From Farm to Fork




Farm-to-fork dining made the move across the pond years ago, its influence varying from province to province and region to region. Here F&H hones in on the charge in Eastern, Central and Western Canada, revealing the distribution  challenges and triumphs as the movement shapes our nation, from shore to shore.


Promises of local bounty abound on Eastern Canada’s seas and shores.

Atlantic Canada is synonymous with Anne of Green Gables, potatoes and Michael Smith, food ambassador of Prince Edward Island. It was there the affable cookbook author and Food Network host carved out a niche for local cooking that was surprisingly absent from the idyllic, fertile Island 20 years ago.

The whet-behind-the-ears New York expat took a cooking gig at The Inn at Bay Fortune, culling ingredients from the lush green that surrounded him. It was radical thinking at the time. “It just made perfect sense to me to reach out and cook with what was around me; not for any other reason than that’s what the great chef ’s of the world do,” he says, dodging any direct credit for a cause currently championed by many chefs in the region.

But, it was different back then. And, when Smith opened Maple restaurant in Halifax at the turn of the century, the local movement still hadn’t caught wind. Today, P.E.I.’s original farmer’s market has spurred a handful of others; and it’s a similar situation in Nova Scotia where farmer’s markets number in the dozens. There’s no doubt change has arrived, even though some chefs are a little late to the party.

Take New Brunswick where the local movement “is still in its infancy,” says Jesse Vergen, executive chef of The Saint John Ale House and owner of Harmony Growers. “It’s still growing. There are a handful of guys who have been doing it for years, but, in general, it’s just starting to come around, and other people are starting to hop on board.”Each eastern province is different but they tell a similar tale, one in which the local-food movement is slowly gaining credibility across the region. And, there’s more to this plot than a pile of potatoes; the Maritimes, like its western counterparts, is a bountiful land. “We’re very fortunate to have a stocked larder —everything from small family fishermen to small farms, larger farms and everything in between. We have two caviar farms now and some of the most amazing oysters in the world,” says Vergen, boasting that famed chef Thomas Keller uses New Brunswick’s oysters in his American restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se.

It’s these local stories that attract diners and link farmer to operator. “When I was in Prince Edward Island, I was so  fortunate. I had a farmer by the name of Paul Offer — before organic was cool, he was doing it,” recalls Stefan Czapalay, chef and president of the Toronto-based Culinary Design Solutions and former P.E.I. restaurateur, from Halifax where he visits often. “He used to just bring whatever he wanted to my restaurant, and I’d just buy it.”

It was the type of business relationship Offer craves. The owner, operator and “gardener” of The Doctor’s Inn Organic Gardens and Bed and Breakfast in Tyne Valley, P.E.I., needs chefs to appreciate his small rotating supply of everything from eggs (see sidebar below) to rutabaga, fava beans and herbs. “If a restaurant comes to me and says we want your product, I will bend over backwards for them … but, they have to go on my system, I can’t go on theirs. If they want broccoli every week for 20 weeks, I can’t do it.”

It’s a similar story at the Maritimes’ only federally inspected beef plant, Atlantic Beef Products Inc., which can’t meet the needs of all operators in the region, even if there was greater demand. “Although we’re probably large for the Maritimes, we are infinitely small compared to our competitors in Western Canada,” explains Mike Nabuurs, president of Atlantic Beef Products Inc. “We’re doing about 300 animals a week, where our competitors — some of the plants in Western

Canada and in the U.S. — have the capacity of doing 4,000 to 5,000 animals a day.”

Simply put, it all comes down to price. At the beef plant, it’s difficult to compete with a larger company that has different margins and costs per head. And, out in the vegetable rows, Offer is faced with the same problem given the size of his two-acre farm and small greenhouse. “At the farmer’s market, I’m considered to be a curmudgeon,” he admits. “If I’m not getting my price, I will usually stop growing something rather than lowering my price, because it’s just not worth my while.”

