of hard work to even get it to a point that it could begin to produce anything. That hard work, however, has paid off and he’s now reaping the benefits with what he can cook with at Eddington’s of Exeter.
One of the more unique ingredients he’s able to source from the farm is the blood peach, which he grows in his orchard. Where it ends up on the menu, however, all depends on the harvest.
For example, one season, the crew ended up with an abundance of blood peaches. So, while they were able to use the fresh fruit for the first few nights, the rest of the crop was preserved and turned into elements that could be used in many aspects of cooking. Recently, however, it was early for the blood peaches, and just a handful of them were ready for harvest. Eddington used the fruit to make a blood peach smash cocktail, because there wasn’t quite enough to use it on the food menu, but enough for a cocktail special.
While Eddington has continued to grow as a chef and as a farmer and gardener, the restaurant has also grown with him, with changes like a new addition or patio or seating area always on the horizon. Historic buildings, he said, always require a lot of work to keep them functional.
For more information on Eddington’s of Exeter, visit the restaurant’s social media channels or website at eddingtons.ca.