It wasn’t all that long ago that going for dinner in Niagara Wine Country meant bypassing St. Catharines.
No more, though — not with enRoute Magazine anointing one of the city’s downtown dining rooms one of the country’s penultimate when it named Dispatch the ninth best new restaurant in Canada in 2019.
Then came the headline. It was coveted earned media attention from Condé Nast Traveler, which called St. Catharines “the surprisingly cool city hiding in the middle of Canadian wine country” because it boasted Dispatch; Beechwood Doughnuts, that vegan sweet tooth’s dream; and Oddbird, a loud and proud locale serving up oysters alongside Nashville hot chicken on a chalkboard menu.
The influence of risk-taking chefs on the city’s head-turning food scene can’t be understated. But neither can that of Niagara College’s Canadian Food and Wine Institute (CFWI).
Even during the days when local media would fete the arrival of chain restaurants like it was a culinary coup, the college was training future generations of chefs, who would graduate to contribute to a more eclectic and exciting vision of dining in the Garden City.
And if they weren’t opening their own eateries, they supported those who were by bringing their skills to kitchens pushing boundaries throughout the city.
“There’s no doubt that when you have a top quality school in the region, it supports the diversity of the region,” said Craig Youdale, CFWI dean. “There wouldn’t have been the food scene we have without it… . Having a culinary school in their backyard is an economic asset to (dining) operations.”
Ask alumni who have gone on to open their own restaurants and they’ll tell you the support and collaborative spirit nurtured in the CFWI’s hallowed halls continue after graduation. In turn, that ensures their success, which ultimately begets that of other prospective restaurateurs who see what’s possible here.
Ray Syegco and Selah Schmoll, chef-owners of Incoho in the downtown, can borrow equipment or tap into the expertise of their former CFWI professors whenever they need.
“There’s a lot of support, which is really great,” Schmoll said. “I think (the CFWI) has been really great for Niagara. You go down that strip of St. Paul (Street) and it’s a lot of Niagara College alumni.”
It creates a tight-knit community, Syegco noted. But also a tasty one even beyond the city’s main drag.
Paul Bang runs Korean BBQ Town on Wellington Street, where downtown begins to morph into a burgeoning midtown with more destination dining and family-oriented neighbourhoods.
When Bang arrived in Windsor from Korea with plans to one day open his own restaurant, he toyed with the idea of attending George Brown College’s cooking school. He chose Niagara instead for the opportunities a college nestled in one of the country’s most unique agricultural and tourist areas could provide.
Bang became the CFWI’s first international graduate to open a restaurant here with his culinary homage to his birth nation. He credits to college’s support of his dream for his success since graduating. That’s included inviting Bang to cater college events, which introduced him and his food to a larger dining audience he wouldn’t have reached on his own.
The lessons he learned from Michael Olson, a wine country cuisine architect-turned-professor, and other instructors, have helped over the years, too.
“The well is huge in Niagara,” Bang said.
And in St. Catharines, specifically. The city boasts just about anything one could crave, be it Jamaican roti turned out by the exacting Michelle Berryman at Jamrock Irie, Sam Salame’s Middle Eastern street food at It’s About Thyme, which has turned the head of CBC Toronto food writer Suresh Doss, or Christian Fixon-Owoo’s Ghanaian comfort food served up every Saturday at the St. Catharines Farmers Market. Though none are CFWI alumni, they’re examples of how diverse and dynamic dining in St. Catharines has become.
“You don’t have to go to a vineyard or Toronto for a unique dining experience,” Youdale said.
Back at Dispatch, the menu is a showcase of the travels and culinary influences of Australian-born chef Adam Hynam-Smith, who co-owns the restaurant with his wife, artist Tamara Jensen. The meze-style menu draws inspiration from the Mediterranean and North Africa.
But Dispatch is also set up to be a platform for other chefs, including Delodun Olusola-Ajayi, whose play on a fried chicken recipe from northern Nigeria has become a Dispatch staple throughout the pandemic.
Hynam-Smith and Jensen were drawn to St. Catharines in 2009, recognizing the potential here for a restaurant of their own. Since then, they’ve forged as many connections with the local arts community as they have with other chefs to the benefit of the city’s entire cultural evolution. Just during the pandemic, Dispatch has served snacks and cocktails at the Niagara Artists Centre’s Nomadic Cinema movie showings and has also teamed up with Pride Niagara on a sold-out Drag It to Brunch drag performance event.
“It all goes hand-in-hand — food, arts and culture,” Hynam-Smith said.
Before the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for locals and people from out of town, even out of province, to seek a table at Dispatch. These days, it’s more Niagarans taking a seat on the restaurant’s pop-up patio, in the reconfigured dining room to allow for safe physical distancing, or shopping in Dispatch’s newly established retail space featuring take-home meals, wine, cocktail mixes and snacks.
However a Dispatch-goer chooses to enjoy Hynam-Smith’s handiwork, they marvel at the food before them but also at this mid-sized city with its big-time dining scene.
“I know there were people in this community crying out for something special,” Hynam-Smith said. “I love when you’re sitting here, you could be in any major city in North America. When you’re sitting here, looking about, it’s ‘Oh my God, this is St. Catharines.’ ”