Eating-up Stratford
Bite by Byte

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Local Community Food Centre's Grapes of Wrath Fundraiser: 'It ain't kin we, it's will we!'

Tom: Kin we feed a extra mouth? Kin we Ma? 
Ma: It ain't kin we! It's will we!
(John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath)

I think it's incredibly fitting that my 100th blog post as The Local-Come-Lately happens to correspond with the very first Stratford food event I personally coordinated! And this wasn't just any event - it was the breakout fundraiser for The Local Community Food Centre, the not-for-profit food project I've been working on for over six months (I've been recently hired as the Director, and am now officially working at my dream job making a difference via food!).

The Local Community Food Centre involves the creation of 'A Place For Food' here in Stratford. When we open our doors in 2012 we're going to have: community gardens and a greenhouse to give people the chance to get their hands dirty growing their own food; a community kitchen for sharing and developing cooking skills and for cooking healthy drop-in meals to share with folks in need in our dining area; and a Food Distribution Centre where we'll be taking in large scale donations and purchases of healthy (and as much as possible local!) food from agriculture, retailers and processors to distribute back out to Perth County's food banks, community meal providers, student nutrition programs, and other not-for-profit food initiatives.

Although I wish I could take credit for the idea of creating a community food centre here in Stratford, that needs to go to Nick Saul, the Executive Director of The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto (that's him with me above). The Stop has been working for over thirty years to address the problem of hunger in their west end community through innovative programs designed to promote dignity and to empower people to build community around food. They've been so successful in challenging hunger by helping people develop skills like gardening and cooking - and advocacy and activism! - that The Stop received funding and encouragement to create a network of localized versions of community food centres across Canada. After seeing all the great work already happening here around food - including the efforts already underway by the Perth County Food Security Coalition and The United Way of Perth-Huron to establish a Food Distribution Centre - The Stop knew Stratford was the perfect place to set up one of the pilots that will lead the way to the fulfillment of this ambitious and important goal!

Fortuitously, it just so happened that the same year The Stop and The United Way of Perth-Huron partnered to create a resource in Stratford to promote health and dignity among those in our community struggling to put good food on the table, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's lineup included a play that evokes many of the same themes this project will be challenging: hunger, poverty, injustice and inequality. The Stratford Festival recognized these parallels between the theatrical adaption of Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath and the problems the food centre will be grappling with in our community today, and they generously invited us to build a fundraiser around this powerful and thought-provoking play, including a reception following the performance at the Chalmers Lounge of the Avon Theatre. Here is a video of me at the reception inviting the Director of that play (and Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival) Antoni Cimolino to say a few words, followed by Nick Saul and Ryan Erb, the Executive Director of the United Way of Perth-Huron:

Of course, my first-ever event had to feature food by some of the best restaurants in Stratford. I was really touched by the willingness of my friends in the food community to support this new initiative by serving up an incredible selection of wonderful dishes for the reception guests to enjoy.

Paul Finkelstein (on left) and his culinary arts students from The Screaming Avocado Cafe (that's not them in the centre - it's Savour Stratford's Danielle Brodhagen with her adorable little girl Eloise) brought along some stellar Duck Mousse Spring Rolls (that's my dad digging into one, I would have been doing the same if I wasn't so busy hosting!).

Chef Janet Ashworth of County Food Co. (featured in my last post about the Savour Stratford Chef Challenge) provided the party with fun vegetarian delights.

Bijou Restaurant donated two offerings: I noticed a few of the Grapes actors who came up for the post-performance reception freaking-out about the veal cheek rilette crostinis and Chinese eggplant with goat's cheese and summer sausage.

Backstage Bar and Grill was on board immediately when the call went out looking for food sponsors to support us. Everyone loved their savoury tarts... the nearby Backstage also provided a great spot for all the volunteers to gather for a post-event drink.

Revel Caffe provided us with the best coffee in town and some biscotti. Revel owner and uber-barrista Anne Campion has already proven to be a real champion for The Local Community Food Centre: Revel raised funds for our project via one day's sales during their1st anniversary week recently! Thanks for the event's bevvies also has to go out to wine sponsor Pelee Island and beer sponsor Stratford Brewing Company.

