The concept of “going local” was more legend than reality in Canadian foodservice 20 years ago. Even 10 years ago, providers promoting the use of locally sourced ingredients was relatively rare and largely reserved for fine-dining establishments.
Fast forward to 2019 and it’s considered bad business to not be supporting local producers on foodservice menus, regardless of segment. With QSR’s such as McDonald’s proudly claiming to source 100 per cent of its beef from independent Canadian beef farmers and A&W Canada listing how each ingredient is sourced and from where, using locally sourced ingredients in Canada has gone from a unique selling point to a business given.
A 2017 Technomic report on the “Clean-Label Influence,” found that 86 per cent of consumers expect honesty from restaurants with regard to how ingredients are sourced. On the operator side, 84 per cent believed they needed to start incorporating more local ingredients onto menus. Two years later and this line of thinking has permeated into the mindset of the vast majority of Canadian consumers.
Chef Brad Long of Toronto’s Café Belong was championing local food well before it became the popular thing to do, boasting GTA-based menu items such as the St. Lawrence Salad with hearty greens, grains, nuts, cheese and a brown-butter vinaigrette ($15 for small, $20 for large). A significant player in the Toronto restaurant scene since the early 1990s, Long introduced a way of sourcing local ingredients for large-scale catering events and award-winning restaurants, proving that it can, and should, be done.
“Long before organic became mainstream, there was this conversation happening [among chefs] about the farm as an organism,” he says. “After talking to farmers and learning about what they did, I realized the vegetables from these farms taste better. Local food is palpable. That’s the point.”
The chef has long championed local farms and food producers within Ontario. He claims the farmers who grow his vegetables only do something specific to them if it’s to make them taste better — though this does not include spraying them with herbicides or pesticides.
“Living soil gives you this vibrant product that actually lasts longer,” he continues. “More complex minerality and other culminated, combined elements will cause a plant to store more natural sugars — and with more sugars comes more flavour. Over the years, I’ve realized these complexities in flavour are largely driven through soil management.”
Smaller farms will often take more time doing things such as managing their soil, Long argues. And, by buying fruits and vegetables directly from farms, you’re supporting your local economy. By developing strong relationships with local farmers and incorporating waste management within his restaurant, Long has accrued a loyal following of staff, suppliers and customers.
“Because of what I do (at Café Belong) and how I operate, my supplier sustainability really means profitability,” he explains. “This is not a green story. It’s about being greener so you can keep doing what you’re doing.”
Chef Jason Lynch can attest to the quality and variety of local foods available to him in his Nova-Scotia restaurant, Le Caveau. Located in the lush Annapolis Valley on the Bay of Fundy, Le Caveau is part of Grand Pré Wines and features beautifully executed dishes such as Civet of Martock Glen Deer with Grand Pré Marechal Foch wine, pearl onions, lardon and spaetzle ($29). The wines produced in the Annapolis Region of Nova Scotia have been attributed their own terroir, known as Tidal Bay. In a similar sense, the farms in the region have the climate and ability to produce some of the country’s best-tasting produce.
“I grew up in the Annapolis Valley, just outside of Wolfville,” he says. “I trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Ottawa and worked all over the place. When my father fell ill, I moved back home — it was only supposed to be temporary — but then I became chef [at Acton’s, Wolfville] and really enjoyed working for them. I’ve been cooking in Nova Scotia ever since.”
Having grown up on a farm, Lynch inherited a strong connection to the land and the farmers who continued to work it. It was 1997 when he made the move back to Nova Scotia, before the local-food movement gained momentum, but as soon as he took on the role of head chef at Acton’s, he knew he had to make use of the great ingredients on his doorstep.
“At Acton’s, all I dealt with were local producers,” he reminisces. “These days, local ingredients are used as a marketing tool. Back then, for me, it was all about quality control.”
Lynch incorporates a strict waste-management regimen in his kitchen at Le Caveau. This means making use of an entire animal as opposed to ordering 200 beef cheeks from an industrial supplier, or buying a tub of duck fat and 24 duck legs to make a confit.
