Monday, May 26, 2008

Coming home

Seventeen years ago, when I was a fledgling bed & breakfast operator, I was invited to by a keen staffer at the Ontario Ministry of Tourism attend a meeting at Langdon Hall (near Cambridge) to discuss the challenge of marketing Ontario Country Inns and Bed & Breakfasts to the world. We were told that while we had some pretty amazing and unique properties, we could do a better job of telling our stories. I remember being so intimidated at the prospect of joining this auspicious group of seasoned hoteliers at such a prestigious property that I almost didn't make the trip. I stopped in Toronto to calm my nerves with a few drinks, and by the time I sobered up enough to make the rest of the trip, I found myself checking in to Langdon Hall at 3:00 a.m. This was my first experience in a Relais & Chateau property and I was in awe of everything, but the dining experience was beyond anything I could imagine. After many painstaking meetings, The Independent Innkeepers Association of Ontario was born, which has subsequently been rebranded as Ontario's Finest Inns & Spas. Over the years, I've had the pleasure of returning to Langdon Hall several times, and each time I feel the same sense of awe that I felt during that first visit. This week we had an opportunity to return to Langdon Hall for the first time in many years to attend a meeting of Premier Spas of Ontario. Owners Bill Bennett and Mary Beaton have worked tirelessly to create and evolve one of Ontario's finest inns - a beautiful facility where every detail has been thought of. Spacious and bedrooms outfitted with ultra luxurious beds call out your name, inducing instant relaxation. The architecture is stunning, and of course, the food is to die for. General Manager for the past seven years, Jill McGoey leads a team of warm, professional staff who create a warm, inviting ambiance like you would expect visiting wealthy relatives at their country estate, anticipating your every need. Industry icons like Bill and Mary have provided "youngens" like me and many others with the inspiration and the confidence to do what we've been able to do with the rough around the edges properties we started with. If you haven't been recently, check it out - I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mother's Day

Last weekend we celebrated Mother's Day by taking my mom out for dinner at Dougalls on the Bay in Brighton. It's not far from Presqu'ile Provincial Park, right on the water, and the food is always good. Earlier in the day I had decided to succumb to mom's hints for a vegetable garden in the back yard. In my mind I had conjured up various means to achieve this objective. I tried hinting to expert spa gardeners Debbie and Darlene, but at this time of year they are very busy with their own projects. On several ocassions these hard working women have commented on how most men are only happy working if they have a motor between their legs. True to form, I procrastinated on this project, dreading the thought of turning over a plot with a shovel - this just seemed like too much work. In the end, I think I expended just as much effort and energy by enlisting the help of a couple of machines. First I rented a sod cutter from the Rentall Centre. What a brute of a machine that thing was, very heavy and quite unwieldy. It wasn't until I was about 1/2 way through the sod cutting that I discovered the setting for sod thickness, so the first few rolls of sod were huge, with about 3 inches of top soil attached. Lifting these gigantic chunks of sod up and onto the back of my truck was a back breaker. Next, I picked up 10 bags of peat moss and 10 bags of triple mix to replace the soil I had removed with the sod cutter. Finally, I used a rototiller to work the peat moss and the triple mix into the soil. Needless to say, my back is aching, but it was all worth it when I saw the smile on my mom's face as she discovered her new garden. Amazing that at 80 years of age she is able to plant a garden - I hope I'm so lucky. (Pictures above: my mom and my sister Marijo at Dougalls, the garden project before, during and after my adventure. Hopefully I'll have some pictures of some vegetables to show you before too long).

