Last year at around this time, I was just about ready to start up my Stratford food blog. In preparation, I thought it would be a good idea to participate in an interesting event I'd heard about: The Perth County Regional Food Summit. I attended, and learned a lot about the challenges, winning strategies, and resources that have made Perth County such a hotbed for local food.
I knew hardly anyone when I showed up at last year's Summit. But one year later, I can honestly say that some of the people I met and networked with on that day are currently listed among my most respected culinary community colleagues and characters, and many have become my good friends.
And here's the kicker (this one's for anyone who thinks blogging will get you nowhere): This year I was the event MC!
[Sorry, I don't have a pic to prove it because my blog photographer is, uh, me.]
After greeting the diverse group of about 100 people representing all areas of Perth County's foodscape, I introduced Rebecca LeHeup, director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (above), who kicked off the day in celebratory style by presenting the award for Best Culinary Tourism Experience of 2009 to the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival! Last year's event was even bigger, better and more delicious, so I think everyone in the room was thinking the same thing: repeat for the 2010 OCTA awards! Ms. LeHeup travels all around the world to see how other tourist destinations succeed at "putting food first" on their visitors' list of priorities, and she often shares stories of Perth County to illustrate Ontario's own culinary tourism success, "Everywhere I go I want you to know I'm incredibly proud of what you do here."
Eugene Zakreski (aka The Man with the Stratford Tourism Alliance Plan) addressed the crowd next, reviewing all of the amazing events and innovations that took place over the previous year in our region's food scene evolution. I even got a shout-out myself as Stratford's new official food blogger - cheers EZ!
Rebecca LeHeup returned to the stage to moderate a panel discusion that included Fred DeMartines of Perth Pork Products (above on right) and Nick Benninger of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 (left). These two have an incredible producer/chef relationship, as expressed by farmer Fred, "Nick is one of those customers you just dream about. He says, 'Bring me whatever you have.'" Chef Nick described his ever changing prix fixe menu as the key to his open relationship with his local suppliers, "It gives us control to let the farmers bring us whatever they have." After listening to Nick's philosophy of creating one-of-a-kind seasonal food experiences every night, Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 is definitely on the top of my list of places I want to eat in Waterloo, and I definitely want to hit it this spring when they host one of their extremely popular Iron Chef challenges (I hope one of the chef contestants is from Stratford!).
The kitchen at the Arden Park Hotel did a stellar job making a 'Locavores Gone Loco' taco bar lunch, where everyone got to put together their own tortilla using local ingredients. There was beef and pork from DeWetering Hill Farm, sweet pepper lamb from Erbcroft Farm, and a spicy cheese sauce using goat's cheese chevre from Monforte Dairy. The magnificent salads used beans from Full of Beans and potatoes from Neubrand Country Produce. The creative and delicious Summit lunch proved it: In Perth County, you can eat local in the winter!
One of my favourite features of this annual food summit is the semi-structured round table discussion that takes place over lunch at every table. As a moderator both years I've attended, I've found the dialogues to be insightful, lively, at times even heated, and generally very productive. It's like the room turns into a giant think tank for an hour, as everyone brainstorms about how we can make the local food experience in Perth County even better.
In the middle of these discussions we were all pleasantly interrupted by a cameo appearance by Perth/Wellington's very own Member of Provincial Parliament John Wilkinson (above)! MPP Wilkinson is also the Minister of the Environment, and he expressed his support for a more sustainable local food system generating a smaller carbon footprint. He observed that there was a lot of political impetus for the kinds of strategies we were exploring around our tables, "There is an itch, and we need to scratch it."
Afternoon saw us all splitting up to attend several breakout sessions. Tine Buechler from Ask Me Training presented a workshop entitled "How To Make the Most of Culinary Tourism for You and Your Business."
But I chose to attend the talk given by Toronto's Blogfather himself, Suresh Doss of Spotlight Toronto. Last year Suresh turned me on to Twitter, which I've subsequently used to stay closely connected to others in the Stratford food scene and to alert people when I have a new post up. Suresh told us all about the many other social media platforms we might want to check out, and kept us abreast of the latest trends for 2011 such as Tweetups where people from Twitter (aka 'Tweeps') arrange a time to all actually interact with one another and share food face-to-face!
The next session I attended was "Culinary Tales: Making the Most of Media Attention". The panel discussion was moderated by Arlene Stein of the Evergreen Brickworks (on the far right), and included (from left to right) Chris McDonnell, publisher of Eatdrink magazine; King-of-all-food-media Andrew Coppolino, who hosts The Food Show on 570News, publishes his own site Waterloo Region Eats, and also has a regular spot called Foodstuffs on the local cable television program Grand River Living; and Amy Rosen, Food Editor with House and Home Magazine and columnist with the National Post. The consensus among this panel was that everyone has a story, but some are more appealing to the media than others, so care should be taken to pitch it properly to the right channels.
After the breakout sessions we all got to socialize over some tasty offerings from some of our local artisans and shops. Liz Payne from The Milky Whey Fine Cheese Shop was serving some Monforte cheese paired with a nice cold beer from Grand River Brewing (above). Other samples included preserves from Pickles, Eh!; tea from Tea Leaves Tasting Bar paired with local honey; local bacon flavoured caramels from Chocolate Barr's; and sweets from Jenn & Larry's Brittle & Shakes and Rheo Thompson Candies.
The success of the third annual Perth County Regional Food Summit was a reflection of our community's vibrant and exemplary food scene. The cooperation that takes place between farmers, artisans, chefs, marketers, media, community organizations and politicians in Perth County is what makes it all happen, and already 2011 promises to be an even better year than ever before!