Recognizing, sourcing, and serving local, fresh, and natural food is what the farm-to-table movement is all about. We talk to a passionate chef who’s setting—and cultivating—roots in Vancouver, dishing out the results to her devoted diners.
More than just another culinary trend, farm-to-table restaurants connect growers with chefs to create a uniquely seasonal dining experience for guests.
I know what you’re thinking: “Farm to table? Doesn’t every restaurant get its produce from a farm and serve it up on a table?” And sure, to an extent you’re right, but the difference is that most restaurants order through a third-party supplier and so don’t know which farms provided them with their produce. And they definitely aren’t on first-name terms with their farmers.
Setting down deep roots
That’s not how things are with farm-to-table restaurants, where it’s all about direct relationships with growers. And in the case of award-winning Vancouver chef Andrea Carlson, those relationships have deep roots.
“I’m still working with people I’ve known since my first restaurant job 20 years ago,” says Carlson. “Like Susan at Glorious Organics, she’s one of the people who’s always set the tone for the quality of produce in the city, which is outstanding.”
A fixture in some of BC’s most influential kitchens, from the groundbreaking 100-mile diet menus at the Raincity Grill to locavore legend Sooke Harbour House, Carlson now has her own restaurant, Burdock & Co on Vancouver’s Main Street in the heart of the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.
Burdock & Co’s inspiration sprang from Carlson’s desire to bring the kind of farm-to-table cuisine she was creating at higher-end restaurants such as Bishop’s, where she was executive chef, to a wider audience.
“I wanted something more accessible, that was in a neighbourhood where families would come, not just for a special occasion,” she explains. “I wanted to bring all the food I have access to as a chef, which I thought was so healthful and important in terms of connection to the land, and bring that vitality to more people.”
Tapping a rising tide
Consumer interest in food traceability and farmers’ markets has opened the door to farm-to-table restaurants hitting the mainstream. A 2012 study by the University of Northern British Columbia estimated the economic impact of farmers’ markets across the province to be more than $170 million—a 147 percent jump compared to 2006—and that interest is only on the rise.
Since opening Burdock & Co in May 2013, Chef Carlson has seen that first-hand: “My cooks and service staff get excited about the amazing local products we use and then relay that excitement to guests, who then go and source those products from farmers’ markets.” It’s a food chain that does the whole circle, from farmer to restaurant, to guest, and then back to the farmer again.
Making seasonal connections
Eating farm-to-table connects us to the seasons, and for Carlson that means being flexible when it comes to menus. At Burdock & Co, she’ll change up the menu anything between 12 to 24 times a year, depending on what’s happening with her suppliers. Dealing with some 30 different suppliers over the year, Carlson makes a list of what is currently available and then pieces together a menu like a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s knowing, as you move through the layers of the seasons, who has what and when. You have to be open to change, as in the natural world, crops fail; they can come late and you need to be agile in dealing with that.”
Most of us have a sense of which fruits and vegetables herald the start of different seasons, but when you work so closely with farmers, that becomes a hyper-awareness. “It’s not just the fruits and vegetables that I get excited about; it’s the seeds and the flowers, the roots and shoots,” enthuses Carlson.
“All of the different components of the plants express different nuances and flavour throughout the season. Whether you’re having a frond of the fennel here, the flower and seed there, and then maybe the bulb somewhere else.”
Connecting farmers and diners
Unlike many other dining trends, farm-to-table has its roots in sustainability and food security, and looks set to be the way more restaurants will work in the future. For Carlson, the attraction is clear: “Cooking this way is ever-changing, diverse, and represents the freshest of the products that are available to you.
“For consumers, I feel like it’s the same, and people want to know where their food comes from. That’s what we’re striving to do here in the restaurant, so it’s an extension of that farmers’ market experience: you can meet the farmer, eat their produce, and it’s that same thing right here.”
Coast to coast and farm to fork
Edulis: Described in the Globe and Mail as “pleasure bordering on delirium,” Michael Caballo and Tobey Nemeth’s tiny Niagara Street restaurant has become a beacon for Toronto’s locavores, who love to feast on whatever is most delicious and in season. edulisrestaurant.com
Charcut: Alberta’s culinary pioneers Connie DeSousa and John Jackson have put Calgary on the world’s “Must Eat” list with their farm-fresh take on locavore cooking at the award-winning Charcut restaurant. Meats are butchered in-house, preserves home-made, and menus changed with the seasons. charcut.com
St John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
Raymonds: Co-owners Jeremy Charles and Jeremy Bonia have created one of Canada’s most delicious elevated farm-to-table restaurants, focusing on Newfoundland terroir and culinary traditions. Swoon over pastry chef Celeste Mah’s sweet local creations using everything from bakeapples to sea buckthorn. raymondsrestaurant.com
Café My House: Head to the capital’s Wellington neighbourhood for chef Briana Kim’s comforting take on local, seasonal, and organic food, serving up a vegan and vegetarian menu that shifts depending on what’s fresh. Check out the cocktail menu to dive into herb and flower-based creations. cafemyhouse.com
EVOO: Chefs Sophie Ouellet and Peter Saunders’s p’tit restaurant in the heart of Montreal’s Saint-Henri neighbourhood adds a modernist French touch to the farm-fresh produce that’s on offer from local suppliers. restaurantevoo.com