It begs the controversial question: is local food sustainable in Atlantic Canada? Craig Flinn thinks so. The champion of the local food movement and chef and proprietor of Halifax’s acclaimed Chives Canadian Bistro, is passionate about the cause. “Whenever possible, I choose local first,” he says, stressing the importance of buying food in season to avoid hefty price tags that deter sales of regional products. “It doesn’t cost more, it costs less. There’s a big misconception,” he says, explaining the area’s short growing season doesn’t mean product can’t be pickled or preserved.

But, the cost to the pocketbook is only part of the equation; ethical issues are another. Take the ongoing seafood debate in Eastern Canada. “Our chefs have not embraced the ideal for sustainable seafood in the same way western chefs have,” concedes the Food Network’s Smith, speaking generally.

It’s a subject that raises the ire of many Eastern Canadian chefs. “They’re saying East Coast lobster is not sustainable; well, you can line 10 other people up saying, no, it’s a very well-managed fishery, there is a lot of lobster,” says the Ale House’s Vergen, who’s taken flak for featuring Atlantic salmon on his menu — salmon from an integrated multi-topical aquaculture project where urchins, mussels, kelp and sea cucumbers are grown on the cages with the salmon to filter waste, prevent sea lice and create a more sustainable form of open-ocean aquaculture. “There is definitely sustainable seafood here on the East Coast,” explains the chef and farmer, imploring Toronto chefs to use their purchasing power to support his region’s fisheries. “Our oysters and shellfish … are some of the most sustainable types of seafood in the world, we produce piles of them.”

Education could be the answer. Vergen is already frustrated with sustainable seafood organizations’ limited knowledge of Atlantic fish varieties. Flinn sees it a different way: “The problem — if there is a problem — is there’s so much information, and there’s so much contradictory information that it’s really difficult for people to make an informed decision about what’s sustainable.”

When it comes down to it, growing the local movement out east will take a host of collaborative efforts. “There has to be a lot of cooperation between a commercial operation and the farmer. And, that’s what the restaurants aren’t used to doing,” says the Doctor’s Inn farmer, Offer. “They have to find out what we have, how much we have and how long it takes us to get ready for them.”

Offer admits one entrepreneur tried to start a distribution arm some time ago but failed when he couldn’t find enough product. That doesn’t mean there isn’t provincial information about how to connect to the local movement. In Sackville, N.B.,the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network (ACORN) provides a list of farmers in the area, for example.

Chives’ Flinn thinks a middleman would be great but admits smaller population and demand out east, may make the idea harder to conceptualize. For him, it comes down to connecting with the busy farmers. “Let it come to a point in the marketplace where there’s enough people to support the idea of a centralized market where farmers can come and sell their wares centrally or get them to re-open communications with supermarkets,” he says.

Foodservice operators need to support local farmers in place of local community charities who knock door-to-door,  suggests  Vergen, who, like many of his counterparts, introduced a community supported agriculture program to grow his farm business.

There’s no doubt the local movement is in bloom in Atlantic Canada, but there’s always room for improvement. “The food system in Canada is busted. It’s absolutely bottom-line focused,” stresses P.E.I.’s food ambassador, Smith. “My challenge is to stop being so wilfully ignorant of these issues, take personal responsibility and affect change within the sphere of influence you’ve been given.”

Cracked System

Paul Offer, owner, operator and gardener of Doctor’s Inn Organic Gardens and Bed and Breakfast in Tyne Valley, P.E.I., is fed up. Thirty years in the business and the farmer and bed and breakfast owner is talking about packing in the lodging part of his business due to a barrage of product regulations.First, the government tried, unsuccessfully, to limit the number of chickens farmers could keep, and now Offer is railing against rules prohibiting the sale of farm eggs — that have not been federally inspected — to a commercial kitchen. “That’s starting to affect my sales. The strange thing is I’m allowed to sell my eggs at market because they couldn’t stop that sale, but I can’t sell to a bed and breakfast for somebody who’s cooking commercially,” he says, explaining a creative solution for his bed and breakfast guests. “We’re going to sell them a dozen eggs and then we’ll cook them up for them, because they can buy the eggs but we’re not allowed to serve them.” The farmer sees the regulations as the big producer’s answer to the local movement and health-related concerns. “It’s going to get a little bit worse as the powers that be get in operation, because they’re trying to put all the small guys out of business; that’s a personal feeling that’s held by one hell of a lot small producers,” asserts Offer.

