As one of the world's most exclusive gourmet designations, the Relais Gourmands label represents a mere 158 culinary notables around the world, among them Hélène Darroze, Georges Blanc, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud - the A-list of gastronomy.
Now, in a quiet corner of Ontario, after a nerve-racking 18 months under the watchful eye of the almighty Gourmands jury, a chef, a sommelier, an innkeeper and his wife are waiting to see if they will join the league of (mostly) gentlemen known as Grand Chefs.
Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa, a luxurious estate just an hour west of Toronto, near Cambridge, is up for the distinction. If it succeeds, it will join just three other Canadian properties in the club: restaurants Lumière in Vancouver and Toqué! in Montreal and the inn L'Eau à la Bouche in Sainte-Adèle, Que. For the privilege, Langdon Hall would pay an annual fee of $38,000.
The rating is based on the service, the tableware, the temperature of the wine, the freshness of flower decorations, the crispness of the linen - hundreds of criteria. But really, "it's all about the food," executive chef Jonathan Gushue says.
With his Newfoundland lilt in full tilt, he seems to be joking when he says: "We Google all suspicious guests. If you're coming here alone and we think you might be one of the critics, we'll find out all we can about you."
So what does it take to become part of the Relais Gourmands brand?
First, you must be a member of Relais & Chateaux, the parent group of the Gourmands brand. Next, you must be asked or nominated to join the club. At one of the association's biannual shindigs, Gushue was approached by Relais president Jaume Tapies - like having one's robes touched.
National, regional and local distinctions have to be maintained. Langdon Hall is one of 16 Canadian members of Relais & Chateaux, one of two AAA Five Diamond award holders in Ontario (the other is Gushue's former employer, Truffles restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto) and the holder of a four-star rating from Toronto Life magazine. "You need all of these just to get started," Gushue says. "Then the fun begins."
The wine cellar must be up to snuff. Sylvain Brisonnet, who hails from the Loire Valley, started at the inn nine years ago with a collection of just 250 bottles, including a few $2,000 bottles of champagne. "It was very strange," he says while pouring a glass of Vouvray Sec 2006 Chateau Gaudrelle. Today, his cellar boasts 10,000 bottles - a list that runs 55 pages. "We work together to create pairings of wine and food. This is essential," he says.
Terroir is also key. Gushue prefers to "buy as little as possible." Artisanal breads, butters, charcuterie items, pastries and more are made in-house. A lot of ingredients are grown in the property's extensive gardens - heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, herbs. Kitchen staff are also researching indigenous foods; so far, they have found two types of potatoes with local connections - a black fingerling and a red chieftain.
And, of course, there's service. "That's the biggest change," Gushue says of Langdon Hall's full-court press to rise to the top. "Whether it's Tuesday or Saturday, it has to be the same," which is why the staff has been boosted to 23 in the kitchen and 13 in the front of house.
Just days before the announcement, Gushue says the experience has been thrilling, but he adds, "We would be doing this anyway. It's just good to get a push."
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