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Radicals occupy (their own) restaurants

The personal is political… and what’s more personal than the food you put in your body?


I haven’t felt this giddy about the eating scene since the local food movement exploded nearly a decade ago. Why go out to restaurants that serve bland industrial slop when I can get picked-that-morning tastiness at my favourite city farmers’ markets? I’ve connected with local farmers to fill our freezer with “organic-plus-plus” meats — heritage, grass-fed, free-range — that shame factory-farmed meats and the chefs who serve them. Heck, the chickens we get from Lover’s Creek Farm are so free range I have to take care not to run over them when I pull into the lane for my order (along with the orders of a half dozen friends who are turning our Mini into a delivery truck).

Having grown up on a farm, I get the economics — if we don’t support our local farmers, we’ll lose them, and be condemned to suckle on the teat of big food and agribusinesses who reap profits from addicting eaters to cheap, high-fat/salt/sugar processed food. Our globalized industrial food system not only tastes bad, it’s killing us. You’ve heard about sky-rocketing obesity, cancers and diabetes. Consider why: When we eat something, we’re basically having sex with that food as well as everything that food has taken into its system. After all, we take those substances into our deepest bodily recesses where they, in turn, feed the reproductive processes of our cells and become part of us. Do you really want to be having sex with the likes of Monsanto and their genetically engineered soybean and corn seeds grown in chemically laced soils often fertilized with barely processed sewage sludge? Or meats pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones?

The only condom to shield you from that nastiness is to eat organic. (I wish I could claim credit for this you-are-the-food-you-have-sex-with idea, but it comes from esteemed University of Guelph professor of veterinary science, David Waltner-Toews, author of Food, Sex and Salmonella).

Over the past decade, the best Toronto chefs have come to realize that the ingredients they serve have to be at least as good as what savvy eaters are enjoying at home. Or why go out? Yet the monumental challenges — sourcing scarce supplies, forging new connections with local farmers and fishers, learning the politics, health implications and cooking techniques — can hamstring creativity. Menus often featured the work of the producer (rightly so) and the accountant (passing on increased costs) with little more than a side-serving of righteousness from the chef.

It was tasty and expensive and then it got boring.

But now we have a generation of chefs raised on the ethos of local food champs such as Jamie Kennedy. With the protocols and politics in place, these young upstarts are starting to strut their stuff. Impatient to flex their creative vision, they’re giving the finger to big investors, industrial food suppliers, show-off wine lists, white tablecloths, and the suits and ties, instead taking up power tools to bang together DIY hole-in-the-wall eateries in sometimes grotty pockets of town to serve real local food with sizzling style and tattooed attitude. At affordable prices. And people are packing the joints.

They recently gathered, these “New Radicals” as they’ve been dubbed, at the Terroir Symposium on local food in Toronto, to explore how to push farther into sustainable food frontiers — without losing the fun.

“[Chefs] have the power to make the earth and people healthy.”

One speaker, Barton Seaver, a Washington, DC, chef and author of For Cod and Country, called on chefs to take the lead in resetting expectations about food as desire — fetishizing the rare, the expensive, the insatiable appetite. “We face a crisis of scarcity,” he said. “Chefs [with their food choices] have the power to make people and the earth sick. So we have the power to make the earth and people healthy.” He urged restaurants to stop dishing off responsibility to diners to make ethical choices, pulling out the sustainable seafood charts and haranguing servers about whether the fish was raised or caught sustainably or swam in the pesticide swill of some factory farm. Instead, chefs should limit themselves to serving only sustainable options, then unleash their creativity to make those “limits” delicious. That way, we can all relax and get back to enjoying dinner.

Tama Matsouka Wong, author of Foraged Flavour, sees through the doom and gloom of scarcity to a future of more possibility. Indeed, she sees a delicious future in weeds. The lawyer-turned-food forager pointed out that our industrial food system has narrowed food choices to about 60 plants (the majority of our calories are supplied by just 12 industrial plants.) “Most modern health problems are not diseases,” she said, “but nutritional deficiencies.” Letting nature do its thing and collecting that bounty can expand our choices to the thousands and gives us the healthier and more diverse diet our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors enjoyed. Turning us into a nation of weed eaters is pretty far-fetched in the short term, but innovative chefs and foragers (who serve as their think tanks) can show us the way. And when some disease infects single-species corn or soybeans or those seeds unleash some genetically modified horror, we’ll be thanking the likes of farmer Mark Trealout  (Kawartha Ecological Growers) who uses downtime to gather wild greens as well as chefs at Buca and Langdon Hall near Cambridge who are showing us how to turn that strange bounty into exotic treats.

Toronto chef Doug McNish, author of Eat Raw, Eat Well, is one of the local young radicals dishing on the possibilities of a more plant-based future. The guy turned his body into a laboratory of radicalism and lost more than 100 pounds on an organic vegan diet (with a little exercise thrown in). Like many chefs, he started out cooking pub grub and watched his weight soar and health plummet. Now the 27-year-old promotes “kale as the new beef.” In minutes, he whipped up vegan kale crisps that tasted like the richest sour-cream-and-onion chips, proving that a raw vegan diet can be delicious and easy. “I want no chemicals in my body,” he said. “Most of our food is from agribusiness, grown by huge corporations. I want to support people doing the right thing and the food tastes better. [Raw, vegan, natural] is what food was for our ancestors.” It will soon be the food of the Über-rich too as the luxury Muskoka resort Taboo recently hired him as a consultant to inject a little raw into their menu.

But the most rad leader of the local food movement remains an old radical, Michael Stadtländer; a weekend trip out of the city to his Eigesninn Farm restaurant near Creemore and Collingwood is a foodie dream trip. The chef cooks for just 12 guests at a time, and he grows about 60 percent of the ingredients on his 100-acre farm, sourcing the rest from nearby farms. As Stadtländer says, when you eat here, “You are eating the land.” The restaurant has been named one of the 50 best in the world and is easily Canada’s most interesting. He recently opened a more affordable sister restaurant, Haisai, in nearby Singhampton. Worth a stop and a sleepover is the historic village of Creemore, home of Creemore Springs Brewery, the 100 Mile Store and several art galleries.

What I love most about these food radicals is that they’re no longer content just to source locally: They’re taking food politics beyond our palates, to the street. Stadtländer teamed up with chefs across Canada to start the Canadian Chefs Congress, which promotes education of local food systems. And last fall, again led by Stadtländer, some 70 Toronto-area chefs hosted Foodstock to protest a proposed mega quarry that would destroy 2,000 acres of prime farmland in Central Ontario and threaten the water supply of the entire region. Farmers wondered if anyone would show up on that brutally cold and rainy October day. But some 28,000 concerned eaters donned rubber boots and bussed it two hours to the hinterland to show their support. This fall, chefs and eaters will take the fight to the streets of Toronto with Soupstock. They’re fighting to protect the best farm land in Canada and also our food system from domination by transnational corporate food companies.

 This may well be the food movement’s defining moment, its Stonewall. The shame is that the LGBT community has not joined with the “occupy food” forces in any numbers, which is odd as it fights for things queer folk hold dear: The right to decide what you put in your body and who puts it there.