Former Calgary chefs understand the service industry and now provide tailor-made lamb cuts to restaurants and hotels
VULCAN, Alta. — What do two experienced chefs have for breakfast? Coffee. Lots of coffee.
Nancy and Ray Nolan need caffeine to keep them alert during lambing at Lambtastic Farms. The lambs from their 350 Suffolk-cross ewes are coming thick and fast and at all hours of the day and night, so the former chefs have no time for fancy breakfasts.
Their farm is a long way, geographically and experientially, from where they met in the kitchen of London’s Dorchester Hotel in 2003. Nancy remembers her immediate attraction to Ray during a tryout for the job.
She grew up near Vulcan, where her parents, Rosanne and Dennis Stretch, continue to farm in partnership with her and Ray.
Ray grew up on a sheep farm in County Carlow, Ireland, where his father and brother still farm.
That background explains how they came to operate Lambtastic Farms, after first working in Toronto and Calgary as chefs.
“When we got here, we thought that we’d get a couple sheep,” said Nancy.
“That’s how it all starts,” added Ray, with a rueful smile.
They started with 50 Cheviots, but that turned into a much larger flock of Suffolks.
“They’re good mothers and good producers, good carcasses, so that’s important,” said Ray.
“They work for us. Everybody’s got their different tastes.”
Lambtastic Farms operates through direct marketing, selling from an on-farm shop and providing product to Calgary hotels, restaurants and specialty grocery stores.
Their chef experience is an asset in that respect.
“We still have the connection because we direct market,” Nancy said.“We’re selling to hotels and restaurants, so we still get to talk to them, but this way we get to eat at the restaurants more than we ever did before.
“One of the assets for us is that we understand that we’re not going to sell you a product and then be out of it in two months. We’ve been on the other end of that, so we understand how their business works.”
Added Ray: “We know exactly what they’re looking for when they call up and say they want a certain cut, done a certain way.”
It also helps to follow the product from birth to consumption with the ability to control quality at almost every step.
Lambing takes place from January to March. Ewes lamb indoors and are then placed with their lambs in smaller indoor pens for three or four days to promote bonding and ensure the lambs are healthy.
The animals spend the rest of their time outside on 320 acres of pasture and some rented land in summer.
The Nolans grow their own feed with the Stretches. The sheep receive a diet of hay, barley, peas, pea straw and pasture fodder.
They considered building a barn near their home when they began Lambtastic Farms, but then a former chicken barn came available a few kilometres away.
Already equipped with lights, heat, ventilation and automatic waterers, the barn reduced the expense of building new. It had an open pit for chicken litter, which the Nolans replaced with tenderfoot flooring commonly used in hog operations.
The non-slip surface works well for the ewes and is easy to clean between uses.
Nancy and Ray have two boys, Brayden, 4, and Charless, 2. Nancy said farm life allows them to spend more time with their children than they would if both were still working as chefs.
As for the boys, they love animals.
“They wake up in the morning and once you say the barn word, it’s socks on, boots on,” said Ray.
Nancy has learned to speak the B word with caution.
“You can’t say barn unless you mean it. Charless will put his boots on and his jacket on and stand at the door if you say that word.”
Brayden is old enough to bottle-feed the orphan lambs and Charless, though hesitant to go into the sheep pen alone, loves to do it with his parents.
Having grown up on farms, Ray and Nancy appreciate the value of raising children in a rural setting.
“There’s a good lesson to be learned, when you have some animals to look after and you can see them grow and reap rewards from it,” said Ray.
As for chef-quality meals at home, they do occur, but less often during lambing. The couple likes to entertain and easily gives advice to others on how to cook and prepare lamb. Southern Alberta is traditionally cattle and beef country, but they encourage people to branch out.
“The one thing I tell people is not to be scared of cooking lamb. For the most part, you can treat it just like beef,” said Nancy.
“And keep it simple,” added Ray.
For more information, visit www.lambtasticfarms.com.