Chef Ben Heaton: Creating Tastes From Coastal Climates
Isabelle’s culinary director, Chef Ben Heaton, discusses farm to table, his favourite restaurant and how travel has inspired his Mediterranean menu.
Located on Burlington’s waterfront, halfway along the Toronto/Niagara corridor, The Pearle Hotel & Spa is a new space inspired by the region’s local lake houses, complete with 151 curated rooms.
Isabelle is part of its offering, a restaurant and lounge bringing together local ingredients and share-style dishes headed up by culinary director Chef Ben Heaton. “When I first walked into the building, I was floored. I felt like I was in the Mediterranean with the views,” Heaton says. “The water is crystal clear. The views go on forever, and the sunrises and sunsets are phenomenal.”
Having spent a lot of time working in the Middle East and travelling around the Mediterranean, Heaton wanted to fuse that initial impression with his experience with the regions to create a menu that was as approachable as it was flavourful.
That menu (offering breakfast, lunch and dinner) includes such items as smoked eggplant dips, made with pomegranate, walnut and green olive; fall greens with maple vinegar; sheep’s gouda and grains; and Ōra King salmon with turnips, mustard greens and mushroom xo sauce.
“The interior design lends itself to the cuisine,” Heaton shares. “I couldn’t imagine having a steakhouse here. It just goes hand in hand. With dining, the ambience and design of a restaurant is important. You’ll come back to a place you feel is warm and welcoming.”
Heaton describes the food as “the best ingredients treated as simply as possible, which is very hard to do.” To give context to the work that goes into every dish, the kitchen doesn’t just prep and cook its food but makes its own yogurts, cultures its own cheeses and makes all the bread in-house.
“Looking at the market in Burlington and Hamilton, there’s nothing really like it, especially at this level. The food is fresh, colourful and vibrant. We have our own farm that grows a lot of our vegetables. The summer prior to opening, we did a lot of pickling, fermenting and preserving anything we could get our hands on.”
Their farm, aptly called “Earth to Table” and headed up by farmer Laura Headley, is a key component of both Heaton’s work process and Isabelle’s success. Located in Millgrove, Ont., Heaton shares how it’s currently growing a number of vegetables, alongside traditional varieties of leaves and greens the restaurant requires. It’s also totally organic, using no pesticides or other artificial processes.
But, for everything it does for the restaurant, there’s a long-term vision at play. “We’ll be building it out so it’s more of a commissary-style building. So, that’s where we’ll make the breads, charcuterie, cheeses, pastries, grow our vegetables and dry-age our beef.”
It’s this environment, and the chef ’s approach to food, that gives Isabelle its stories. In the same way the restaurant brings Heaton’s experience travelling sun-soaked climates to the plate, the farm is steeped in narrative.
Heaton explains how the smoky vinaigrette that’s poured over the top of the short rib is made from the scraps after dry-aging beef at the farm. He also explains how he works with 1847 Stone Milling, located in Fergus, Ont., to produce the restaurant’s pitas. The mill grows a grain called einkorn, which is widely regarded as being one of the first used in bread-making.
“First and foremost, food has to be delicious,” Heaton continues. “I’ve been to high-end restaurants where it looks phenomenal but tastes like nothing. It’s always flavour first. Then we think about the presentation.”
With early memories of cooking dinner for his parents after school, visiting restaurants in England’s Yorkshire Dales with his grandfather and having a brother who’s also a chef, food has always been a part of Heaton’s life. He cut his teeth with chefs Gary Rhodes and Jason Atherton, who both own Michelin-starred restaurants in the U.K., before returning to Toronto to work with Mark McEwan and open his own restaurant, The Grove.
Even now, he holds that connection with the U.K. His favourite restaurant is The Seahorse. Located in Devon, a county in southwest England, he’s sure to mention the grilled fish over charcoal.
Today, he brings all of this past and present experience to Isabelle seven days a week. “When I started travelling, it opened my mind to different cultures. Not just their food, spices and the way people eat but how they gather. Every single day, it was important to get together as a family and enjoy meals. Ever since, it’s influenced the way I’ve cooked my food and how I want people to eat it. I want everyone to feel they’re home when they’re here.”
INTERVIEW BY ESTELLE ZENTIL