Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Monday, October 25, 2010

School's In For Winter: The Stratford Chefs School 2010-2011

There is a strong culinary force in Stratford that I have yet to blog about: the Stratford Chefs School. I've met a lot of amazing food talents and personalities since I moved to this city, and one thing many of them have in common is their shared educational background. Off the top of my head, I can easily list at least a dozen Chefs School alumni who make the food scene here so special, including Bijou's Aaron Linley, culinary arts teacher Paul Finkelstein of the Screaming Avocado Cafe, and Monforte Dairy's Ruth Klahsen. I would have been all over blogging about this highly respected institution of gastronomic excellence all spring and summer, except for one thing: it runs in the off-season!

Every fall for the past 26 years, budding chefs  from all around the country have come to Stratford to spend the fall and winter learning their chops under the tutelage of cooking experts originating from both here and abroad. Once the theatre crush subsides, some of our finest dining establishments - including Rundles, The Old Prune, and Pazzo's Ristorante - are all transformed into classrooms. 
Believe it or not - this is Rundles' dining room today!
The Chefs School has become one of the most respected culinary institutions in the province, and the best part is our community gets to taste their learning first-hand throughout the off-season at the school's unique Dinner Series and other special events!

I worked closely with the Chefs School director Kimberley Payne all summer on the Education Committee for the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival (the Chefs School sponsors the festival's popular Learning Centre every year). So I was really excited to be invited to see her, her colleagues, and this year's crop of second year chefs in their element last Friday for the 2010-2011 Dinner Series Meet and Greet.
The event was really quite cool - it was held in the kitchen of Rundles (see pic above, where Chef School matriarch Elanor Kane addresses the crowd). I overheard one awestruck attendee remark: "This is where the magic happens!" The second year chefs-in-training impressed us with their knowledge, composure and passion for food as they circulated with some lovely little canapes.
Chef Linley continues to teach at the school, and I immediately recognized his influence when I tasted this phenomenal Jicama Tuna Avocado Risotto.
A piece of Monforte Dairy Pecorino was skewered alongside cubes of Mennonite Sausage and pickled golden beets: learning never tasted so good!
The second-year prodigies also served-up some lovely pickled eggplant, goats cheese and carmelized onions on crostinis (Angie Murphy is  pictured above flanked by brothers Brandon and Jeremy Gries).

I learned that the Chefs School proudly invites chef experts in international cuisine to teach at the school every year. In attendance was Michelin Star Italian Chef Riccardo Camanini, (above, wearing scarf) who was revered by two graduates from last year's class who returned to sing high praise for their alma mater. One installment of the Dinner Series will feature his cuisine, while others will feature guest instructors from Mexico and France!

Subscriptions and schedules for the Dinner Series are currently available through the Chef School and their website. By attending these amazing student-executed dining events, we are supporting this not-for-profit educational institution... in the most delicious ways imaginable!

I'd also like to mention that this year's Stratford Chefs School Joseph Hoarse Gastronomic Writer in Residence is the renowned Canadian journalist and author Ian Brown. He will be front and centre at two Chef School events in Toronto next month: on Saturday, November 13 he will be at the Heliconian Hall to discuss his  forays into food writing, and on Sunday, November 14 he will be celebrated as the 2010-2011 Writer in Residence at a very special luncheon at Nota Bene restaurant in Toronto.

Dare to dream... but I wonder if the Chefs School would consider including a blogger as their Writer in Residence someday?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Do the Math Challenge: "I knew it in my mind, now I know it in my heart and tummy"

How does it feel when you've got no food?
Musical Youth, "Pass the Dutchie"

Today is World Food Day. The theme for this year's WFD is "United Against Hunger". 

According to the United Nations World Food Program statistics, 925 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat, which is more than the combined populations of USA, Canada and the European Union.

According to Food Banks Canada, 794,738 people accessed food banks in our country in a single month in 2009. That month, food banks provided a total of 3,252,134 meals for fellow Canadians in need.

I don't think it is a coincidence that World Food Day corresponds with harvest season in the developed world of the Northern Hemisphere. Neither do I think that it's a coincidence the activists who launched the Put Food In the Budget campaign in Ontario scheduled the Do the Math Challenge in many communities for this bountiful time of year. Having just come off two incredible feasts of local, seasonal food at Savour Stratford and the Slow Food Toronto picnic, my experience living off the skimpy food budget afforded to people in our province living on social assistance was particularly eye-opening.
Here was the challenge for those who chose to take it on: for at least three days, eat nothing but what is either provided in the typical food bank ration, or eat on a budget of $5 per day, which is approximately what a person might have left over once they have taken out rent, transportation and other expenses from the $585.00 monthly social assistance allowance for a single person.

