Anita Stewart is the University of Guelph’s first food laureate, president of Food Day Canada, a cookbook author, and a culinary activist. She has been highlighting the diversity of Canadian terroir with Food Day Canada, an annual celebration of our homegrown cuisine. The first event was held on August 2nd, 2003, when Stewart launched The World’s Longest Barbecue to support the cattle and beef industry, which had been affected by cross border sanctions due specifically to the BSE crisis (mad cow disease). The event was larger and more widespread than anyone could have imagined, with participants from across Canada, as well as Canadians living abroad. Since then Food Day Canada has evolved into an annual mid-summer celebration held on the Saturday of the August long weekend. Some of my favourite restaurants participate, like The Rich Uncle Tavern, Fork and Cork, Bauer Kitchen and The Rich Uncle Tavern, Fork and Cork, Bauer Kitchen in Kitchener, Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Miijidaa, Borealis Grille & Bar and The Wooly (Woolwich Arrow Pub) in Guelph, Buca, Boralia and Edulis in Toronto, and The Red Rabbit, The Bruce and Mercer Kitchen in Stratford, and Abruzzi in London. Here is a brief look at a few participating Food Day Canada chefs.
Three years ago chef Eric Neaves, a graduate of Stratford Chefs School, met Robert and Dorota Zablocki, who convinced him and his wife to quit their jobs in London and head for K-W to open what would become the farm-to-table inspired, 200-seat Fork and Cork. Neaves’ annual Taste the Season 4-course tasting menu is terroir-driven and runs for the three weeks leading up to Food Day Canada. After meeting Anita Stewart in Stratford Neaves became an advocate for Food Day, and this will be his fourth Food Day Canada menu, an accomplishment of which he is proud. Chef has been focusing on shifting the concept of what a ‘proper plate’ should look like. He has been bringing more vegetables to the forefront on his menus since his daughter was born. Last year he planted 15 kinds of vegetables (including six tomato varietals), four kinds of berries, and about 20 different herbs. Digging in his backyard garden is part of his love of everything food and has deepened his understanding of what a healthy ecosystem looks like. Neaves tells me the concept of a Canadian restaurant is something we are all continuing to define and evolve.
Chef Benjamin Lillico of The Rich Uncle Tavern and Chef Brian McCourt, Culinary Director of The Rich Uncle Tavern and of Graffiti Market in Kitchener, share an ethical and sustainable culinary philosophy, caring about the provenance of food and the way it is grown or raised. Lillico was named to the Ontario Hostelry Institute’s Top 30 Under 30 in 2015 and captained Junior Culinary Team Canada at the 2016 Culinary Olympics in Erfurt, Germany. He joined The Berlin (now The Rich Uncle Tavern) from Langdon Hall. The new iteration pays homage to the brasseries and taverns of yesteryear with menus focused on live-fire fare and shareable snacks. Lillico’s menus are based on the availability of the best fresh and local ingredients from small, innovative farms and top-quality food producers. Chef McCourt has been involved in Food Day Canada for the past three years; while up at Oviinbyrd in Muskoka they ran a five-course tasting menu that was all sourced locally. Last year at Bauer Kitchen they featured a menu that was based around farmers and farmers’ markets in the area. This year
The Rich Uncle Tavern will be doing something similar, but elevated, running a week-long menu with the option to have a five-course tasting menu. The chefs are excited to dig into Food Day Canada and create something meaningful for the K-W area this year.
Jason Bangerter, Executive Chef at Langdon Hall, is an influential culinary maverick on the national cooking stage, with international credentials, and is a dedicated advocate for sustainability and seafood conservation. Bangerter cemented his reputation at the Auberge du Pommier in mid-town Toronto, and later at the O&B Canteen and LUMA at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. In 2015 Bangerter was awarded the International Rising Chef Award from the illustrious Relais & Châteaux. Named Best Farm to Table Chef 2017 by Canada’s 100 Best, Bangerter is well-known for his terroir-driven Ontario cuisine, using the estate’s acreage as inspiration for the seasonal menus. Langdon Hall is Feast ON certified and 80% of its products come from Ontario. This is complemented by an extensive wine cellar. Wine is a large part of the restaurant’s credo and prestige, with over 1,000 VQA and globally-sourced bottles on its extensive list. Langdon Hall was recently named No. 5 in the 2018 list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants.
