Canadian chefs can be leaders in building a more fair food system

Canadian chefs can be leaders in building a more fair food system

Ryan Donovan, Chef and Co-owner of Richmond Station

October 2, 2015

As a restaurateur, I’m often asked who my favourite chef in Canada is, what my favourite restaurant is, or what ingredient I think will define the coming years of cuisine. The truth is, when I consider the future of food and restaurants, all I think about is Nick Saul.

Nick’s book The Stop: How the Fight for Good Food Transformed a Community and Inspired a Movement is what drives me to have a better restaurant every day. The book’s stories about the transformational power of food at The Stop, and now at Community Food Centres across Canada, remind me of why I love to host as much as I like to eat. A few years ago I spent four or five months volunteering in The Stop’s kitchen alongside chefs Scott MacNeil and Chris Brown, and they were among my happiest moments cooking. Why? Because I was part of a community built around food. That, to me, is more powerful than any food trend.

My volunteering experience also profoundly changed my view of food. It hammered home that there are two food systems in Canada. There’s food for people who can pay for it, and food for people who can’t. What causes me the most worry is that I’m part of the problem. I don’t give my food away to just anyone. I feed paying customers, and I watch my bottom line. I wouldn’t be in business if I didn’t.

I’m in the business I’m in because I believe in the power of food to make people feel good, happy, sated, healthy, inspired, welcome. Think about it. How would my guests feel if, when they came to Richmond Station, they were made to feel impoverished. Would they come back if the line-up made them feel disenfranchised, or if their meals were made of the “soupy bananas and cast-off industrial experiments” that are sometimes found in food bank hampers? Imagine Richmond Station was a dark room, without decoration or warmth. Would any of my customers return? Probably not, and who could blame them? To make a guest come back, our team needs to meet a very basic need, a primordial sense of belonging. We need to convince people that this is their community and that we would not survive without them.

Nick now runs Community Food Centres Canada, an organization that builds welcoming places in low-income neighbourhoods across Canada where healthy food is available to all. Their focus is on community, empowerment, and belonging — on creating environments  that make people want to come back. And they make a place for chefs and restaurants to play a role in building that community and closing the gap between our two food systems.

For most of my career Canadian chefs have struggled with a national identity for food. Is Canadian food just maple syrup, smoked salmon and bannock? Or is our proud multiculturalism the root of our national food identity: saam, poutine, roti, donairs, and the whole lot. A better question might be: is there a food that isn’t Canadian?

I think we need to think more broadly when we’re defining Canadian food. To me, Canadian food should be fair and available to everyone, whether they can afford it or not. Canadian meals should be served in accessible places that welcome people without consideration of economic background, gender, immigration status or age. We should aim to serve meals that are nutritious and empowering in beautiful rooms, with a loving community that acts free of judgement. And the chefs who are at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of what Canadian food is need to get out of the kitchen and into the community and use their skills and their voices to build a movement around good food for all.

One way Richmond Station is doing that is by participating in Restaurants for Change. On October 17, you can join some of our country’s best restaurants by making a dinner reservation at one of more than 75 participating restaurants in 19 cities. Restaurants will donate proceeds from that night’s dinner service to support Community Food Centres Canada, local Community Food Centres and other organizations to offer programs that bring people together to grow, cook, share, and advocate for healthy food for all. Join us, and let’s rethink the role food plays in our communities and our lives, and work together to ensure that everyone has a dignified place at the table.