One thing that will always be emphasized at The Local Community Food Centre is nutrition. I am so thankful that Sara Bradford of Nourish Whole Food Nutrition made us some of her Bliss Balls and Goodness Brownies (above) - sugar and gluten free desserts that were as healthy as they were yummy!

The star performance in the food department was definitely Shawn Hartwell (above) of Simple Fish and Chips (soon to be Simple Fish Co.!). As always, his portable oyster bar was a huge hit: book it for your next party!

Some smooth lounge music was provided by none other than my favourite singing farmer, Antony John (aka the Manic Organic of Soiled Reputation Farm).

The evening wrapped up with a draw for the winners of the Freezer Full o' Food raffle. First prize was a great little chest freezer donated by Turnbull & Stewart, which was filled with local meat by Slow Food Perth County and fish from Simple Fish Co. as well as condiments and gourmet products from Turnbull & Stewart. Congrats to winner Tim Creton (couldn't have been won by a nicer guy - a lot of folks probably know him as the friendliest veggie vendor at the Stratford Farmers Market and the Slow Food Sunday Market!).

I want to thank all the people who came out to this event to show their support for The Local Community Food Centre, including all the folks who attended, all the restaurants and suppliers who  provided the amazing food and bevvies, the raffle prize sponsors, and of course the Stratford Shakespeare Festival for giving us the wonderful opportunity to create this fundraiser around this remarkable play. We raised around $5000 for the project, an achievement I commented on in an article in this week's edition of the Stratford Gazette:

"I’m happy to have raised that much considering we are still a very fledgling organization ... we don’t have a site yet but we have all this amazing support... I can’t even imagine what it will be like this time next year when we actually have an operating community food centre to show them the good work we can do.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Savour Stratford 2011: Hosting with Fink!

While I was telling the story of the Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival 2011 weekend on my previous blog post, I mentioned a couple of Festival events I felt deserved a whole blog of their own. I guess I'm a little biased because they happen to be the two Festival programs I co-hosted with my good friend, Chef-turned-Stratford Northwestern Culinary Arts teacher Paul "Fink" Finkelstein.

As it happens, the timing for this post couldn't be better: Last week Fink was awarded the Prime Minister's Award for Teaching Excellence in Ottawa, a distinction I feel is well deserved (and I should know - I nominated him!). This week, the first high-profile magazine article I've ever had published comes out on the newstands: I wrote it about the trip to Nunavut I accompanied Paul and his Culinary Arts students on last fall (check out the November issue of Canadian Living folks!). And then on this past Saturday the Globe and Mail published a front page article as part of their  "Time To Lead" series about Canada's sad track record on providing students with healthy school lunches, a problem Fink and his students were celebrated for challenging by making meals from scratch and sharing their daily creations with the rest of the school at The Screaming Avocado Cafe (Fink: "If we don't change the way kids eat, we're doomed").

At the 2011 Savour Stratford Festival Paul and I joined forces once again to promote our shared goal of inspiring families to make good food together. We co-hosted a fun riverside Pass-It-On style open-air cooking class with about a dozen food loving families, guiding them through the creation of a timely morning egg wrap:

That wrap was just what I needed because literally ten minutes later Paul and I were in Market Square where we had an absolute blast co-hosting the Chef Challenge for two whole hours! For the first time, downtown's Market Square was used for Savour Stratford programming, with the Culinary Theatre as the central attraction (a really slick mobile kitchen studio we scored from the Niagara Food Festival). 

Culinary Theatre MC Andrew Coppolino of The Food Show introduced the judges (above, Nick Benninger of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21, Bonnie Munday of Best Health Magazine, Montreal Chef Chuck Hughes of the Food Network Canada's Chuck's Day Off (and Iron Chef Champion!), and Jennifer McLagan, renowned cookbook author of Fat, Bones, and Odd Bits [btw thanks to photographer Will Bailey for the amazing Chef Challenge pics!]). The contestants were Janet Ashworth of Stratford's local food mecca County Food Co., who was up against Stratford Chefs School graduate Francisco Alejandri, who has been getting a lot of attention lately in Toronto for his Kensington Market Mexican Soul Food stall Agave y Aquacate. Let the first ever Savour Stratford Chef Challenge begin!!

