A cross-section of chefs, restaurateurs and culinary instructors agrees that the food and beverage industry, if not exactly at a crossroads, is at a critical point as it looks into its future, especially as (and when) pandemic conditions subside.
Here’s what these industry experts shared about the chef’s role, healthy eating, sustainability in all its contexts and ensuring a healthy environment for the future industry.
Josh Hayward, chef-owner Cambridge Restaurant
This long-standing classic neighbourhood diner in Preston strives for fresh-made comfort food, chef-owner Josh Hayward says.
“We aim to cook our menu from scratch and source local ingredients, that means from meats and produce to bread,” he says. “Supporting our local producers is in even more demand. There is an issue of supply shortages, and if we are able to source what we need locally, it benefits the producer, the supplier, the business and the economy.”
Across the industry, the pandemic has wreaked havoc and challenged notions of recycling and waste reduction. Hayward knows it well, as the business shifted to a heavy emphasis on take-away.
“The use of biodegradable and recyclable containers is increasingly important,” adds Hayward. “We need to continue to work on getting our food to the consumers, but as chefs and operators we need to do so by keeping waste to a minimum and making our global footprint smaller.”
Philippe Saraiva, Conestoga College culinary instructor
His experience both as a restaurant chef and culinary instructor in Waterloo Region has allowed Philippe Saraiva to scan the landscape over the course of several years. He sees positive change.
“I have observed many changes in attitude of chefs both young and older regarding healthy eating, sustainability, animal welfare and the environment. When I trained in France, those subjects were not often considered. We made food taste great with classic techniques and hoped guests made the right choices,” Saraiva says.
Even in last few years, he says he’s noticed young cooks focused on creating healthy dishes using less salt, for instance. “And the portions are smaller, and more and more meat is no longer the main event. No longer are they looking for the ‘perfect tomato,’ but, like our grandparents did, look for great tasting tomatoes even if they are imperfectly shaped.”
He cites the facts that young chefs take pride in knowing that the products they are using are locally source and that the animals are well cared for. “I think we are going back to the ways of early Bocuse and caring more about the taste and the impact of our actions on our environment instead of being exclusive or using hard-to-find ingredients to meet the trends,” Saraiva says.
Schools, he says, have implemented curricula focusing on planted-base cooking and ethical sourcing of ingredients. “We’re also teaching the benefit of nutrition and locally sourced products,” he says of a culture that has evolved and an industry that must continue to do the same.
“Just a few years ago, most of my students would not have wanted a vegetarian or vegan meal. Today that has changed. The future looks healthy and better for our environment with the new generation of chefs.”
Nick Benninger, chef and co-owner, Fat Sparrow Group
In his oftentimes self-deprecating manner, Nick Benninger is reluctant to stand on a soapbox, but he is quite serious about taking care of the environment, and the customers of his group of restaurants.
“Given the way I sometimes eat, I’m self-aware enough to not get into prescribing the traditional healthy eating tips. But when I think about healthy eating, I’m thinking in the big picture,” Benninger says.
“That’s the health of the environment, sustainability for those involved in getting the food from field to fork, and how the process may impact my community. I may not always eat what’s best for my body, but I definitely make it worthwhile, wholesome ingredients versus prefabricated foods with origins we can’t trace.”
For more than a decade, Benninger, as both a parent and a local food champion, has advanced the notion of how important it is to know the sources of the ingredient he cooks with. “I spend a good amount of time making sure this simple message is embraced by the next generation of food lovers: know your food and where it comes from.”
Despite clouds on the horizon, Benninger sees teachable moments and a “mantra” that he calls all encompassing.
“As we embark on culinary adventures, we can really easily and organically end up making healthy, sustainable choices for our bodies, environment and community without losing track of what is important: really delicious things to eat.”
Crystalle Kruis and Chloe Kruis, Ekko
Given the recent dark and gloomy proclamations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, the once abstract theory has been driven home – repeatedly.
Sustainability is an issue that chefs and restaurateurs have clearly recognized. Kitchener-based Ekko, Waterloo Region’s reusable takeout container service, was founded by mother-daughter team Crystalle Kruis and Chloe Kruis. They’re keenly aware of the obstacles that a food business faces in trying to become sustainable and provide an enjoyable customer experience.
“We are the output, the final step into re-usability,” says Chloe, noting that Ekko helps chefs reduce take-away waste that is readily apparent around us.
