The golden, green waters of the Grand River have run like a thread through the life of Chef William Thompson. Growing up in Caledonia, he remembers, the river was always an important presence. Now, as owner and executive chef at Stillwaters! Plate and Pour, in Paris, Ontario, he spends his days overlooking the same flowing waters, trying to create a comfortable ambiance in the restaurant and nudging the authentic, “every day” food toward a cuisine that is more imaginative and exciting.
Thompson’s upward career trajectory has been very steep and swift. Still youthful, he decided to become a chef while working in a food program in high school. (“I started out wanting to be a teacher — but I loved cooking more. I just loved the fast pace and camaraderie of the kitchen.”) He cites an early stint on the Food Network’s Top Chef Canada program as the catalyst for his career.
“After “Top Chef”, everything opened up for me. I got requests for all sort of guest appearances and got calls from head hunters.”
One of the requests was from the former owner of Stillwaters. Thompson worked there for a few months and the rest is, as they say, history. Now, along with a partner, he is owner and executive chef of the restaurant.
Thompson has been an owner since last May and is still busily re-creating the menu.
“I haven’t changed the restaurant a lot structurally,” he says, “there is still a lot of cherry wood, and the feeling is warm and comfortable.”
The restaurant boasts a rooftop patio with panoramic views over Paris and the river. (He hopes to have the outdoor patio open by Mother’s Day, this year.) The changes that he has made are primarily with the menu.
“I’m not into anything very ‘exotic’,” he says, “Instead, I’m trying to make the ordinary, straightforward items more unusual.”
It’s a trend that has become more and more fashionable as the days of stuffy service and starched table linens have gone the way of the dinosaurs and casual fine dining prevails. A good example would be Thompson’s way with a chicken club sandwich. Here, he takes a staple of so many menus and adds his own touches. The simple club becomes a triple decker extravaganza on pita bread which includes feta cheese, peppercorns, Thompson’s own homemade ranch dressing, shredded lettuce, bacon and fresh marinated chicken. Another example is his Pastrami Reuben. Thompson makes his own sauerkraut to embellish the traditional sandwich which includes bacon, onion, apple cider vinegar and brown sugar and he serves it on the very best marble rye.
He is also trying to create more vegetarian and gluten-free choices. His “tour de force” in this area is something he calls a “tofu tower.” Originally created for the Ste. Anne’s Spa, the tower is composed in a cylindrical mould and contains layered, colorful sautéed vegetables and a broccoli fennel slaw, along with lentils and artisan black rice.
Teaching is still a passion for Thompson; he loves mentoring young chefs and is involved with training young people at St. John’s College in Brantford; for three years he has served as a judge for the Skills Ontario cooking competition.
He is looking forward to his upcoming Go Cooking session. Home cooks, he advises, should be aware of the concept of “mis en place”, an insistence upon having all of your ingredients at hand and ready to go, before you start working on your recipe. And the other side of this, is the necessity for cleaning up as you go. That way, you can enjoy your meal and not be thinking of cleaning up a big mess afterwards.
The Go Cooking menu, he says, was inspired by the season which was warmer in feeling, but not really spring yet. The food is somewhat “classical”, with croquettes and root vegetables, leeks and potatoes. And it exhibits an Italian influence, which is a result of the time he spent cooking in Umbria, a period which had an important impact on his thinking.
“They treat food so differently in Italy. Frozen really doesn’t happen so everything is seasonal and super fresh. You have to know how to utilize everything to get the maximum out of it. As I move forward, I want to do this, to reach out more to local growers and hot houses — I’m not quite there yet.”
And he answers that old chestnut of a question, “What would you choose to eat for your last supper”, with imaginative aplomb:
“Actually,” he says, “I wouldn’t care so much about what I was eating as to whom I was eating with. Friends and family are really more important than the food.”
And here’s a recipe that’s going to send a lot of people home happy on next Tuesday night:
White Chocolate Raspberry Shortcake
from Chef William Thompson, Stillwaters! Plate and Pour
4 tbsp. sugar
4 tbsp. baking powder
1/4 lb cold butter (cubed)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup of white chocolate pieces
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
extra all purpose flour for dusting
egg wash and sugar to finish
in-season fruit and whipped cream
1) Preheat oven to 375 F.
2) Using a pastry cutter mix together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt combining until mixture crumbles. Add white chocolate pieces.
3) In a separate bowl mix together buttermilk, egg and vanilla.
4) Add liquid mixture to flour mixture gently, mixing with hands.
5) Flatten dough to 1 inch thickness on a floured table. Cut dough into 3 inch rounds. Place on parchment paper lined baking sheet. Brush with egg wash, sprinkle with sugar and bake for 20 minutes.
6) Cut while warm and fill with your favourite in-season fresh fruit, topping with whipped cream.