Friday, May 9, 2008

My (other) big brother

I was born in 1958, the middle son in a family of 3 boys, and four girls. As a child growing up, my oldest brother Bill seemed like an all round "Wally Cleaver" kind of guy. He was good at sports, popular with the ladies and good looking. I guess my younger brother John was a little like "the Beav", a nice guy with a real charm about him, with Wally looking out for him. Even though there were more years between John and Bill, they seemed to bond. When we were old enough to play tennis, John and Bill would team up against me and my dad. I wasn't much of a tennis player, and as a result got the odd ball to the back of the neck when I missed a shot at the net, so I tended to try to avoid these outings. I preferred hanging out with my friend Paul Casely at his grandmas house where we'd watch TV, eat toast with butter, and wrestle. In my early days, I guess I was a bit of a loaner, I used to play down by the river and out by the pond - I loved the mud, and I loved the water. For the most part, I think I was a happy child - one of my nicknames was "the lightbulb" - I didn't mind that so much, but later on when I earned the handle, "Bozzo the clown" - I think I may have started to get a little more serious. I was a joiner - an altar boy, a cub scout, boy scout, and venturer, and later on became a bit of a nerd, starting a school store, a bit of acting, I loved working behind the scenes with the lighting crew in junior high, and ran for student council. Fast forward to seven years ago when Christopher Ennew joined our team at Ste. Anne's as a sous chef. I had noticed this very tall quite guy working away in the back of the kitchen on his mise en place. It wasn't long before he was promoted to Executive Chef and today, in my estimation, he is one of the finest spa chefs in Canada. Through my involvement with Ontario's Finest Inns I got to know industry icon John Egan, owner of Eganridge Inn & Spa. John is a real gentleman and a sort of senior statesman to our association and to the industry. While visiting John at his inn one day I noticed a real bond, a friendship between John and his chef. In hindsight, I guess this one of many pearls of wisdom that John passed on to me - in this business, your chef should not only be one of your most treasured and valued employees, they should be one of your best friends. Over the years Christopher and I have gotten to know each other pretty well. He accepts me for who I am, and I have tremendous respect for him. Sometimes I'll be in the kitchen chatting with the team, and Chef Christopher will step up behind me and start massaging my shoulders with his big strong hands. He hasn't had an easy life, but he sure has brought light into the lives of many people. He has become a great friend to me, and in some respects the big brother that I missed growing up. And it goes without saying that he has also become one of the pillars that supports the work that we do here at Ste. Anne's Spa. As I read through guest surveys, rarely does someone review a stay at the spa without mentioning the great food, and quite often they will also mention having met this culinary giant. This guy is golden.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Girl's night out

My mom loves Red Lobster. I'm not sure why, I think it has something to do with the coconut shrimp and the cheese bread, but more than anything it's a night out on the town. When the call of the shell fish becomes too strong to resist, we set out for Peterborough, where we'll usually take in a movie at the downtown multi-screen theatre (love the big comfy seats). Last night we asked my sister-in-law/Innkeeper Nancy if she wanted to join us after a long day working at the spa. As we worked our way up Highway 28, someone suggested that we stop at the Kawartha Downs Casino - we had a little extra time, so why not. Nancy said that her husband won't take her to the Casino - "just give me the money and I'll throw it out the window", he says. There were 3 gamblers in the car and one naysayer, so there we were amidst the bright lights and bells feeding our hard earned money into the machines. I lost the others as I headed straight for the "players circle"; I like to get it over with quickly, preferring to feed a few twenties into the $5 slots, hoping for a big win. When I was out of twenties, I had winnings of $120 (up $40 from what I went in with); not bad for 5 minutes work, I thought. I found my mom in amongst the quarter machines - she was up by $30 and pretty pleased with herself. Then I found David; down $20 and ready to leave (he's the naysayer, in case you hadn't guessed). Then I found Nancy, sitting at twenty-five cent machine where she'd just hit the jackpot and won $400! She didn't realize she'd won - she was pressing all the buttons to stop all the noise coming from the machine! Then Nan came around the corner, fresh from a $200 win. I sat down beside Nancy and put $20 into a new type of machine while waiting for Nan to cash in her ticket, and I won a $500 jackpot! In the end we walked out with just over a thousand dollars in fresh $100 bills, smiling from ear to ear. Of course gamblers never tell you about their losses - what fun would that be? After dinner we watched Deception - not a bad flick, but you can probably afford to wait for it to come out on DVD.