“On any walk, we find restaurant waste that should be in recycling,” adds Crystalle.
Pointing to the depth of the problem, Chloe says you don’t need to be a chef in a restaurant: “The pandemic has escalated the problem. At home, people have noticed increased waste.”
The solution Ekko provides to a wide range of food businesses in the K-W area – “we are keeping it small and local,” they say – is something they say chefs and restaurateurs will easily acknowledge; the obstacle, however, is not cost.
“For most restaurants, it’s operational. It’s finding time, it’s training staff and it’s logistics,” according to Chloe – to which Crystalle adds that Covid-19 and pandemic conditions are another layer of difficulty that chefs are currently negotiating with the terms of their business’s sustainability.
“Restaurant chefs would love to participate,” she says. “But at this time, they don’t all have the staff and are dealing with the mandates and protocols of the pandemic.”
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Nadia Dragusanu, chef-owner, Café du Monde, Cambridge
Café du Monde sees the issues holistically with smaller parts within a larger realm.
“Sustainability, healthy eating and a healthy environment are co-dependent,” according to Nadia Dragusanu. “You can’t have one without the other.”
Her business, located on Coronation Boulevard near where Highway 24 intersects, relies on local farmers for ingredients but ones who share her philosophy. “We support local farmers who in turn focus on using natural and sustainable farming methods which help to reduce carbon foodprint in terms of mileage getting food to the community.”
Café du Monde menus offer a variety of vegan and plant-based options, Dragusanu notes.
“It gives guests a choice to move away from meats which are mass produced and contribute to a larger carbon footprint. At every turn, we try to reduce waste in our kitchen. For instance, we use a lot of fresh berries and freeze what we don’t use immediately for making sauces later. They don’t just get thrown away.”
Elaina Kourie, Founder-director Top Toques Institute of Culinary Excellence, Kitchener
Demographics, according to Top Toques’ Elaina Kourie, will play a role when it comes to food as “a universal language” and professional culinary arts training as “the passport” to global kitchens.
“Statistics show that the need for chefs and cooks is projected to grow at an exceptionally higher rate than any other skills trade until 2028,” says Kourie.
This has Kourie considering the changes and adjustments that need to be made to Top Toques’ curricula in the short term. “This need will have to be filled via a comprehensive, integrated learning approach, an experiential and practical approach to learning that will meet the demands of our growing industry.”
Kourie believes that concrete actions must be taken that focus on the same elements we see at work in other industry sectors and parts of society. “We need a community and a culture that is supportive, equitable, diverse, employable and most of all sustainable,” she says. “The culinary industry has a key cultural imprint, and the statistics support the importance of food establishments for local economies too.”
Moving forward, culinary professionals require a well-rounded approach to the industry and their careers. “They need to enhance their value by learning and developing business knowledge and skills in addition to an eye and taste for exceptional and creative international cuisine. An educated chef is a confident and powerful chef,” Kourie says, describing how skills must match the social and economic circumstances.
A “more fortified approach” to culinary education, Kourie says, is key for the future.
“It has to focus on culinary management, real and practical experience, and an understanding of the importance of trends such as the use of local and regional ingredients, sustainability, nutrition and – very importantly – international cuisine and culture.”
Zerka Mya, The Pulao Gals, Kitchener
With her mother, Zerka Mya is one of two “Pulao Gals” cooking Pakistani and Indian specialties. They’ve gotten their names out into the community through the innovative Underground Flavour Group and have recently started a build-out of their own space in Kitchener’s King East neighbourhood.
“Education through nourishment is what I strive to do as a chef and cook,” Mya says, adding that workers in the current industry have a responsibility to the future industry.
“We have this incredible ability to become connoisseurs of our craft, mastering ingredients and their profiles. It’s almost a moral duty of the art to share that so future generations will keep that art going.”
Mya’s philosophy adheres to education that is inclusive and which can stand on its own, no matter which sector of the industry it touches.
“It’s vital to showcase the diversity of what food sustainability looks like, for each income-bracket and for each culture.”
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Andrew Coppolino is a writer-broadcaster, and is a food columnist with CBC Radio in Waterloo Region. Following a stint as a cook at a restaurant in Kitchener, Andrew chose to work with food from the other side of the kitchen pass. As a food writer, he is dedicated to promoting and nurturing culinary businesses and advocating for local chefs and restaurants. Andrew’s work has been published in newspapers and magazines across Canada, the United States and England. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
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