When I was a young teenager, our friends and relatives reacted like we were moving to Mars when we left Toronto to move to our cottage on Rice Lake. Our parents fulfilled a long-held dream when they purchased the hilltop cottage with an acre of cedar forest backing on to the Ouse River. The site had previously been part of much larger farm acreage.
The cottage was a prefabricated shell with no amenities, in my unformed mind a zeitgeist in the back-to-the-earth spirit of the times, a handyman’s special that we idealized and that had the potential to be transformed into our dream home.
At first, I thought we had landed in paradise, taking a cue from my parents who behaved like we had inherited heaven on earth. It was a convincing gambit that betrayed no hint of the hardships and sacrifices ahead. We briefly emulated the type of television family that enjoyed the solidarity of breaking bread together and took deep satisfaction from cooking meals over an open-fire in the moonlight.
Our parents purchased an old cast iron, wood-burning stove at a farm sale auction that had to be moved on a flatbed pulled by a tractor. The stove was connected by a stove pipe to a temperamental flue that vented the smoke outside. The stove was both a heat source and cooker and would rarely burn unattended for more than a couple of hours. Gathering and chopping wood became a necessity that seemed to dominate our lives. If the embers were allowed to extinguish no amount of stoking, bellows work or fanning with a newspaper would resuscitate the fire. It was on this volatile stove that I became a fledgling cook. I was most in my element in the kitchen, or hunting and pecking on an ancient typewriter in my bedroom with a thesaurus by my side.
The experience of moving to our cottage was like going camping for an extended period of time. Like any make-believe, reality often crushes expectations. When the honeymoon ended, practicality took over, and after several months our pioneering spirit was replaced by the “everything is awful” phase. For a teenager accustomed to the independence of urban life and navigating a large city on transit, the realization that we were isolated came as a culture shock, the effects delayed but inevitable.
At fourteen, I proved myself equal to stand a full day’s work. My first job was pumping gas and clerking at Heffernan’s, which was the only general store and one of few gas stations along a stretch of Highway 7 between Peterborough and the village of Norwood. Heffernan’s served a captive audience of hard-working farmers who purchased their weekly foodstuffs and farming supplies as well as other passersby en route to small towns or the near north. It was as a sidekick in the kitchen at the back of the store that I was indoctrinated into the art and science of baking and those experiences contributed to my life-long interest in cooking.
My formative years were spent managing the kitchens of the Keg and the Corkscrew chains, learning the business side of the industry when salad bars and steak and lobster were the very definition of middlebrow cuisine. Despite the lack of innovation in these kitchens I became an avid reader of cookbooks; the recipes were precise and I attempted to follow them to the letter.
In my early twenties I was fortunate to have several mentors with a dedicated interest in gastronomy and was given the opportunity to work with talented chefs and restaurateurs, all with difficult temperaments and strong skill sets that helped me develop a culinary backbone. My real education and passion for the culinary arts began while working at a series of French restaurants in Toronto that were bastions of haute cuisine. The way I saw it, French seemed to be the only serious way to dine. Initially, I was an ardent student of regional French cuisine but after trips to Italy, I had to acknowledge that I was more inspired by regional Italian cooking and eventually I moved beyond France as my primary focus of interest.
As far as I can remember, travels in Europe and my introduction to food writers MFK Fisher and Elizabeth David were how my passion for food writing was incubated. In any case, it was Italy where I first encountered giant turtles fated for soup pots, wild game, a variety of unusual feathered birds and truffle hunting dogs. I enjoyed scouting the open-air food markets in Pisa and Florence and the Rialto market on Venice’s Canal Grande. The Italian market was my nirvana, with its abundant varieties of fresh and saltwater fish and shellfish, and the night markets piled high with seasonal produce, fresh fungi and local cheeses.
I was cooking at a dinner club in Chandler’s Ford in Hampshire, England, just as mad cow disease was evolving from a cryptic veterinary conundrum into an epidemic affecting 120,000 cattle. Speculation about mad cow’s relationship to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans had created a state of panic. I realized that I had been naive to put my confidence in the perceived safety of our food chain. It was about this time that I became politicized about food security and began questioning our food and farming policies.
A decade later I was chosen as part of a contingent to partake in a culinary journey with seven Canadian chefs to the region of Emilia-Romagna. This was my first introduction to “slow food” and the movement to safeguard traditional regional specialties, time-honoured techniques and farm-to-table cuisine. It was on this trip that I had an epiphany about food that boasted of its regional authenticity, and became a dedicated proponent of culinary tourism and our own homegrown terroir.
I have had a rewarding career in the culinary arts and am grateful to be have established, owned and been in partnership in many great restaurants that became a way of life and, more importantly, an ideology. More recently my involvement with the Western Fair Farmers’ and Artisans’ Market gave me a platform to lead and support innovative initiatives in the community during a transformational time.
It was not that long ago that we lacked dedicated local food media to report on our culinary community. The food media, including eatdrink. have an important role in sustaining, mentoring and promoting a healthy culinary community.
I have learned a couple of things over the years. The first is that if you are patient and dedicated enough a transformational ecosystem of innovation will emerge organically over time. This has happened in the London, Stratford and surrounding agricultural and culinary communities. The other is that a sustainable vision more articulate than any blueprint you can draw, or business plan you can write, will occur naturally if you are collaborative and surround yourself with dedicated innovators with lots of knowledge based capital.