Instead of going with just one secret ingredient, we challenged Janet and Francisco to work with FOUR ingredients all produced at Tanjo Family Farm near Milverton: bacon, quail eggs, duck, and Hungarian Partridge! 

Both chefs immediately got down to business, with each conceiving of three dishes that showcased these superior local products (and that could all be completed in just one hour!). As the chefs put together their creations, Fink and I had some fun talking with the judges!

The gorgeous food that the two chefs pumped out in just an hour was astonishingly good:

Chef Janet's Beer Poached Quail Egg with Pheasant on Barley
Chef Francisco's Scrambled Quail Eggs with Bacon
Chef Janet's Savoury Shortbread with Bacon
Chef Francisco's Kentucky Fried Pheasant with Corn Bread
The judges loved everything they tasted, but had the difficult task of deciding which chef's food was the best.

In the end the difference between the two scores was a mere 7 points. You have to check out the video to find out who won!

As a final note, in one of the videos I mention that there will be a similar Chef Challenge series in Stratford starting up this winter, which will raise funds in support of The Local Community Food Centre, the new not-for-profit food project being established in Stratford via a partnership between The United Way of Perth Huron and The Stop Community Food Centre (I've been recently named its Director!). We're having our first fundraiser this Saturday October 15: a special Grapes of Wrath performance and reception at the Avon Theatre. Of course the food is going to be spectacular, including an oyster bar from Simple Fish, two offerings from Bijou, and duck springrolls from The Screaming Avocado kids (with great wine, beer, coffee and dessert included too).  I'm calling on all the Local-Come-Lately fans to come out and support this incredible initiative that will include community gardens, a community kitchen, and a Food Distribution Centre to bring fresh, healthy and local food to the area's food banks and not-for-profits!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Savour Stratford 2011: "It's like Christmas for Foodies"

As Stratford's official food blogger, I feel the need to apologize for taking so long to get my 2011 Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival posts up (it's been almost two weeks - I'm so sorry to leave you hangin'!). 

I've actually been enjoying some well-earned post-Festival vacation time, but the whole time I was away I was continually flooded with memories and moments from this year's sun-kissed two-day event, which was by many miles the best culinary experience I've ever been involved with. Although it would take a small book to chronicle everything that happened on September 24 and 25, I have some great highlights I'd like to share as I finally get the chance to tell the story of that beautiful weekend when our city became the centre of the Canadian culinary universe. As one blogger told me, "It's like Christmas for foodies!"

The weekend was actually kicked off on the night of Friday September 23 by none other than Food Network Canada celebrity Chef Chuck Hughes (of Chuck's Day Off).

Chef Hughes (above) hosted Chuck's Night Out at the opulent Stratford B&B The Stonemaiden Inn, which featured incredible canapes such as elk carpaccio and vanilla scented lobster created by a kitchen full of students from Stratford high school culinary programs as well as the Stratford Chefs School under the leadership of Stonemaiden's talented Chef Mark Brown. I tried to introduce myself to Chuck but couldn't get past the circle of (pretty much all female) fans looking to get a photo with him!

I helped kick-off the Saturday morning festivities by co-hosting a riverside Pass-It-On style outdoor cooking demonstration with Paul Finkelstein, and immediately after we hightailed it over to the new Market Square Culinary Theatre where we co-hosted an Iron-Chef style Chef Challenge (I got so much good video of those I'm going to follow this post up with a whole v-blog dedicated to them, stay tuned this weekend!).

Chuck wasn't the only celebrity chef in attendance at this year's festival... Chef Connie DeSousa of Charcut Roast House in Calgary (on the right) was one of the finalists from this year's wildly popular inaugural season of Top Chef Canada. On Saturday she presented a workshop on the art of charcuterie with our own celebrity pork farmer Fred deMartines of Perth Pork Products (on left).

The best part of that seminar was when we all got to taste for ourselves creations showcasing Chef Connie's acclaimed flair for making mouthwatering cured meat products (a selection above).