On his involvement with Food Day Canada and its evolution over the last few years Bangerter says, “I have always had a soft spot for Anita Stewart. She is a true pilgrim of Canadian food and food history. I was one of the first chefs to participate and proud to do so. I have been fortunate to receive a gold award each year for my menu. More chefs have come to participate over the years and I believe the country as a whole has really embraced the event and what it stands for. The last few years I have been invited with the other gold award winners to cook at the James Beard House in NYC, showcasing a menu featuring a taste from each winning chef. It is a wonderful collaboration of Canadian talent boasting beautiful ingredients, spirits, wines and beer from our nation. In 2016, three Canadian Relais & Chateaux property chefs were gold award recipients. In 2017 we collaborated on a combined menu for Food Day Canada, each of us serving the same menu featuring each other’s dishes: In British Columbia at the Wickininnish Inn, in Quebec at Manoir Hovey, and in Ontario at Langdon Hall. Food Day Canada not only encourages Canadians to source and cook Canadian ingredients, but it encourages Canadians to look at new Canadian foods and to learn and cook together. It is an inspiring, powerful movement”.
Chef Arron Carley of The Bruce Hotel in Stratford is another proponent of Food Day Canada. He originally heard about the movement through a friend. Carley has been on mission to imbue and personalize the Canadian culinary landscape with his own style and a narrative receptive to the local terroir and seasons. About his and chef Gilead Rosenberg’s mission to reimagine Canadian cuisine by redefining and reinterpreting “Canadiana” on their own terms, Carley says that he believes every day is Food Day at The Bruce. “I know that it sounds corny, but it’s true. Every day we celebrate the landscape of this beautiful nation and strive to use and showcase more organic and local foods. It’s our ethos to try to only use Canadian ingredients, and we have stayed that course for almost three years. We still have so much undiscovered territory and endless opportunity in Canada.”
Food Day Canada will be held this year on Saturday, August 3. It is an opportunity for Canadians from coast to coast to coast to come together in a national collective celebration to showcase our time-honoured culinary traditions and the rich culinary heritage. The goal as stated by Food Day Canada “is primarily for celebrating, appreciating, and supporting local farmers, fishers, food producers, chefs and researchers and, above all, our home cook.”
A Conversation with Anita Stewart
What does being the first-ever food laureate at the University of Guelph mean to you, and what responsibility do you feel that it entails?
Anita Stewart (AS): Firstly, it’s an honour to hold the title. The responsibility to tell the University’s story in the larger Canadian context is very real. No matter where a person eats, there’s a U of G food story nearby, whether it’s that honey you like on your buttered toast, or the ketchup on your grilled sausage.
Can you tell us about the Culinary Archives at Guelph University and how the McLaughlin Library Canadian Culinary Arts Collection came to be?
AS: The Culinary Archives really began with an enormous donation of cookbooks from the late Una Abrahamson who was once a food editor. She was a serious collector and some of her books are irreplaceable. That was the foundation, but since then other food writers/scholars have donated their archives, letters and cookbooks… hundreds of them. They are an incredible resource for anyone studying food/agriculture/cultural history.
What role did you play as culinary advisor to the Governor General?
AS: We developed The Nation’s Table Awards a few years ago when Michaëlle Jean and Jean-Daniel Lafond were at Rideau Hall. Only one set of awards was presented before Their Excellencies returned to private life and since then no one has picked up the challenge. Pity!
Despite your many contributions to the Canadian culinary culture and narrative, were you surprised to be named to the Order of Canada in 2012?
AS: Absolutely! I felt like I needed to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was amazing, and to be in the company of some of the others, who I admire so much, like Paul Martin and Scotty Bowman and Eric Peterson, was absolutely incredible.
How would you like to see Food Day Canada evolve in the future?
AS: I’d like it to be more inclusive. Our chefs are brand advocates for local ingredients and I know that Canada is already celebrating them on that weekend since the harvest is in everywhere.
What do you think is the best way for people to understand and articulate the concept of a Canadian cuisine?
AS: It begins in the farms, forests and oceans and ends on our tables when we use these ingredients in our own special fashion … be it an Italian pasta or Indian dhal or good old-fashioned British roast beef.
After authoring numerous cookbooks, do you have something new on the horizon?
AS: On May 16 we are heading to the Beard House to cook in Manhattan. That’s taking up a lot of my energy. Mind you, I’m always dreaming.
This is Food Day’s 15th anniversary … you’ll remember it began in 2003 with the World’s Longest Barbecue. So this year it’ll be a reunion of sorts and an anniversary party.