Good Things Grow, BY J.D. NEY

With committed chefs and motivated farm cooperatives, local food logistics are expanding in Central Canada

A casual observer of Central Canada’s food scene would invariably come away with the impression that the stretch of the trans-Canada that connects Windsor, Ont., with Quebec City is literally teeming with restaurants pushing a locally focused, sustainable menu. So pervasive is the theme amongst the region’s social media-ensconced foodie elite, the region’s farmers must simply have to toss an heirloom carrot or lob aloft a Tamworth pork belly, and a gaggle of chefs would be on hand to eagerly snatch them before either hit the ground. That same observer, may also — erroneously — think it’s always been this way.

It’s easy for the region’s diners to buy into the narrative. After all, in Toronto, local boys Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtländer, have been pushing the local food fight, with varying degrees of success, for more than 20 years. But talk to local food distributors and chefs for their take, and you’ll get a very different story. Far from the impression of a decades-old,well-oiled and eminently sustainable locavore food chain, the feeling on the terroir is much more modest and speaks to a local-food scene that has passionate advocates, but is still finding its legs as a business model.

To wit, when Mark Cutrara, a former Kennedy chef-de-partie opened his own restaurant, Cowbell, in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood in 2007, the local-food trend wasn’t anything new to the city’s diners, but the talented young chef says it certainly was to the supply chain. “At that time, there were only two farmers that were actively vying for the business of Toronto chefs,” says Cutrara. “There was no real infrastructure for any single farmer to get his product into the city other than getting in their own cars independently and driving here.”

Keen to stick to his resto’s raison d’être, Cutrara spent a great deal of time sourcing ingredients on his own. “There was no one out there to be that third-party in those days, and so I had to do it all myself,” he says. And, what’s more, the logistical challenges didn’t end there, as once the chef found a number of farmers to work with, it was up to him to negotiate prices, keep contracts and make commitments to each supplier independently — a tall order to say the least.

It was the trials and tribulations of locavore chefs in 2007 and 2008, which convinced Paul Knechtel, something had to, and  could, be done. His solution was the two-year effort to create 100-Mile Market with co-founders Albert Knab and Chris McKittrick. “It’s not sustainable for one farmer, with one product to drive to 10 clients in the city. It’s not a sustainable model for the chef, the restaurant, the farmer, anyone,” says Knechtel.

“We came into that situation and said that small steps could be implemented to fix this problem, like that farmer stopping at a neighbour’s to combine the shipment. Well, what we did was take that baby-step and turn it into a big step, by creating a system of local food logistics.”

While Knechtel says it took some time to bring together a critical mass of producers and chefs to make the local food loop work for everyone involved, today, 100-Mile Market boasts approximately 160 producers, and a rotating menu of 1,600 different products  available on weekly order forms. In fact, despite having our conversation on a frightfully cold February morning, Knetchel says the company still had some 1,100 SKUs available that week, a testament to how far local-food logistics have come. “Nature does a great job of supplying us with quality produce that is second to none from May to October, but thanks to modern preservation methods today, we can take that produce right off the floor and flash freeze it at its peak or look to other methods of preservation like cold storage, canning and pickling, to fill in the gaps,” he says.

It’s those ‘gaps’ that have, hitherto, been the most significant knock on the go-local movement.

Too often, restaurant  winers say, certain products are unavailable or far more expensive than comparable products brought in from warmer climes. However, committed locovore chefs say they’re not missing that point, but rather that is the point.

When it comes to the ever-present cost conundrum, Alex Cruz, one half of the duo running Montreal’s DNA Restaurant says cost is tricky, but manageable, in the right hands. “If you’re a chef and  restaurateur, then you learned how to butcher an animal at school, and you should use that skill,” he says. “Cooking isn’t about having everything packaged and sous-viding it.”

Cruz notes it’s only because of the restaurant’s commitment to nose-to-tail eating that the cost structure makes sense. “We prefer and have to work with the whole animal. We work it out by cooking with and being able to sell the whole animal from off cuts to offal. Doing it that way makes it cheaper for us.”

At The Rocky Raccoon Café in Owen Sound, Ont., chef Robin Pradham is as committed to the cause as any and says having to juggle his menu to cope with shortages in one product category is what makes it all possible. “Is it a challenge to cook this way?Of course it is, but when one door closes, a window opens,” says the enthusiastic Nepalese native. “If our fish supplier can’t go out in his boat one day, we don’t have fish, that’s just the way it is, and we figure out something else,” he adds.

In fact, on the day we spoke, Pradham said that, due to a problem at the Mennonite farm that supplies his chicken, he was in his eighth day with no birds for his popular Tandori dish. “I could go to the grocery store like everyone else and buy  chicken for four dollars per pound, but I don’t. When we don’t have chicken, we don’t have chicken. I’m proud to tell my guests that and explain why. It gives them a sense of security too, because it lets them know that if we can’t get the right food, we’re not going to serve it,” he adds. And, at DNA, Cruz adds an even sexier twist.We can only bring in a small number of portions of a certain cut, so it creates a factor of exclusivity,” he says. “When it’s gone, it’s gone, so it’s a natural exclusivity”

So how has Pradham solved his poultry predicament? “It was pretty easy,” says the laid-back chef. “No chicken meant I found a supplier for duck and pheasant that’s close by, and we have that on the menu tonight. Rather than singling out ways our commitment to local food doesn’t work, I’d rather just find ways to do it so everyone wins.”

Back in Toronto, Cutrara has a similar philosophy when it comes to the challenges inherent in the local-food scene, regardless of its latent hardships. “If we can’t get a quality local product, then we just don’t use that ingredient,” he says, as if he simply didn’t understand the logic of doing it any other way. “For example, we get two months of fantastic fresh strawberries, so when they’re here, we’ll use them fresh. We’ll also make preserves and jams and store them, too, but if we can’t get something, we’ll just change the menu. That’s my job as a cook and as a chef. It’s supposed to be creative; we don’t just open boxes of ingredients and put heat to them.”

The romance of the local kitchen aside, producers say chefs keen on establishing a close-knit relationship with farmers need to be aware of the impact their ‘on-a-whim’ menu styles can have on a farmer banking on a market for his product.

Mark Trealout, founder of Kawartha Ecological Growers says the relationship has to be responsible and sustainable for both parties. “Our biggest challenge as producers is what I’d carefully call the fickleness of chef ’s ordering, says Trealout, who also runs Grassroots Organics, a small farm in Desporo, Ont. “They’re trying to change menus seasonally, weekly and even daily.” And, says Trealout, a farmer, who has veggies in the dirt or livestock finishing in the field, can’t shift gears that quickly. “As a farmer, I could have a whole bunch of radicchio that I’m shipping to restaurants, and then all of a sudden the menu changes, and I’m stuck with a lot of produce to move.” Trealout says he solves this problem in part with a community shared agriculture program, but it’s even tougher on the protein side. “It’s a lot of work to raise quality lamb, for example, and if a restaurant all of a sudden changes the menu, I’m stuck with a lot of young lamb.”

For quality-crazed cooks — who isn’t? — 100-Mile’s Knetchtel adds to Trealout’s optimism for the future, saying the growing popularity of a local-food diet and its implications for both restaurants and the grocery chains as well, has meant the locovore supply chain is maturing and expanding to help solve past problems such as price premiums and inconsistency.

“Mother Nature can always throw us a curve, which was a problem a few years ago. But, today, we have an expanded area of procurement that runs from Leamington, Ont., to Prince Edward County, and north to Bradford and the Holland Marsh, which helps mitigate some of the supply issues,” he says. “But, at the end of the day, consistency is what we have to work hardest on, without a doubt. It’s always a challenge, but if a chef expects it, we have to deliver it.”

Farmers and committed chefs alike see the complexity of establishing a clock-work-reliable local-food supply chain as an inherent challenge. However, both sides are quick to remind says ayers of the short history involved. “The local-food supply chain is just in its infancy,” says Knetchtel. “Its sustainability is growing stronger every year, even by the day.”

As for Cutrara, who, as you’ll recall was driving farm to farm only three short years ago, he says, the logistics are improving because there aren’t any other options. As he sees it, with fuel prices on the rise again, the shipping of protein and  produce over vast stretches of the continent and the globe will simply not be a long-term solution. “This is more than a fad. Local food really is a movement. And, yes, it can be hard, but I really believe in this.”

He’s certainly not alone on that road anymore.

The Fresh Makers, by CINDA CHAVICH

The West is leading the local-food charge with an enviable bounty from land and sea

The idea that Canadian diners want their food fresh and local has become so deeply ingrained in the western psyche that in Vancouver, even the street food vendors are committed locovores.

Fresh Local Wild is chef Josh Wolfe’s contribution to the new proliferation of outdoor food trucks dotting the downtown Vancouver streetscape.And, like many chefs in this food-forward city, keeping it local ishis mantra. “All our food is sustainable and responsibly harvested, ”says Wolfe, who dishes out 100-mile street food such as poutine topped with chanterelle mushrooms from Quadra Island, Point Grey Sockeye sashimi salad and elk burgers from his roadside stand.

It’s one way of getting local, sustainable food out of the white tablecloth dining rooms and to the average eater; a trend that’s growing as the locovore movement matures.

You’ll see it in restaurants across the West — fresh, locally grown ingredients at the diners, sandwich shops and take-out counters, as chefs find new ways to embrace local food.

Whether it’s the big sandwiches, made with the finest local meats at Big Lou’s butcher shop and deli in Vancouver, the local fish tacos from Red Fish Blue Fish in Victoria, the home-style local lunches at Soulieo in Saskatoon or the tender Spragg Farms porchetta on red fife ciabatta buns at Boxwood in Calgary, chefs are proving you don’t need to break the bank to support your local farmer.

Sal Howell, owner of River Café, Calgary’s pioneering regional restaurant, opened Boxwood last year, a casual spot for sandwiches and family meals featuring local ingredients. “We’re serving local, seasonal and sustainable food and trying to connect more people to this kind of wholesome way of eating, while keeping it affordable,” says Howell.

And, others are following suit.

Raudz Regional Table in Kelowna (named for chef Rod Butters and his wife, Audrey Surrao) is a redux of Butters’ fancier Fresco. Prices are lower, the vibe is more casual, but the meals are still made with top-quality local ingredients. In  Vancouver, Refuel is the new casual incarnation of chef Rob Belcham’s former restaurant, Fuel. While Belcham concentrates on his charcuterie kitchen at Campagnolo — featuring the finest artisan meats — Refuel makes local dining approachable for its Kitsilano neighbourhood clientele, with no compromise in quality. And, in Saskatoon, chef Rémi Cousyn and his wife, Janis, built a network of prairie fruit, grain, vegetable and livestock growers to provision their kitchen at Calories. Now they’ve expanded their business, going beyond buying from local farmers to forming partnerships with them.

The Cousyns worked with Kevin and Melanie Boldt at Pine View Farms to create Soulieo, a general store and deli,  featuring their naturally raised lamb, beef, pork and duck along with fresh breads, sandwiches, soups, pastries, take-out dinners and other local produce in an historic downtown storefront. “We’ve built our business on trust, completely vertically integrated,” Janis says. “We are what we preach.”

While there was once only a handful of producers willing to work with western Canadian chefs, today they line up with their niche product and custom-grown natural and organic selections — from every major pastured and organic protein, to sustainable fish, wild mushrooms and berries, microgreens, heirloom livestock breeds, artisan bread and cheeses, grass-fed beef, GMO-free and heritage grains such as red fife wheat, coldpressed organic canola oil, wild turkey and boar or even artichokes, kiwi fruit and local sea salt.

During the last five years, consumer demand for local food — a response, at least in part to concerns over carbon emissions and each individual’s footprint — has, well, mushroomed. Buying local may have started with chefs seeking the freshest, tastiest, ingredients, but today there is a social and environmen-tal aspect to sourcing food locally.

Those most committed to the local cause have become mentors to chefs and local food producers. And, some are taking the fight for a local, sustainable food system beyond the kitchen.

On Vancouver Island, Victoria chefs were so keen to connect with local farmers and help them succeed, they created the Island Chef ’s Collaborative (ICC). President Ken Nakano, sous chef at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, says restaurants were importing supplies from the mainland, and it became an issue of island food security, to nurture and support local growers. Now, the 50- plus ICC chefs raise grant money for struggling farmers and promote local produce by selling vegetables every week in downtown Victoria. “We have our own market stand in Bastion Square,” says Nakano. “We drive out to the farms to pick up produce every Wednesday, and we sell it on Thursdays and Fridays. We’ve already made $120,000 to go right back to the farms.”

From Ocean Wise sustainable fish to healthy food produced by local farms, chefs are realizing they can influence the system with their purchasing choices. “We’re the first to start something of this magnitude on this coast,” Nakano says. “Our mission is to promote local and sustainable agriculture — our issues are farmers’ issues.”

In Alberta, the Edmonton chapter of the Canadian Culinary Federation formed its own chef ’s collaborative “to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply.” And, in Saskatchewan, Local Bounty is bringing chefs and farmers together at annual networking events.

Still, it’s been the individual chefs and restaurants that have championed the idea of buying locally, and cooking seasonally, for more than a decade.

Alberta potato grower Rosemary Wotske recalls the day two chefs from River Café came to an Alberta Agriculture meeting to explore the idea of buying local ingredients. She was growing an array of interesting heirloom potatoes and trying to sell them at farm markets. “At the time, I really had no idea that I could sell to chefs,” says Wotske who now has more than 70 city customers, both restaurants and small retailers, for her Poplar Bluff potatoes and other root vegetables. What was “a slog” at first, has become “a joy.” “Chefs are very supportive and loyal,” she says.

Despite the warm fuzzy feelings, buying local products direct from farmers has required a paradigm shift for both businesses — conservative farmers willing to experiment with heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds selected for quality and taste, not volume or ease of production, and chefs willing to adapt to the seasonal landscape and be flexible about what to put on the plate.

“At times I wish I could grow a lamb with all racks,” says Caroline Vande Bruinhorst, who supplies her family’s Ewe-nique brand natural lamb to dozens of Calgary restaurants, “but with all of the chefs’ support, we’ve always been able to move every cut.”

For example, Darren Nixon, who opened Divine restaurant in Okotoks, a small town south of Calgary, 15 years ago, started with the goal to use local products on his menu. As his relationships with local farmers have grown, both have learned important lessons. “I call my suppliers, ask what they’re long on, and that’s what we buy,” says Nixon. “We’ve had to cut up a whole carcass, take a whole animal and work through it, but that’s what makes our food special,” he adds. “What was once a downside, has become our upside — it helps define who we are.”

In Vancouver, chefs Karl Gregg and Allan Bosomworth agree. They offer a seasonal, local, five-course tasting menu every night at their restaurant Two Chefs and a Table and have just opened Big Lou’s, a butcher, deli and sandwich shop featuring local Polderside chicken and duck from Chilliwack; Pemberton Meadows beef and Sloping Hills pork. “It’s all part of our nose-to-tail business,” says Gregg.

Most importantly, diners are changing, too. Most don’t expect every meal to revolve around a prime cut, a baked potato and a green vegetable. Slow-roasted pork shoulder, braised short ribs, lamb shanks, even sweetbreads and beef cheeks, have become perfectly acceptable proteins. “Over the last 10 years the customers have become more informed,” says Andrew Winfield, the River Café chef. “It’s not just us telling them about a farm or an ingredient, we can have a conversation.”

In the end, chefs agree, using local, seasonal ingredients makes them more creative. River Café has developed its own style of regional Alberta cuisine by letting what’s fresh shape the menu, be it mustard greens and wild bull berries, stinging nettles or the season’s first spruce shoots. “If I don’t have these connections, I don’t get these hidden gems,” says Winfield, who describes his vast network of local suppliers as “a personal, extended family.”

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