My afternoon included stopping in at the Stratford Chefs School Learning Centre, where I finally learned the best practice for sharpening a knife (slicing down against a steel with its tip anchored on the cutting board, with knife at alternating 22 degree angles).

I then went over to the the Kids Tent where I visited The Return of the Living Salad Bar... remember last year when I actually managed to make salads fun for kids by getting them to pick 'em fresh? This year Stuart Wilson's Food Studies students from Central High School (one above with a shirt encouraging kids to follow him!) delivered the program all weekend long using planters I've been cultivating all summer in my garden! Big thanks to Hellmans who sponsored this program with donated shirts and mayo so kids could create on-the-spot dressings.

The late afternoon saw Canadian BBQ champs Boss Hog serving up platefuls of ribs to hundreds of folks who all dined together in front of City Hall on long tables. The annual Saturday night BBQ, Blues and Brews event featured great street food like fish tacos from Simple. Fish and Chips and the new Loco Dogs with house-made condiments from Pazzo's (keep an eye for these high quality dogs on the streets of Stratford next year). The entertainment truly rocked with MonkeyJunk, one of the best blues acts in the country (best when paired with mass quantities of Ontario craft brewed beers)!

Sunday saw me and Jeremy Taft of Slow Food Northumberland holding down the fort at the first ever Slow Food Perth County Taste Pavilion in Market Square. The adorable little girl above - whose mom was raising funds for a Stratford Shakespeare Festival community revitalization theatre project in El Salvador by selling delicious traditional food - was so into the multisensory workshop she started guiding other kids through the exercises, challenging them to explore food using smell, touch, hearing, sight and of course taste!

Hanging out at the Slow Food Pavilion was great because it was right across from the Culinary Theatre, which saw a roster of great demos like the vegetarian cooking of Cork/Stratford Chef Denis Cotter, Chef Chuck, and Chef Connie, who was joined by her Charcut sous chef Kris Schlotzhauer (the proud return of a Stratford native, above on right) to show people how to make goats cheese from scratch after hosting Breakfast With Connie at the Stratford Country Club earlier in the morning.

But of course, the pinnacle of every Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival is the Sunday York Street Tasting Tent. This year the stakes were raised as for the very first time there were awards for the best offerings in the tent as judged by Chef Chuck, Chef Connie, and a few other media personalities in attendance.

This heaping platter featured some of the best offerings at the tent. The two cocktails were from Down the Street - devilishly spicy Bloody Marys featuring tangy pickled veggies and the juice of heirloom tomatoes, all grown at Soiled Reputation Farm. On the bottom right is the smoked ham and brie created by Molly Bloom's using tender cold cut slices from The Best Little Pork Shoppe in Shakespeare. On the bottom left was organic mushrooms from Weth Mushrooms accompanied by a tomatillo salsa atop a crispy wonton created by Chef Aaron Linley of Bijou Restaurant.

Pazzo Ristorante was serving up some creative (and freaking delicious) fried risotto balls with braised pork and fontina filling topped with bacon jam, created in partnership with Church Hill Farm.

Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 would never show up at the Savour Stratford Tasting without blowing out all the stops. They were paired with Perth Pork Products, and came up with a dish that brought together pork done five - count 'em: FIVE! - ways. I'm a big fan of Nick's cooking, and it was not much of a surprise their dish got my vote for People's Choice.

In the end the winners were: Bijou Restaurant for Best Vegetarian Dish; Nick and Nat's for Best Meat Dish; Tea Leaves Tea Tasting Bar for Best Drink; Stonemaiden Inn and Koert Organics for Most Creative (for their killer Butternut Squash Ice Cream on a Shortbread); and People's Choice winners the Wildstone Bar and Grill and Miss Fosters Popcorn (I am kicking myself for not trying their Pickled heirloom tomato with garlic and herbed cheese on a fried wonton finished with micro sprouts, which by all accounts was spectacular!).

Actually, in the end the winners were the Stratford culinary community and its legion of food loving supporters. Massive props need to go out to everyone who helped make this year's festival the best one yet. The inspired leadership of folks like Savour Stratford founder Danielle Brodhagen has not gone unnoticed, as this week Savour Stratford received the 2010 Award for Culinary Tourism Leadership from the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance!