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Marc Breton, Jamie Kennedy and Andrew Milne-Allan on Seasonality

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By Noelle Munaretto

I know that whenever I have to go grocery shopping, I often get a little anxious. As I scan box labels and read displayed signs, I find it's easy to get an information overload. After considering the price, the quality, the sensory appeal, the calories, and where it comes from, I finally have to make the decision whether or not to put that item in my cart. Thankfully, in the spring and summer, the choices I make at the supermarket become a little bit easier. Ontario is blessed with a great agricultural bounty that is at it's peak between May and September. When it comes to buying produce at this time of year, I look for two important designations. It has to be local, and it has to be seasonal. Not surprisingly, many top chefs feel the same way when it comes to their produce, and by integrating local and seasonal ingredients into their menus they encourage guests at their restaurants to do the same at home. To find out more about local and seasonal eating I decided to chat with three Toronto chefs who make it a mandate put Ontario produce on the menu. Chef Jamie Kennedy of Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Gardiner and Gilead Café, Chef Andrew Milne-Allan of Zucca Trattoria and Chef Marc Breton of the Gladstone Hotel all spoke passionately about seasonality, while highlighting the benefits and the challenges of embracing the bounties of each local growing season.

Why Seasonal?

"I refuse to eat a peach unless it's in season here in Ontario," proclaimed Marc Breton at the start of our interview. "If I was in South Carolina I would gladly eat their peaches but I'm not." It's Breton's third year as Executive Chef for the trendy Gladstone Hotel in Toronto's Queen West neigbourhood. Breton explained that as he was first interviewed for the position, there was already talk of using more local and seasonal produce in the hotel menus. Seasonal eating isn't just a priority for the hotel, it's also a personal priority for Breton. In his opinion, it would be a huge mistake to ignore the variety of fruits, vegetables and other foods that Ontario growers work hard to produce, because the taste alone sets their crops apart from imported varieties. "It's definitely all about flavour, taste, aroma, that whole thing," said Breton. "Seasonal is much healthier," he added. "It's healthier for the environment and for you."

Chef Jamie Kennedy also acknowledged how his decision to work with local and seasonal ingredients was primarily based on the desire for a better product to use in his restaurant. "The quality of food restaurants were using at the time was largely hit and miss," said Kennedy of his early days in the industry. "We were paying a lot for it and it really wasn't that good." As Kennedy grew in popularity as a chef he was forced find food that just tasted better. "If you're taking your career in a direction that requires you to be more quality oriented, then you start to notice seasonal food," said Kennedy. Now, food writers and restaurant critics applaud Kennedy's use of local and seasonal foods in his menus at Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, Jamie Kennedy at the Gardiner and his most recent establishment, Gilead Café. Kennedy even works on his Prince Edward County farm to supply his restaurants with local fruits and vegetables. "As each year goes by, and I get better and better at it, there will be more for use at the restaurant," said Kennedy, laughing. Another important aspect of seasonal eating that Kennedy loves is the joyful wait for spring crops. "In March and April I already start anticipating wild leeks, fiddleheads, rhubarb…it's a hugely exciting moment for me," said Kennedy. Though you may end up waiting all winter for some of your favourite spring and summer ingredients, consuming produce at the peak of its Ontario growing season will force you to better appreciate the way it tastes.

At Zucca Trattoria, Chef Andrew Milne-Allan can identify with this sense hunger to get spring and summer foods back on his menus after a long, cold, Canadian winter. "When the seasons change when new things come in obviously as a chef it's exciting to has something new," said Milne-Allan. "I wouldn't say it relives the boredom but each time something new comes in you're challenged to use it in a different way, or in a way you did last year that you remember fondly." He explained that many of his customers, upon first visiting the Italian restaurant, were shocked to learn that he refused to serve a traditional tomato-based Caprese salad in the middle of February. He explained that decision had to do with the fact that most greenhouse tomatoes still tasted awful out-of season. So, even though the copious usage of meats and root vegetables mean "the winter menus seem to drag on forever", the short spring menu and the summer menu that comes into play in late-July and August focus on seasonal ingredients that taste great and shine when prepared in the a simplistic Zucca style. Using local and seasonal ingredients has always made sense to Milne-Allan long before food media shed light on the benefits of eating this way. "It was never something I thought about in the sense that I said ‘OK I'm going to do a seasonal restaurant or a seasonal menu' because it's what I grew up with, what I know and what excites me about food and cooking," he explained. "It wasn't something I planned as a concept but it was something to me that you wouldn't do any other way."

How to Get Started.

A great way to start finding out what is in season in your province is to visit your local farmers' markets. There, you can chat with growers and producers about how they run their farm, whether or not what you're purchasing is organic, when your produce was picked, as well as recipe ideas and food storage tips. For people who live in urban city-centres like Toronto, the number of farmers' markets will continue to grow as consumers continue to demand better and more traceable foods. And, if you live in the suburbs it's likely that finding a thriving farmers' market is only a Google search away. Unfortunately, though some shoppers have the time to visit smaller markets, many end up at the regular big-box store. Shopping for local and seasonal at the average grocery store can be a difficult task since most of the produce you're looking at has flown a few thousand kilometres to get to where it's on display. "We've gotten into this mindset that the supermarket represents everything that's available as far as produce is concerned, and because of the way supermarkets are often set up, its very hard to find out where something is grown and where it comes from," said Milne-Allan, of the traceability issue surrounding most grocery store food.

Still, Jamie Kennedy advises that making seasonal food choices at the commercial stores has to start with the consumer asking questions. "You have to stay to the grocer ‘Look, I don't want to buy garlic from China, I want local'," said Kennedy. "You have to keep putting the pressure on them and it could be a lifelong pursuit." Kennedy also added that his seasonal food mission at the restaurant "is about teaching awareness, offering support and encouraging people to exercise a bit more scrutiny when they're at the supermarket."

Breton is a little more critical of the difficulty involved in accessing local and seasonal food. "Let's face it, if you've got three kids and a pot of laundry at home there's no reason this stuff shouldn't be available to you to," he said. "You shouldn't have to traipse out to market just to get your hands on this stuff."

Breton also pointed out how Canada's agricultural distribution system is flawed, making it automatically disadvantageous, price-wise, for those who want to purchase local, seasonal food. "Even in the middle of summer when we're harvesting strawberries like there no tomorrow [the U.S.] can still produce so much more, dump on the market here and keep the price low so that you actually have to pay a slight premium for Ontario produce," said Breton. At the end of our interview, Breton encouraged consumers to support Ontario farmers. "Why do we want to send our money to Washington State or South Africa when our farmers are dying?" he said. "We're in trouble and we don't realize it…we're vulnerable." Breton also made it clear that eating seasonally is not about shutting out all imported food. Kiwis, pineapples, and extra-virgin olive oil are all ingredients he couldn't live without at the hotel, and doesn't expect anyone to live without in the home kitchen either. In Breton's opinion, seasonal eating should instead be about striking a balance between supporting our farmers whenever possible, without denying ourselves the foreign products we source from around the world. "We try not to see it as black and white, we try to see as a compromise, and we try to see it as basic principles that we live up to the best of our abilities," said Breton. "We've only just begun, and that's here at the hotel and that's here in Ontario."

To help get you started on enjoying all things local and seasonal, here are ten easy tips that will change the way you feel about food:

  • Visit a farmers' market in your area and purchase only the freshest foods they're offering.

    Research a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box program. For a seasonal fee, depending on the program you choose, a weekly box of farm-fresh produce can either be picked up at the farm or at a specific drop-off point close to your home.
     
  • Visit restaurants that use local, seasonal, sustainable, and ethical food in their menus. Ask the chefs what is seasonal on the menu if not specified.
     
  • Avoid the temptation to eat foods out of season. There's a reason why Chilean raspberries cost $6.99 at the end of November and that's because they shouldn't be at the supermarket. If you wait for local raspberries when they're in season in the summer, you will find them fresher, tastier and well worth the wait.
     
  • To capture the delicious flavour of seasonal foods try pickling, preserving and freezing. Local peas, when shucked, blanched and flash frozen, taste great when taken out of the freezer and sprinkled into a winter stew.
     
  • Take a day trip out to a country farm that has a pick-your own produce program. Kids love getting out in the fields, and you'll love cooking food you harvested only hours ago.
     
  • Put pressure on your commercial supermarket's produce manager to bring in more local and seasonal produce. Demand his store support local farmers and write a letter to head office if he won't hear you out.
     
  • Check out government resources like foodland.gov.on.ca/availability.htm
     
  • Read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or In Defence of Food
     
  • Read www.gremolata.com

 



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