Chef duo Ricky Casipe and Olivia Simpson, professionally known as Ricky + Olivia, serve up two wood fire celebrations of Ontario cheese. Chef Olivia’s Wood Fire Frittata is topped with melted Ontario Brie, and Ricky’s Wood Fire Cheese & Charcuterie Skewers feature locally-crafted Ontario gouda cheese and charcuterie with seasonal vegetables. The pair preside over the culinary program at Westcott Vineyards in Jordan Station, Ontario. Similar to nomadic winemakers, they draw inspiration and infrastructure from the winery and surrounding terroir, but the food experience is all their own, and theirs is no ordinary kitchen.
During warmer months, guests experience their menu outdoors on the patio, with the chefs and their team serving directly from their fully outdoor kitchen—in the sun, rain and in high winds—for all to see. Outdoor cooking kind of just fell into our laps,” says Olivia. “We’re both from traditional restaurants and are pretty much city people. When we started by cooking barbecue, that kind of triggered it. I fell in love with outdoor cooking at the Rural Retreat for Feast On at the Terroir Symposium. It just seemed to be such a communal thing. Now, it’s become such a huge part of our well-being. It really grounds you. I don’t know why being outdoors and cooking over a fire is so connective, but I think people feel really rooted —even just having a piece of grilled bread — it’s not just toast.”
The menu is signature Ricky + Olivia, with playful dishes created from a sense of fun and elevated irony that’s completely credible and utterly delicious. For example, one of their most popular dishes this year is the “Big Mac” Steak Tartare. “At the Westcott patio, we’re focused on elevating rustic dishes,” says Chef Ricky. “We pay a lot of attention to the ideas behind our food and we’re always playing with these wacky, nostalgic flavours and food memories. We poke some fun and encourage our guests to expand on what’s familiar in their food experiences. In Toronto, foodies would get the idea of the tartare right away, whereas here, they understand the idea after they try it.” Other popular menu items include their Ontario “Hawaiian” Pizza and BBQ Smoked Half Chicken with hot sauce beurre monté and garlic and dill crème fraîche. “I LOVE our BBQ half chicken,” says Olivia. “Ricky created it this year and it’s been a huge hit. You get this awesome char from the grill and the wood oven. It’s fantastic.”
While many of us will spend this summer close to home, there is much we can take away from Ricky + Olivia’s bold and tenacious approach, even in our own backyards. The chefs’ recipes in this Guide, Wood Fire Charcuterie Skewers and a Wood Fire Frittata featuring Ontario-crafted Brie cheese, are a perfect example of how traditional food ideas and cooking methods can be hacked for outdoor cooking, with even better results. The trick is to allow the chaos of outdoor cooking—the unpredictability and the extra effort—become part of the dish and food experience. That element of chaos has been ingested into the Ricky + Olivia guest experience, which starts the moment guests realize they will be dining in a true outdoor environment, under a tent. There are no walls, and barely a roof. “Recently, it poured rain at 6:30 p.m., just as our big seating started,” shares Ricky. “It rained sideways as we seated the dining room, and no one was upset. It’s almost a fun thing, and such an experience for the guests to see the rain literally blowing into the grill and the team trying to keep the fires going and their food dry. We were having a terrible time, but to them it was kind of a show. They’re super nice and patient, actually.”
The relationship between Westcott and the chefs is symbiotic, with Ricky + Olivia sourcing their firewood from a forest lot on vineyard land as part of their forestry management strategy. “We use ash wood,” says Olivia. “It burns very quickly and very hot, so we go through a lot of it. During the winter, Ricky and I spend a lot of time chopping down wood to have enough wood for the summer. The fact that we have to chop our own wood increases our own connection and makes us appreciate every log that goes on to the fire. Sometimes we have peach, walnut or other fruit wood, which gives off a beautiful aroma.”
Ricky attributes some of the success of their experience to the smell of the wood fire itself. “You can have the best grill in the world and it won’t come close to a wood-fire meal. The moment guests walk in, they comment on the smell. It’s the campfire that hits their senses first—they’re not even smelling actual food yet. Then, they watch the meal prepared, cooked and served and have the opportunity to engage with the kitchen team and ask questions. You are literally creating and manipulating the element needed to cook your food. You’re not hitting an igniter or turning on a stove or an oven. By the time you get to enjoy the food, you’ll taste a massive difference. They say open kitchens help guests appreciate the food more, but this takes the experience and storytelling to the next level.”
Guests love the story behind a meal and its ingredients. As Feast On Chef Ambassadors, Ricky + Olivia’s menus feature local produce, meats and cheese sourced from Upper Canada Cheese just down the road from the vineyard as well as other Ontario local food gems sourced from across the province. Storytelling is an important part of their menu design and a common area of interest for any cook interested in creating a special experience. Olivia believes these stories and tips on where to find some of Ontario’s best are an important part of their offering. “We try and use as many local and seasonal ingredients as possible and share our favourite local roadside food stops with our guests. We also have a chefs’ garden beside the kitchen. A lot of our herbs, garnishes and vegetables come from Westcott’s chefs’ garden and guests can take a walk through and see what’s going to be on their plate.”
The particular challenges of offering an outdoor-only experience have gifted the chefs with a sense of humour. “For example,” says Olivia, “yesterday was super windy and guests were asking what they should order from the menu. I said, “Well…maybe not the salad because it won’t make it to your table. Order heavier things that will stay on your plate. We really work hard to set guest expectations correctly.” Ricky agrees. “It makes you more humble about food. It’s so different from anything I’ve done as a chef. I thought it would be a challenge, but I didn’t know we were going to be here for more than three years. As a young chef, you’re always trying to be better than the last chef. Now I can laugh when we’re wet, and the garnish is blowing off the plates.”
If you’re lucky enough to live in or visit the Niagara region, we strongly recommend you make reservations, because the word is out that this kitchen is one of the hottest in Niagara.
How to create the ultimate backyard local food experience:
Embrace wood fire cooking:
Try and do the entire meal without using a barbecue or any indoor equipment. It’s true that calamity may strike; embrace it as part of the experience. Preparing and cooking around a fire is not only a wonderful social activity, it delivers the greatest pay off when you sit down to enjoy.
Try a little placemaking:
Instead of eating from plates on your laps around the fire, create and decorate a special seating area. Cover the ground with outdoor rugs and mats and use wood palettes or low tables made from plywood elevated with bricks or stones. Drape fairy or solar lights in trees around your table. Cover the table with a vibrant assortment of tablecloths or other textiles and accent with backyard or wildflowers, lanterns and tea lights in votives. Seat guests on cushions and pillows to enjoy their meal.
Celebrate your region on a board:
Cheese and charcuterie boards are a beautiful way to showcase a wide variety of local foods, and the presentation lends itself perfectly to storytelling as your guests sample from the board. Pair with local Ontario wines, if desired. Boards are also an efficient appetizer while you stoke over your wood fire.
Enjoy coffee and dessert by the fire:
When dinner is done, prepare and serve dessert and coffee over the fire. The slower process will build anticipation for what’s next and is a natural segue into great stories told in the darkness by firelight. Pie iron pastries with ice cream, dutch baby griddle cakes topped with whipped cream or pastry roll with butter and cinnamon sugar wrapped around a stick are always a hit!