In the mid-nineties, after finishing an undergraduate degree in politics and business at the University of Western Ontario in London, Jeff Crump mailed out two school applications. One was addressed to the accounting department at McGill; the other went to the Stratford Chefs School.
"Stratford came in first, thank God," Mr. Crump says.
Mr. Crump, who has been toiling away quietly at the Ancaster Old Mill, just outside of Hamilton for the last five years, is currently one of the most underrated cooks in the country. He is a chef's chef: I first met him cooking a dish in a maple forest at Michael Stadtlander's Eigensinn Farm, just inland from the south shore of Georgian Bay. Toronto cooks such as Scott Vivian celebrate their weddings at his restaurant - and invite such celeb-chef friends as Jamie Kennedy - but most of the country's food critics have never eaten Mr. Crump's cooking.
This week, Mr. Crump's public profile will grow enormously with the publication of his new book, Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm , which he co-authored with his pastry chef Bettina Schormann.
The cookbook, which is as much of a manifesto as you can get from a sweet-tempered, laidback small-town Ontario guy, aims to shorten the food chain by shining the spotlight on Canadian farmers - specifically Chris Krucker, the organic farmer who supplies Mr. Crump and his staff with the bulk of their inventory at the Ancaster Old Mill.
Mr. Crump, who founded the Slow Food movement in Ontario in 1999, takes a refreshingly hang-up free approach to conscientious eating. "This is not about sacrifice," he writes in his introduction, confessing that's something he doesn't have a talent for. "It's about discovery."
As the seasons progress from spring to winter, Mr. Crump and Ms. Schormann tell the story of their year of farming - planting, growing and harvesting the best food they've ever eaten. Their enthusiasm is infectious, as they write odes to the seasons, and to the pleasures of foraging and preserving: You may find yourself with an inexplicable urge to pickle some beets or buy the last of summer's peaches for Bettina's Whisky Peaches and Cream.
The book, illustrated with luscious photos by Edward Pond, has already captured the attention of Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma , and San Francisco Greens goddess Deborah Madison. When Ruth Reichl, the high-powered editor of Gourmet magazine, breezed through Toronto a few months ago, the Cookbook Store's Alison Fryer slipped her a copy of Mr. Crump's manuscript. A couple of days later, Mr. Crump called Ms. Fryer to thank her. Ms. Reichl had called his publisher to request a review copy.
The book has also landed Mr. Crump and Ms. Schormann an invitation to cook at the culinary equivalent of Carnegie Hall, Manhattan's James Beard House, on Oct. 16, which also happens to be World Food Day. "Twice I've woken up in the middle of the night in a sweat," Mr. Crump says. (They will be cooking the same meal, as a rehearsal, at the Chefs' House in Toronto on Sept. 28.)
Mr. Crump, who apprenticed at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., in 1996, can be placed firmly in the "good cooking is all about knowing how to find the best ingredients" tradition of Alice Waters. Few chefs are humble enough to eke the true flavours out of a morel or wild leek the way he does.
But Mr. Crump also often pairs that humble California approach with some of the fireworks he picked up in 2007 working at the Fat Duck, just outside London, which holds three Michelin stars and is best known for its cutting-edge molecular gastronomy.
"We're a little bipolar," Mr. Crump admits. "We do extremes."
Part of that is out of necessity - his client base at the Ancaster Old Mill would revolt if he took the prime rib roast off the Sunday menu. So Mr. Crump kept it listed when he took over five years ago, but changed the cooking technique: It's now cooked sous vide. "We'll dress the wolf in sheep's clothing," he says, laughing.
For his menu at the James Beard House, Mr. Crump's simple-sounding white onion soup will be garnished with Jerusalem artichoke tempura, battered in pure vodka sprayed out of a soda siphon - the way Mr. Crump learned to do it at the Fat Duck. His pork loin depends on transglutaminase, a binding agent. But just to show that he's not getting too big for his britches, Mr. Crump will serve lemon balm Freezies between courses.
Always modest, Mr. Crump says the reason the cookbook is getting so much attention is its message: "This is not a Jeff Crump cookbook; it's an eat-local cookbook. And let's be honest - eating local is a massive trend at the moment."
Mr. Crump credits the success of the trend to two things.
For one, eating local is hardly a passing fad - it's the way our species has eaten for 99 per cent of its history, he says.
For another: "We're fighting the good fight," he adds. "We're talking about food that's produced fairly and sustainably - and that's delicious. Who's going to argue with that? Who's going to say they don't like good food?"
Special to The Globe and Mail