I lived on $5 per day for 3 days, and it was an incredibly challenging - but ultimately highly enlightening - experience. 
The first lesson I learned when I took my $15 and went to stock-up on three days' worth of food was:  you can get 10 lbs. of potatoes for $1.42 at Food Basics! I basically had steamed potatoes with every single meal I ate for three days, and still had some left over.

But I also got a dozen eggs, a couple of cans of baked beans, a bag of peanuts for snacks (which I finished on the first day because I perpetually have the munchies), and some frozen salmon filets.

So I thought I had this challenge beat when I rolled up to the checkout with my well-thought-out grocery cart. Then it all came into perspective as I observed the older gentleman ahead of me in line. His grocery cart just had one thing: the 10 lbs. bag of potatoes for $1.42. I got the strong feeling that this was his shopping for the week. My three-day challenge was his life.

As you may suspect from my blog's topic of choice, I'm not all that used to hunger. I'm used to being hungry, but I'm not used to going hungry. Over the three days, I did experience a degree of hunger I had never been exposed to, and being unable to satiate my stomach really changed my perspective on food. I realized how much I take it for granted. Food is everywhere in my privileged world of abundance, but that's something I never really appreciated until I found myself unable to freely partake.

At one point, I spent an afternoon trying to write on an empty stomach. I was basically useless. It made me think how difficult it must be for kids to achieve at school if they show up without having any breakfast or lunch. 

Having an empty stomach also made me grumpy. I found myself feeling uncharacteristically irritable, impatient, and generally cross. An empty stomach was all it took to make me creep over to an unfamiliar darker side of myself, and on reflection it really made me think about crime, violence and other negative presences in our society. How many people are in jail right now for things they did on an empty stomach?

Now I admit, I cheated. I am a strong advocate for community gardening as a tool for food security. So I used some of the produce from my garden plot at the McCully's Hill Farm Community Garden Co-op to supplement some much needed vitamins in the form of a couple of green salads. Adding a finely chopped sprig of rosemary to my ever-present pile of spuds made my three-day monodiet tolerable. I  actually didn't do this because I wanted to cheat, but rather because I wanted to prove a point: adding $100 to monthly social assistance payments (the policy goal of Put Food In the Budget) is important, but empowering people in our community to grow their own healthy, fresh food must be a contingent strategy if we're going to simultaneously promote physical, psychological and social health.

Either way, Kraft Dinner just doesn't cut it nutritionally, and ketchup isn't a vegetable.

This week, Put Food In the Budget community organizer Mike Balkwill came to Stratford to lead a Town Hall meeting where challengers got to share their reflections with other members of the community, including many who'd personally experienced food insecurity in Stratford firsthand. He informed us that Ontario MPPs were presented with the Do The Math online survey, and they calculated that an individual would require $1,340 each month minimum to fulfill their basic needs. These politicians admitted that it was virtually impossible to function on the current social assistance allowance, but at the same time they refuse to do anything about it because they feel there would be a public backlash (read: they might lose votes) if they increased payments. Mike Balkwill compared the $500 million it would take to fulfill the increases suggested by the Put Food In the Budget campaign to the $6 billion in tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals that have been established recently in our country, "In a wealthy society, governments make decisions about what they can afford."
The other two Stratford Do the Math challengers chose to live off the contents of a typical food bank ration (pic above is of an example on display at the Town Hall). After spending the week eating processed food, singer-songwriter Ali Matthews was supportive of a more field-to-table approach to food banks, "We're thinking we're so great giving people all this processed food, but I wish we could have farmers dropping off truckloads of fresh food." Stratford City Council candidate and Stratford Central Secondary teacher Kerry McManus was shocked by the uncharacteristic self-preservation reflex triggered by her miniscule food rations, and humorously remarked, "I was thinking I might want to start hoarding now!" McManus was also shocked by the nutritional inadequacy of her food bank diet - she toughed it out, but not without some stomach pain from the steady intake of  highly processed non-perishables. I think all three of us really appreciated the message that Mike and the Put Food in the Budget folks wanted to get across to communities across Ontario, "I knew it in my head. Now I know it in my heart and tummy."

Mr. Balkwill recommended that we approach our MPP John Wilkinson and ask him, as a member of the Liberal cabinet, to put his support behind an immediate $100 increase in social assistance payments to make it easier for people to meet their nutritional needs. The Honourable Mr. Wilkinson is a reader of my blog (thanks for posting the link on Twitter back in July, John!), so I would like to state for the record that if he stands up for this increase he will have my vote in next fall's provincial election.

