When chef Michael Stadtländer and his wife, Nobuyo, bought their Victorian redbrick farmhouse in Ontario, they named it “Eigensinn,” a German word that means obstinate. It signaled, says Mrs. Stadtländer, their intention “to do things our way.”
Every inch of their 3,000-square-foot home in Singhampton bears their creative imprint. Since purchasing the property in 1993—along with 100 acres of forested land—for about $250,000, the couple has continuously worked on making improvements, spending another $140,000. These include the addition of a professional kitchen with commercial-grade appliances. From here, they prepare multicourse dinners served to customers at the farmhouse throughout the year.
The couple’s path to the forests of southern Ontario was circuitous. They met in the early 1980s when he was chef at the landmark Toronto fine-dining restaurant Scaramouche and she was a newly arrived pastry chef there. A stint in Japan studying with natural-farming guru Masanobu Fukuoka in the early ’90s confirmed their desire to buy a farm of their own. They chose southern Ontario, where Mr. Stadtländer, 60, says the lakes and rivers remind him of his childhood home in Lübeck, Germany.
Upon moving into the 1904 farmhouse, the couple immediately began hosting farmhouse dinners, even though the house wasn’t yet equipped with a kitchen and they had a 2-week-old son to care for. “With no stove and no fridge, we cooked for 16 people out of the pantry, washing dishes between courses,” recalls Mrs. Stadtländer, 50.
In 1996, they removed the Jacuzzi from what would become their kitchen, installing a 10-burner Garland stove they purchased at auction from a nearby culinary school for $2,800, and a Salamander, walk-in refrigerator, cooler and under-counter fridge for $3,500. They spent another $20,000 on labor, installing electrical outlets and converting the gas stove to a propane-fueled model. For the rest of the kitchen, “we did a lot of trades,” recalls Mr. Stadtländer, including bartering a Texas Red Wattle pig for the installation of wall and floor tile by “an Italian guy who liked to butcher pigs.”
Mr. Stadtländer constructed a 16-seat dining table and gazebo out of cedar wood rescued from the dump, and chairs made with remnants of pinewood left over from an earlier project. Though never formally trained in carpentry, he explains, “When you live on a farm, it’s kind of like arts and crafts. You can’t always hire someone, so you learn by doing and by observing other people.”
In 2000, the Stadtländers embarked on another round of renovations, adding a 275-square-foot log cabin-style breakfast room using pine harvested from their forest as well as redwood planks previously used in the subfloor of the Ontario Parliament building. The tongue-and-groove floorboards had been removed during a renovation, landing in the yard of a friend. Again, a bartered dinner was all it took to make the boards theirs.
Serendipity also played a role in bringing them carpenters for the log-cabin project. A year earlier, Mr. Stadtländer had spotted several itinerant German carpenters at the Hamburg airport, recognizing their signature black hats, black vests and trousers. A medieval throwback, German craft guilds offer free apprenticeships to young people, after which, Mr. Stadtländer explains, “they must travel at least 50 kilometers away from home for three years, three months and three days in search of work.”
The carpenters were on their way to Canada, so Mr. Stadtländer told them he needed a barn door fixed. Three days later one of the carpenters showed up at the farm and fixed the door. A year later, he brought another German carpenter to build Eigensinn Farm’s log cabin breakfast room in exchange for room and board. “No money changed hands,” says Mr. Stadtländer proudly, though he nearly had to set up “a pipeline to Creemore [a local beer brewer] because they drank like fish.”
Last year, the Stadtländers took down a small, poorly insulated family room and constructed a new one, cutting ash floorboards from trees on the farm that had fallen prey to an invasive pest. For one wall, Mr. Stadtländer used a jigsaw to cut wavy-edged panels from elm wood, also from his forest. The couple sprang for a $4,000 Blaze King wood-burning stove that heats the entire house. The final components were a breezeway that connects the room to Mrs. Stadtländer’s small office and a bedroom on the second floor.
Also in 2016, Mr. Stadtländer’s dairy supplier connected him with local Amish craftsmen, who handled construction of a new sunroom off the dining room. One wall of the sunroom is covered with graffiti by the Stadtländers and their friends, ranging from political and philosophical slogans to one line from Mrs. Stadtländer expressing her exasperation with certain unreliable millennial apprentices: “Fly by night—no thanks!”
With cooler weather on the way, the kitchen staff has been making jams out of the last of summer peaches and apricots, pickling green beans and cellaring root vegetables. Down the road, Eigensinn’s sister restaurant, Haisai, is planing its fall menu as well.
Renovation, especially in wintertime is disruptive and difficult, says Mr. Stadtländer, but worth it in the end. “Our farmhouse is old, so we need to look after it like an old body and make it as comfortable as we can. At some point, we would like to renovate the kitchen. But Eigensinn Farm is and always will be a work-in-progress.”
Read it at The Wall Street Journal