Talking to Sarah and Hidde in their Bloomfield restaurant was bound to be an experience, but we weren’t expecting the added fun of five-month old Hugo on Sarah’s lap and three-year old Evo, who made an urgent plea for a milkshake as we settled in. Sarah stayed serene and unflappable, which is not surprising for someone who helped direct the opening of the long-awaited Flame + Smith with a toddler on her hip and a newborn baby, too. Hidde and Sarah Zomer are co-owners of Flame + Smith, an exciting, new restaurant causing a buzz in Bloomfield and beyond. Hidde is chef, Sarah is manager. The couple met in Holland 14 years ago.
Sarah: I moved to Amsterdam for university. Hidde was always working in kitchens and we used to talk about opening a restaurant in the countryside somewhere, preferably Spain because of the weather! We wanted to use local produce and local terroir and be connected to the land and the farmers, with fruits and vegetables and livestock and drinks and everything.” In the end they moved to Canada when Sarah’s work visa expired. “We lived in Toronto and visited The County. After a while we knew Spain was not going to happen. We were building a family here. We liked The County for raising kids so we looked for somewhere to buy or rent. At first we thought we would build a restaurant on our property but then realized we didn’t want to live in the middle of a business, especially a restaurant, so we looked for commercial space. We found Ian Laurie and this place for lease and thought this might work. Bloomfield is amazing. Main Street is lined with farmers, which is different to most other Main Streets! We literally have a farm in our backyard. The Blue Wheelbarrow is less than a kilometer away, there are the Prinzens and so many other farmers, so close. It fit well with our vision from all those years ago.
Hidde: “I started cooking young, working weekends in kitchens as a student. I got away from it because I didn’t consider it a career, but I went back and worked in a more serious restaurant in Haarlem, where I was born. I was just a dishwasher at a high-end Chinese restaurant with cooks flown over from China. It was fascinating to watch them work! Lobsters flying around and lots of yelling. I had no idea what they were saying, but it was very exciting. I went to school for making furniture which I enjoyed, but you work alone and I missed being in a team, the energy of a restaurant. I missed the feeling of creating a memory for people, when they have a fantastic meal and love the atmosphere and the service. It’s beautiful to see. I think most chefs are driven by that, creating memories. A lot of things happen in restaurants, weddings, break ups, make-ups, anniversaries, birthdays, celebrations. Restaurants are unique that way.
I did a 4-year culinary apprenticeship, working in restaurants four days a week and going to school one day. The focus was to work in real kitchens. A lot of programs have school kitchens, but you learn a lot in the kitchen of a good restaurant. I worked in some Michelin-starred places in Amsterdam and my last year I worked in the Restaurant De Kas, a restaurant in an old greenhouse that was once the Amsterdam City Nursery. It used to house the city’s tropical plants over the winter and return them in spring. It had closed and was very rundown in an old beat-up park, out of the way, not downtown, and there was no money for the city to bring it back to good shape. A chef bought it from the city for one euro and turned it into a very cool restaurant, the main nursery became the dining room, and we had our own farm a kilometer away that provided about 95% of the food in summertime. The staff worked on the farm. I loved it and stayed on as sous chef until we came to Canada. I had no trouble finding work in Toronto.” Indeed. Hidde worked in several trendsetting places including Nota Bene and the Carbon Bar.
COMING TO THE COUNTY
Hidde: Coming to a new area is a bit hard in the beginning, but it is a very warm community. When we were working on the building, people came to see what we were doing and to welcome us and ask what we needed. I love being in a family focused, small community. I made connections faster than I expected. In the city I wanted to get out and connect with growers and suppliers, but I was sitting in an office, ordering from clipboards. Now I can visit farmers easily, and every day we make more connections.
Sarah: “It goes beyond farmers. Other business are so supportive, too, the breweries and wineries. We get the coffee we serve, Cherry Bomb, from our neighbour who roasts it in Picton. Our tea is from Hillier, obviously it’s not grown there but our supplier sources a lot of local ingredients to go into her teas. We buy flowers from Wellington, use local pottery. We are all building from the ground up, and there’s tremendous support for what has to be done. We are blown away by the quality of the tradesmanship. When there are problems, you can just call the guys up and they’re here for you. Everybody who worked on this project came to dinner for our soft opening. It’s more than business, it becomes friendship which was so good for us in busy and stressful time”.
FLAME & SMITH’S CHARACTER
Hidde: We love that we are on a country road not downtown in the middle of shops. Here you look out and see farms and trees. The location is good for passing traffic, the Loyalist Parkway is a busy highway, everybody who passes sees us.”
Sarah: “Our concept is in our name. Flame? Almost all of the dishes are cooked over an open flame or in the woodburning oven, or the plancha or on a rotisserie. Smith? On our website we say “who is Smith?” Well, the smith is the craftsman, the artisan, someone who specializes in their craft. We think in broader terms, like we have a winesmith or a baker is a smith too.
