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CHEF'S TABLE: Cooking up ghost stories from years in the kitchen

'Walking into those buildings that are still standing can be like stepping into another time and place where the history and the influence of those past becomes visceral,' writes food columnist

It was a dark and stormy night…

Always a classic start to a spooky story or tales of suspense and the paranormal. I mean, it is the season.

Halloween is almost here and all that comes with it. The ghouls, the goblins, the witches, and the ghosts!

As the leaves fall, so, too, does the veil between our mortal realm and the shadowy place just outside our field of vision. What a great time for a good ghost story.

Personally, I’ve always been a little fascinated with the stories and macabre tales of supernatural and paranormal experiences. I grew up with Scooby-Doo, classic monster movies, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein — which instilled a lifelong love of the work of Vincent Price and is still a guilty pleasure — and shows like The Twilight Zone and Creepy Canada.

I would not go so far as to claim that I have definitive proof of the existence of ghosts and of an afterlife, but I have had some experiences that gave me pause.

Over my career as a cook, I have worked in quite a few locations that share long and colourful histories. So many of the great stories of how our towns and villages were formed involve the many local taverns and inns that sprang up along the newly laid roads and rails that snaked through the countryside.

With long history also comes generations worth of energy and influences from the people that occupied these spaces and places. Walking into those buildings that are still standing can be like stepping into another time and place where the history and the influence of those past becomes visceral.

In the fall of 2001, I found myself working at the historical Bala Bay Inn. I had taken a shoulder-season position and was fortunate enough that the job came with accommodation.

The inn was originally built and opened by 'Muskoka Bard' E.B. Sutton in 1910 under the name the Swastika Hotel. An unfortunate name as history would come to show, but at the time a swastika in Sanskrit meant good luck. The 1930s and the rise of the Nazis and corruption of the symbol would see the name change.

In 1908, in order to see his vision built, Sutton negotiated with Bala founder Thomas Burgess to sell him a section of shoreline along Bala Bay. It took some time and convincing, but Burgess relented with one condition: alcohol must never be served on the property. E.B., himself a pious abstainer, agreed to the terms and faithfully enforced them.

The impressive and modern three-storey hotel opened on July 17, 1910, and was an immediate hit with the affluent tourists and adventure travellers of the day. The structure was built of brick – the first of its kind anywhere in Muskoka. Sadly, E.B. passed away in 1917 and with him the promise of not serving alcohol on the premises.

This is where the story takes a turn to the paranormal. Sitting at the bar and if you ask the old-timers in town, it was almost immediately after the hotel received its first official licence to serve liquor that E.B. visits began. There are many stories from staff and guests over the years.

Nightly visitors, peering figures and strange feelings all reported at various times. I experienced several strange things in my times there. As it was shoulder season there were many nights that I was the only person in the building. Several times I caught a shadow that moved or had an eerie feeling, but the strangest thing was the morning that one of the room cleaners asked me if I had been in 319. This is the room where E.B. stayed and had died in.

I had not been up to the third floor at all and asked why. The cleaner got a very strange look on her face and said, “Well someone was.” It seems there on the bed in 319 the was a clearly distinctive print on the bed spread made as if someone had been sitting looking out over the bay. … I guess he never left the hotel.

Several years later, I was lucky enough to meet a man whose fascination with our great ghost stories would become one of my favourite TV shows. Terry Boyle was the author of multiple books including his Haunted Canada series where various locations are explored by him and documented. He also hosted Creepy Canada, which ran on Discovery Channel from 2002 to 2006. Unfortunately, Terry passed away in July 2016, but his spirit lives on in the many books and shows that give us a glimpse behind the shadowy veil of the other side.

In the spirit of Halloween and things that go bump in the night, I came across a unique event right here in Barrie that combines all the elements of a frightfully good time. Food, theatre and mayhem. Talk is Free Theatre is presenting The Written In Blood Trilogy.

Created by Michael Torontow and Griffin Hewitt, this is a site-specific immersive theatre experience.

Posing the question “Do the age-old centuries dispatch powers that mere modernity cannot kill?”

This presentation adapts one of literature’s great horror novels, Written in Blood and takes audiences on a journey through the horror stories of the past as they arrive suddenly on the shores of our present; confounding what is real, who to trust, and how to survive in a new world of old horrors. Click here for more information. 

I hope that you and your families enjoy a safe and happy Halloween this year. There’s a frightfully good time waiting for you out there!

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Daniel Clements

About the Author: Daniel Clements

In his bi-weekly Chef's Table column, Daniel will be looking at everything from local crops and trends in the business to seasonal delights and the local restaurant scene
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