I respect politics, and I'm totally in support of putting more money in the social assistance budget for food, but I also want to remind everyone in Stratford that there are lots of food security related projects that we can support or get involved in on a more grassroots level. There are the community gardens  popping up all around town, and a particularly exciting food production project is the Stratford Urban Farming Experiment - I'm going to  be donating my front lawn to produce food in cooperation with other community members next growing season, and the plan is for the SUFE crew  to also help out with the school gardens project next year too!
The Stratford School Nutrition program that's run by Paul Finkelstein and the Screaming Avocado Cafe culinary arts program of Stratford Northwestern Secondary provides healthy lunches to school kids throughout our city. I helped out last week by making a delivery of yummy homemade mac & cheese to Bedford elementary! Support this program by attending the Screaming Avocado fundraising events, such as next week's Chef series dinner with Joshna Maharaj (who I believe was once the chef for The Stop, the food security organization that initiated the Do the Math campaign).
Perth County Kitchens is a new initiative started by my sister-in-food Laurie Knechtel, who along with Marion Kuno spearheaded the Do the Math Stratford project. Perth County Kitchens is a program that provides people in our community with educational opportunities to build useful food skills such as canning and preserving. I was absolutely honoured to be invited this week to provide a soupmaking workshop for members of our community who are trying to stretch their food dollars while living on disability (that's me with my new friend Joanna above).

This time of year is Thanksgiving, and we should all give thanks for the unbelievable food that's all around us in Stratford and Perth County. But we should also recognize that there is a largely hidden problem of food insecurity in our region, and do what we can to see that our abundant resources are more equitably distributed. There seems to be more than enough to go around, so let's work together and make it happen!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Perth County Represents at the Slow Food Toronto Brickworks Picnic

It took me all week to come down from my first ever Culinary Week & Savour Stratford experience. But I fired up the blogmobile again on Sunday, October 3rd and headed on down to the Evergreen Brickworks in Toronto to volunteer at the Toronto Slow Food Picnic. If you want to come next year I have a hint: by volunteering a few hours for morning set-up (during which time you meet all sorts of interesting food-minded folks), you get free entry to the picnic (which is pretty sweet considering admission was over a hundred dollars for Slow Food members!).

How fortunate that my volunteer shift ended exactly when this Ontario mega-tasting began! I was like a kid in a candy store - all of the Ontario counties within the vicinity of Toronto were represented by sustainable producers who were often matched with many of the best Toronto chefs and restaurants. 

It was difficult to keep track of so many amazing offerings (especially with all the VQA wine and craft brewed beer), but I distinctly recall the sumptuous wild boar risotto served in seasonably-clever mini gourds (photo above).

For the whole afternoon, the Perth/Stratford section was one of the busiest areas in the vast Brickworks.

My Perth County Slow Food sister-in-food Yva Santini (of Pazzo's Ristorante & Pizzeria) wowed the crowd with some dazzling Soiled Reputations romanesco and a blue potato gnocchi.
Ingrid deMartines of Perth Pork Products approved of the Berkshire & pork liver charcuterie put together by the team from Quince Restaurant in Toronto.
Paul Finkelstein (the Culinary Arts teacher whose work with Stratford Northwestern Secondary School's Screaming Avocado Cafe was the subject of the Food Network Show Fink), is the National Slow Food Youth Chairperson. He was working with one of the most unique ingredients on-hand at this celebration of good, clean and fair food - Saskatoon berries from August's Harvest farm. He hand-torched some creamy ricotta-stuffed crepes (photo above) with Saskatoon berry pinnacles, which were quickly gobbled up by the impressed urbanites.

Ruth Klahsen, the owner operator of Monforte Dairy, was also in the house. She had been paired with Toronto hot spot Table 17, whose chef challenged our idea of cheesecake with a creative pound cake with grated Monforte Toscano topped with a ground cherry (photo above).
I am a proud, card-carrying member of Slow Food, and it was really great to see how the  Toronto organization linked the big city folk with the sustainable producers that surround Canada's largest urban centre.
The Slow Food Perth County Sunday market is continuing at its Monforte Dairy location until October 24th, 2010.  Based on the fundraising success achieved at our inaugural market season, our Slow Food convivium is sending a few of our members this month to the mother of all Slow Food events - the Terra Madre convention in Italy! When our delegates return, it will be right in time for the November 7th kick-off of our Sunday market's new winter location in the hip basement space below Anything Grows - our own little version of the Brickworks!