Hidde: “Serving is also becoming more respected and recognized as a profession. Some of our top servers have been in the business more than 10 years. It is their trade, their craft. We want to be humble, we don’t put a lot of ego on the floor, we just try to make an amazing experience for our guests. Flame + Smith is a personal project for us but it involves a lot of other people now, too. Ten years ago we had the idea of our kitchen in the country, and there is a lot to say about this kitchen.
Hidde: We have a small kitchen in the back with gas, but the whole hot line is fired by wood. It’s hard to work with. Gritty, not easy, not predictable. We use a lot of different local woods from the farmers. They call me when they have some ready, and there’s a lot of preparation. It has to be moved from there, then moved into the side of the kitchen, then split in different ways for kindling and for other purposes. You put a lot of time in before you get to cooking. But the flavours! Take a great product, steak or fish, then cook it over an open fire, you cannot beat that. Charcoal and gas are good, but the flavour from embers and wood is fantastic. I envision having a lot of different fires, the more fires we have, the more different heat sources and tools, the more inspiration it brings to the cooks.
THE FIRE: We have a 60-inch Argentinian grill for vegetables, meat, fish – pretty much everything. It’s a work of art, and one of the few in Canada. We use wheels to adjust the height of the grills, and we have a rotisserie for cooking a whole lamb, whole chickens. We worked a lot with Bruce Milan at his Island Forge, a blacksmith right here in Bloomfield. He built our plancha basically a flat-topped griddle, fueled by fire. It’s great for burgers – you get a nice crispy edge. We use all the fires in different ways. There is an extension bar with hooks where you hang things to cook slowly, a leg of lamb, ribs or a big steak near the fire to slowly catch all the heat. The woodburning oven is on the far end. The whole hearth was built by the Stove Masters from Orangeville, an amazing team of stone masons, who work across Canada and around the world. We work with as many local craftspeople as we can, but these guys helped us with the final architecture and finishing. Our atmosphere combines modern and contemporary with classic elements. The kitchen is red brick because we wanted it took like it’s been here forever, and the building was built around it. The kitchen is open so people can see the fires and feel they can walk in, and a chef’s table for seven or eight people is attached to the kitchen.
Sarah: Ian saved and restored as much as he could after the previous tenants had a fire in the building. We designed it carefully so people would still feel comfortable and it would feel welcoming. You have to get the mix right. We have some funky chairs at the chef’s table, they are retro but really comfortable. We hope to get it right, and it feels right to us!
Hidde: I like things that don’t go out of style, like stone. Restaurants can be very trendy but feel dated two or three years later. We mixed stuff like herringbone and the tin roof at the bar, Victorian tiles, things that are just beautiful to look at. Victorian style make it look a bit old English which refers to some of the County’s heritage but we mixed up classic and old and modern for a relaxed feel. We were told the kitchen was in the basement. It was really just a couple of steps down but the opening was very small. My first question was can we open it up? When you sit at the bar you can look down and see the fire. And I love little details like our whiskey chairs that came from a friend of ours. They were in bad shape, but Sarah saw potential in them. Somebody had come in and said “I would love to just sit by the fire and drink some whiskey” so we named those chairs our whiskey chairs. In a restaurant floor space, real estate, is valuable, so it might seem strange to just plunk two chairs in the middle – but we like it.
BUILDING THE TEAM
Hidde: We opened July long weekend which was not ideal, but we had to do it. The first three months were very exciting. Every day you run into something and learn something and it’s stressful. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea! But it can be so exciting to see a team grow, to see the restaurant grow. You have your concept of what the restaurant will be, but then it is different. When you sit down with your team every day and talk about the food and the guests, when you put people in your dream, the vision gets different. You feel more attachment for the team, the visitors, and for us as a family. I think a lot of the staff are happy to feel this. They say it is refreshing. We sit down every day together for a meal as a family.
I believe in creating a beautiful space. Like the bar. It’s functional but it’s beautiful to work in too. The kitchen is fantastic to work in and it excites people. It’s very well ventilated, we sort of overcompensated for all the open fires with great AC units that keep our kitchen comfortable. Of course it’s hot right next to the fire, but it’s nice. Maybe it’s because I’m the chef and also the owner but I like a good space to work in. The outside is beautiful too. Ian did all the landscaping and it feels like he has married that to our vision. It was part of what we liked when we first looked at this place.
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
Sarah: Just do it! We have seen great things happening in Bloomfield, like the Public House which will open soon. In Picton the Royal Hotel will be exciting, and it’s not just for the tourists, it’s for local people too, finding jobs and having fun. When I have a day off you may find me out having something tasty. Bloomfield is a great little village. We can only hope that we will help to make this a nice place to visit. Coming from the city, Hidde and I had a great experience working with the people at Shire Hall, whether it was building permits or liquor license. It was nice to go and speak to somebody and not be just a number – literally. In Toronto they give you a number and you wait for an hour or more and still sometimes you don’t get an answer. And you don’t know who you should be speaking to. It was great to have real people to talk to, ask questions and troubleshoot and get the answers you need.
Hidde: We were about a month late in opening. We worked through the winter to get it all done, and to do what we did and then to open almost on time we think was pretty good!
Read more about Hidde and Sarah in the Wellington Times story published in April, 2018
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