“I’m willing to pay a higher price for my ingredients because I make use of everything,” he explains. “I’ve forged strong relationships with local farmers who grow and raise
Today’s Canadian consumers, as an entity, are much more aware of where their food is coming from. Greater understanding of the environmental impact of industrial farming has caused consumers to demand traceability of their food, information on how their meat is produced and what kind of substances are used to grow ingredients.
“People are hearing horror stories from mass industrial farms in the U.S. and they end up believing the same for Canadian agricultural products,” Lynch continues. “With the vast [number] of regulations and laws Canadian farmers have to adhere to — they’re two completely different worlds.”
Many foodservice providers who purposely promote local foods on their menus feel there’s still an element of education that needs to happen for the local movement to become the norm.
“Knowledge, at the end of the day, is going to drive change,” Lynch concludes. “It’s about getting people to connect to what they’re putting into their bodies at a closer level.”
Having a connection to locally sourced ingredients and the natural world is easily achieved in Haida Gwaii, an archipelago located just off the coast of Prince Rupert, B.C. With a population of approximately 4,000 year-round residents, Haida Gwaii is largely governed and inhabited by the Haida-First-Nations people, who have resided there for more than 10,000 years.
A key Canadian trend in local food has been the re-emergence of First-Nations’ cuisine on the national stage. In Haida Gwaii, local chefs Edi Szasz and Brodie Swanson work within the realm of adventure and eco-tourism to create the perfect guest experience with foraged and locally procured food.
“We have parts of Haida Gwaii that are like Tofino was 40 years ago,” Szasz says. “White sand beaches; pristine and untouched nature.”
A group of islands with a complex ecosystem, the Haida-Gwaii region includes a large national park with ample amounts of shellfish and seafood, mushrooms, plants and berries and many local farmers and food producers who help supply the restaurants at eco-tourism lodges Haida House and Ocean House.
Swanson is a Haida chef who grew up foraging ingredients with his mother and grandmother before taking on the role of executive chef at Ocean House. He says the culture on the island has been heavily influenced by the native foods available to them.
“It’s probably my favourite thing about Haida Gwaii,” he muses. “Our Haida culture has evolved to this point — our political and familial systems, the way we gather food, our artwork — all of this is a direct result of the abundance found on the islands.”
Working with ingredients such as sablefish, salmon and razor clams, Swanson promotes traditional Haida food culture with a modern approach. His menus support the local economy and constantly change, but always showcase the abundance and heart of Haida Gwaii.
“I try to focus on Haida-inspired ingredients with modern, updated technique,” he explains. “I’m currently looking back into Haida preservation methods prior to refrigeration.”
An issue that often arises with traditional First-Nations’ cuisine is that it can sometimes clash with Health Canada’s food-safety laws. This has led to a movement of First-Nations’ chefs requesting food sovereignty so they can preserve traditional
Championing Indigenous food sovereignty alongside Swanson is Ontario-based chef Rich Francis, who, along with many other First-Nations’ chefs in Canada, is going back in history (pre-European contact) and fitting back together the pieces of the Indigenous food story. It’s a painful process; done not only to regain First-Nations’ traditional food cultures, but to help heal from the horrors of colonization and look toward a positive, culturally vibrant future.
“I get asked a lot about Canadian cuisine, which is probably one of the most redundant questions,” he says. “It totally ignores Indigenous cuisine and its roots. I’m just beginning to discover Indigenous cuisine for myself — I can’t even begin to think about Canadian cuisine.”
As chef/owner of Seventh Fire Hospitality Group in Six Nations of the Grand River, he travels throughout Canada to feed and inform the masses in an effort to reclaim the traditional Indigenous food culture that was stolen through colonialism and very nearly lost along the way.“
Indigenous cuisine is going to be a trend, whether I want it to be or not,” he laments. “The native languages are dying out right now because the generation that still speaks them is dying out,” he remarks. “Our elders are carrying a lot of knowledge about our food culture, so there is a sense of urgency here. You can’t find these things in a cookbook; it’s all passed down orally.”
Written by Janine Kennedy