At Canadian Chef's Congress, an industry-wide discussion on preserving ocean life

Photograph copyright by Karen Hamilton of tinybites.ca

Over the course of one weekend in mid September, Canada’s top chefs,  cooks, culinary instructors, students, farmers, fishers, producers and conservation experts gathered  at Providence Farm on Vancouver Island to discuss vital issues concerning the preservation of ocean life. The Canadian Chef’s Congress 2010, later nicknamed “Foodstock”, opened the doors for a much-needed dialogue on how various members of the Canadian food industry can work together to affect change and spread awareness on a truly Canadian theme: Oceans for Tomorrow.

The Canadian Chefs’ Congress is a biennial event comprised of workshops, panel discussions, and presentations aimed at specifically discussing matters relevant to food security and sustainability.

The first event, spearheaded by Toronto-based founder Michael Stadtlander of Eigensinn Farm and Haisai Restaurant & Bakery, was held in Ontario in 2008 and brought over 500 people together in less than four months to champion the theme “GMO-Free Zone”. Among the attendees were Vancouver’s own Robert Clark, Executive Chef and owner of C Restaurant; and Vikram Vij, Executive Chef and owner Vij’s and Rangoli.

A year later, recognizing the power and reach of an event of this magnitude, Clark put in a bid on behalf of the Chefs’ Table Society of B.C. to host the next congress right here in our own beautiful, coastal backyard.

With this powerful theme in mind, and Vancouver Island being the perfect place to host a dialogue about this increasingly pressing issue in Canada’s food culture, it’s no surprise that Clark received the green light to host the 2010 Canadian Chefs’ Congress.  This was accomplished with the backing of fellow Chefs’ Table Society board members Vikram Vij and Neil Wyles, Executive Chef and owner of Hamilton Street Grill, acting as part of the BC Steering Committee; Bill Jones, owner of food and beverage consulting firm Magnetic North Cuisine, acting as co-chair and Vancouver Island liaison; and Roberta Stevenson acting as Executive Director representing the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association.

Constructing and fine-tuning the final itinerary for a three-day learning, camping, cooking and eating extravaganza necessitated a heavy dose of collaboration from the start, something that these board members were quite familiar with from their experiences as part of the Chefs’ Table Society: a, “chef-administered, province wide collaborative dedicated to creating a foundation for the exchange of information between culinary professionals” (Chefs’ Table Society of B.C. Website).

Neil Wyles explains that anybody and everybody having to do with B.C.’s food and restaurant industry, with some assistance from the Congress’ National Committee, was called upon to nominate keynote speakers, recommend invitations to Chefs from every province and territory, and pitch session and discussion ideas. When all was said and done, the schedule of events showcased an impressive list of 24 speakers and over 550 attending delegates representing all kinds of food-related industries in Canada.

Wyles recalls a particular workshop that opened his eyes as a self-professed “young chef”.  The workshop dealt with the realities of the ever-prevalent fresh-versus-frozen food controversy. “As a young chef, it’s sort of beat into you that fresh, fresh, fresh food is everything, but the suppliers and fisherman and distributors hosting this workshop showed us that sometimes fresh could mean it’s up to eight days old by the time it gets to you, which is nice, but it’s still not fresh.  If you want the freshest food, it has to be flown in, so it leaves you to wonder what the carbon footprint is for that one package of fish.”

He goes on to explain how the workshop outlines, in detail, the process in which food is packaged, shipped and distributed – something he was only passively privy to beforehand.  “By the time any sort of seafood is flown from B.C. or the Lower Mainland to Winnipeg,” he muses, “it’s no longer a carbon footprint, it’s a carbon snow angel.”

An alternative to flying foods around the country is to freeze the fish at sea and process it on site, thus allowing it to last longer and be shipped through slower, more earth-friendly means, an option that’s typically more cost-effective overall. By showing chefs the trajectory of a single order and its potential harmful effects on the environment, workshops like this one will encourage them to be more mindful of the possible carbon footprint of their orders, and perhaps even adjust their menus to purchase items that are more readily available from season to season.

The importance of these kinds of workshops and, more importantly, of closing the gap between, “contemporaries and colleagues, and between the guy who grows the food and the guy who sells it or buys it” as Wyles would say, is in the passing on of vital information, and the demystifying of myths surrounding sustainability. Alternatives are always available.  It just takes a little knowledge to understand how to implement these practices, and how to avoid making decisions that may directly or indirectly influence the state of the environment, particularly when it comes to the health of our oceans.

“Rob Clark was the visionary behind all this,” says Wyles, “it was an amazing experience to be schooled by people who are older and more experienced than you are, and talk to them face-to-face. It just goes to show that it all started when this man stood up and said ‘we need to stop and think about this and change our ways’”

And that’s exactly what these chefs have been doing.

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