Twelve Inspirations: Building Community Engagement Through Food & Drink

Written by Bryan Lavery

After decades of working the spectrum of restaurant and other culinary businesses, I continue to be inspired by dedicated indie entrepreneurs who embrace the benefits of building community engagement through food and drink experiences. It is a privilege to be able to work at something and with the people you feel passionate about, while having a platform to be helpful to others. In no particular order, here are twelve food-related subjects that continue to inspire me.

Reverie’s Brian Sua-an, Jerrah Revilles and daughter Saisha

1. I have been honoured to work with many restaurateurs as a friend, consultant or mentor since I retired from the restaurant business twelve years ago. The new wave of restaurants that are intentional in their purpose make me proud. Restaurateurs Brian Sua-an and Jerrah Revilles (featured on our January 2019 cover) come to mind. They have been recognized with a rare 2-star review in Where to Eat in Canada, for their 12-seat tasting menu restaurant that features optional wine pairings. 

2. Stratford’s Evolving Gastro Scene: It has been great to work with Cathy Rehberg, of Stratford Tourism, these past 12 years. Stratford’s built a solid reputation as an innovational, entrepreneurial culinary destination for years. Stratford’s proprietary hold on gastro-knowingness never loosens, in large part due to the Stratford Chefs School. 

Stratford Chefs School Annual Long Table Dinner

3. London Downtown Business Association’s (LDBA) team have successfully positioned the downtown area as a premier dining destination, and continue to highlight the diversity of our local restaurants. Enthusiastic promoters of the downtown food scene, they have helped nurture the profile and profitability of downtown culinary businesses (restaurants, pop-ups, farmers’ markets, specialty shops and accommodators) by supporting the ever-evolving culinary community. 

4. Tourism London was initially instrumental in helping to launch the Local Flavour Culinary Guide in 2010. In a city celebrated for farmers’ markets, food hubs, culinary artisans, and coffee and craft brewery culture, it’s evident that food and drink innovators abound. Working with a strong community team, Melissa De Luca of Tourism London and Joanne Wolnik of Southwest Ontario Tourism Corporation have been instrumental in raising the profile of these businesses and are now developing the experiential travel market in London. Likewise, Meredith Maywood has been doing the same work in Oxford County, developing experiences to great success. 

5. New London Restaurants: We’ve had many stellar restaurants open in the last couple of years. Among them are Craft Farmacy, Reverie, Grace, Pizzeria Madre, Los Lobos, Hunter & Co, Ivy Ristorante, and The Little Bird Café. Taverna 1331, Wolfe Pack Company Bar, and Through Thick and Thin are a few new hot spots that are expected to open in London soon. 

London Training Centre

6. Culinary Educators: Fanshawe College’s Hospitality Program and teaching restaurant, The Chef’s Table, stimulates innovation and diversity, provides collateral employment, and contributes to creating a well-trained culinary workforce that fosters a strengthened culinary identity in London. The essence of the London Training Centre (LTC) narrative is that it achieves the whole seasonal cycle of our local bounty. The LTC faculty are not only culinary educators, but are also farmers, retailers, caterers, food artisans, restaurateurs, funders, and local food advocates. 

7. Local Food Initiatives: As a founding member of several local food initiatives, a proponent of Food Day Canada and of Feast On™, I am focused on creating dining experiences that extend beyond what is on the plate. Since launching the Feast On™ program in June 2014, the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA) has continued growing, evolving, and improving the program, including the creation of a certification system to safeguard the character and reputation of authentic foods. It is an assurance that products possess certain qualities and characteristics, due to terroir or geographical origin. Restaurants such as Craft Farmacy, Abruzzi, Garlic’s of London, Chef’s Table at Fanshawe College, Windjammer Inn in Port Stanley Eddington’s of Exeter, Hessenland Inn and Winery in Zurich, Cowbell in Blyth, and Woodstock’s SixThirtyNine are among the province’s Feast On™ certified restaurants.

T.G. Haile of TG’s Addis Ababa Restaurant

8. Global Cuisine: London has plenty of restaurants serving globally-inspired cuisine. T.G. Haile of Addis Ababa is a skillful chef at the top of her game. Her signature dishes from the repertoire of Ethiopian cookery comprise permutations of sweet, bitter, sour, salty, hot, and fragrant. Refined flavour contrasts are the hallmark of T.G.’s cooking. I remain an ardent and loyal fan of the hospitable Heidi and Bill Vamvalis, who have offered Greek cuisine and halibut and chips at Mykonos restaurant since 1985. Bhan Mudliar of The New Delhi Deli at Covent Garden Market is another favourite. Other stand-outs include the Budapest, Lo Nuestro, Mint Leaves, and Quynh Nhi.

9. Jill Wilcox is a dedicated culinary resource — supportive, knowledgeable, and a leader in promoting the local food community. Wilcox is celebrating 20 years as a culinary retailer at Jill’s Table, and for nearly four decades has been a food columnist for the London Free Press. In the spirit of giving back to the community, the Jill Wilcox Foundation was established in 2012 to help women and children in food-related initiatives.

Growing Chefs! Ontario

10. Growing Chefs! Ontario is a food education hub which aims to be an iconic destination for food exploration, by forging long-term partnerships with food literacy program providers, local producers, artisans, and other community-minded businesses, with an eye on sustainability and zero-waste. The social enterprise business model, in conjunction with the sponsorship program, generates funds needed to fully support the Food Education Projects, which annually provide impactful hands-on cooking and food literacy programming for thousands of children, youth and families.

11. Food Trucks are the new incubators for culinary innovation. I’m talking about the chef-driven, entrepreneurial, indie food truck visionaries. The food truck scene is growing in London, and owner Dee Spencer of The Donut Diva says, “We are happy to have such a great group of professional food truck owners who work together and support each other. One of our main goals within our Association is to celebrate each other’s successes and be able to offer the city of London an amazing food truck experience.” Association members include the originals — Goodah, Bifana Boys, The Donut Diva, Smokestacks, and Rosie’s Streetery, as well as newer additions My Big Fat Food Truck, Big Daddy Bacon, Grill’EM, Shelbys, Pierogi Queen, The Snobox, Maggie Marie’s, and MegaCone London.

12. Restaurant Ethics: If an inexpensive meal in a restaurant can only be achieved on the backs of workers toiling away in the kitchen without proper remuneration, you should be patronizing a restaurant that charges patrons enough to sustain their employees with a living wage. Good examples of restaurants committed to their employee’s well-being are Grace in downtown London, the worker-owned Red Rabbit in Stratford, and Emma’s Country Kitchen in Toronto. Historically there has been a significant wage inequality, and substantial occupational segregation, by gender and ethnicity in the restaurant business. Everyone needs and is entitled to equal protection in the workplace. More reasons to boycott certain chefs and restaurants have surfaced, including accusations of abuse, gender inequality and sexual harassment. We need change. Now.   


About the author

Bryan Lavery

Eatdrink Food Editor and Writer at Large Bryan Lavery brings years of experience in the restaurant and hospitality industry, as a chef, restaurant owner and consultant. Always on the lookout for the stories that Eatdrink should be telling, he helps shape the magazine both under his byline and behind the scenes.