Seedlings – One Couple, Three Chefs, Great Food

Michael Portigal and Ashley O’Neil own Seedlings restaurant at Angeline’s Inn in Bloomfield. Michael shares his kitchen with two other chefs. The three-chef team triples the ideas and energy in the kitchen and shares the workload so everyone gets time off “to enjoy the reasons they moved to The County in the first place,” as Michael told the Wellington Times. Recruited from Ottawa in 2015 to be chef at the Drake Devonshire, Michael eventually decided to open his own restaurant. He hired Brendan MacFarlane and Marty Brzozowski, his friends and fellow Drake alumni. Let’s back up to when Michael and Ashley first came to The County.

“I had been working in Ottawa kitchens for nine years,” Michael says. “Ashley and I knew little about Prince Edward County and hadn’t spent much time there, but the culinary and viticulture things going on interested us. When I got the job offer for the Chef de Cuisine at the Drake, we came down to visit and decided pretty fast that we wanted to make the move. We were excited! I’d worked with several restaurants in Ottawa, and, to be honest, the chance of working for a large-scale company like the Drake, without having to live in Toronto, was pretty appealing! And it was close to Ottawa, so we wouldn’t be leaving friends and family too far behind.”

“I had worked for the Drake Devonshire for two years before we decided to start our own restaurant. I had helped get other restaurants started in Ottawa, but this was the first time I had my own skin in the game. I’m not a natural entrepreneur, and the learning curve was pretty steep. We opened in March and the summer was busy, but having good guys with me in the kitchen took a load off so I could focus on the business side, the front of house and financials. The fact that we’d worked together already was great. We make a good team.”

OTTAWA TO THE COUNTY: “Obviously there are big differences. The customer base here is different to the city, in that it is more seasonal. You may have less walk-in traffic in the off-season, opposed to being busy almost all the time, but we are looking forward to meeting locals and repeat customers now that people that live in The County also have more time with summer’s end. Our first summer was all about first time business, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. A lot of our business was people walking through our door for the first time, and first impressions are hugely important. A busy summer was a big test for us to do our absolute best for everyone. That’s why we started small to keep control, but it is still long days and hard work, especially when you’re trying out new things with an ever-changing menu. It took time to get going. We opened in March, but by June we were full on, putting on three services a day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, we felt Bloomfield could use another breakfast spot, and also wanted to be conscious of catering to the Angeline’s Inn guests too. As I said, now in the shoulder season things have become calmer, we’ve changed our hours, and are looking forward to getting creative with new dishes and tasting menus. Seedlings will be closed for January and February, and we look forward to the time off to reflect, make changes for next season, and travel to get re-inspired! We haven’t had that type of break since we came here.”

LOVELY LOCAL MENU – We rotate dishes frequently. It’s very seasonal, we keep up with local and surrounding farmers and they keep up with us. We get our pork and beef from Brian Walt, our rabbit locally, our fish from Slieman al-Jasem. We aim to get 45 portions of each out of everything we buy and once that’s gone we have a couple of items in the back we rotate into. Myself, Martin and Brendan have taken our strong relationships with farmers and have come together to bring as much local ingredients to the menu as possible. Word of mouth is also strong here. At the beginning, when we started Seedlings in March, we weren’t using local rabbit, but a guy who came to fix our walk-in fridge had told us about a buddy who raises rabbits, so now our rabbit is local. That’s the way things happen here, the more people you know the more you can collaborate. Jamie Kennedy put us in touch with Geoff Heinricks so we use his ducks now. We really want to use local eggs, but there are a lot of regulations about what local foods you can and can’t use. For instance you can’t just use local dairy. Everything has to be pasteurized. Obviously being in a rural area makes life easier and we get creative, too, if we run out of something we can just run down to Hagermans and see what they’ve got. We buy it and figure out what to do with it afterwards.

SEASONAL: You have to stay on top of it, as the season runs down there’s less available and you change the menu. The plums have finished and tomatoes are running down, but we’ve been here long enough to know how it goes. We turn to beets and pumpkins and Brussels sprouts. There is good stuff we can rely on for the cold months, and it’s so nice to be able to just go up the road and hand-pick what you want: different varieties of squash, great fingerlings. Pumpkins are surprisingly versatile. Right now we’re baking cheesy polenta inside pumpkins, we bake the whole thing and cut it into slices, sear it off. It’s rich and really interesting for a side dish.

WELLINGTON TO BLOOMFIELD: Having worked at the Drake Devonshire in Wellington as my first culinary experience in The County, at first I found it quieter in Bloomfield, but that’s really changing. Bloomfield has started to become a hub of great shops and restaurants. With the opening of Flame + Smith, the newly opened Bloomfield Public House, as well as Matron Brewery opening up soon down the road. We see things gravitating towards Bloomfield right now, it all ebbs and flows. We are excited to keep doing what we do and see where that takes us. It’s going to be a whole lot busier next year!

PLANS: There are always a lot of ideas put out, but things to consider as a business owner brings you back to reality at times. We really believe in partnering with local accommodations, and other businesses, so we can all support one another, so we plan to continue moving forward with collaborations. We now offer a Chef’s five-course tasting menu, which can be accompanied by wine pairings, and look forward to participating in Countylicious. Our menu is going to continue to be seasonal and ever changing, our wine list will continue to support local wineries but also feature a strong worldly wine selection. We look forward to hosting, and being part of more events going into the fall and next season, potentially even some more catering.

STARTING OUT – “When we first moved to Prince Edward County we rented a place in Wellington, which eventually became commercial properties, so we moved down the street to another rental. We now live in Picton and hope to hang our hats there for a while, until we find a house of our own. It’s a thing in The County right now, not enough affordable housing, and it affects our hiring and hanging on to staff. I know everybody’s aware of it and hopefully something can be done to keep pace with all the good stuff that’s happening here, too. Seedlings is our second home, we had some fun doing the decor in the restaurant. I got a hold of some great old wood, and now they are beams on our restaurant ceiling, which gives it the old country house vibe. People seem to like the feeling of it here.”

Michael’s right, people do. And Seedlings’ ambience, menu and energy has already earned a place in EnRoute Magazine’s Top 10 New Restaurants list. Not too shabby.

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