Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The C-K Table and Culinary Farmer Paul Spence


For the most part, Ontarians are complacent about the origins of their food and oblivious to the challenges farmers face just to stay on their land. Paul Spence is the archetype of the intrepid, modern Ontario farmer advocating for change to our food system. His family has been working land in Chatham-Kent since 1852, when his ancestors settled in this biologically diverse Carolinian zone of southern Ontario.

Spence and my paths intersect at events supporting local food and agricultural initiatives, culinary events and tourism conferences. We often discuss the fact that an obvious lack of commitment to locally procured food takes away from the integrity of many of these events.

A fifth-generation farmer, Spence can debate the economic impacts of food policy with agility and is equally knowledgeable about the urban farmers’ market culture and the practicalities of traditional farming methods as he is on the subject of green­washing. His fierce championing of local food has won him both admirers and detractors.

Spence and his wife Sara, who emigrated from Ecuador, founded Lo Maximo Meats in 2009 as an outgrowth of Spence Farms. Uniting the food of Sara’s culture and his farming practices of growing his own feed and raising the meat without growth hormones or additives, they developed a reputation for Latin-style cuts of quality fresh-frozen beef, pork, lamb and goat. Soon they were retailing pasture-raised ducks, geese and rabbits from other small family farms in Chatham-Kent. I became acquainted with Spence during the four years he spent as a vendor at London, Ontario’s Masonville Farmers’ Market.

In 2012, Spence and fellow-farmer and River Bell Market owner, Joseph Grootenboer, collaborated to establish the first Chatham-Kent Table. Over 100 attendees savoured a repast, prepared and served by the farmers from where the products originated. They achieved this with the assistance and support of the contributing farmers, their families and sponsors.

In 2014, C-K Table was awarded “Event of the Year” by the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance. Now in its fourth year, this annual culinary event has morphed into a year-long discourse about local food in Chatham-Kent. This year C-K Table partnered with Fanshawe College’s Artisanal Culinary Arts Graduate program. C-K Table featured unique items on their tasting menu, all of which will be prepared by the culinary students and their chef instructors. For the last three years, Growing Chefs! Ontario, whose focus is food education among children and youth, has been the event’s fundraising recipient. This year the money raised will be used to help build infrastructure for future C-K Table endeavours.

Spence tells me his children Vivien and Jakob know and experience what good food means. On Father’s Day in 2014, his 4-year-old son asked his wife to write on the card, “Thanks for all the good food we get to eat.” 

“That almost made me cry to hear that is the one thing he told my wife to write on the card for me. Very humbling,” explained Spence, a graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agriculture College and Bachelor of Commerce program.

Spence is not only an innovator but a creative marketer of his farm and Chatham-Kent. A couple of years ago, while I was dining at The Only on King in London, Ontario (now TOOK), the waiter delivered a dossier (prepared by Spence but inspired by TV’s Portlandia) on possible candidates for my chicken entrée entitled “From Our Family Farm to Your Fork — Meet Your Chicken!” There was a selection of contenders. (His chickens, Rhode Island Reds for eggs and White Cockerels for meat, are free to roam in a large fenced-in open area with fresh air, sunshine, bugs, grass and weeds to feed on.) The statistics provided included: date of birth, markings/distinguishing characteristics, temperament and other personal information that included diet. I later asked Spence about his goal for the “Meet Your Chicken!” dossiers and he told me, “It was actually an idea from a fellow farmer. It’s a great way to both educate and engage consumers.”

Spence’s arrangement to supply farm-to-table restaurants with food and also be identified as a culinary farmer is part of the farm-to-table movement in which farmers directly connect with chefs. When asked how he came up with the term “culinary farming,” Spence clarified, “I ponder food and the realities of it a lot. I feel there is a real education piece around the farming of food products and farming with commodity products. No disrespect to commodity farming, but please tell me what it is that you eat, that corn, soybeans and wheat aren’t part of these days. So the creation of the term “culinary farming” was meant to refocus farming on food and culinary experiences, whether it be fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, or even grains for things like bread, pasta, beer, etc.”

Sometimes shopping at farmers’ markets is a way of supporting local farmers, so long as you employ a very liberal definition of the term local. Spence’s definition of local starts with putting food traceability at the tips of consumer’s fingers. He is passionate about buying locally but just as passionate about authenticating local products. He starts by posing a series of hypothetical questions for consumers to ask to determine the origin of products: What is the name of the farm? Where is it located? What do they grow? What is the history of that particular farm? To Spence, the idea of local food production and consumption is very important but the reality of actually supporting small to medium-sized family farms is just as, if not more, important.

Farmers’ markets have boomed across the continent, and most cities have a group of stalwart culinary farmers that cater to committed locavores and culinary enthusiasts. At many urban farmers’ markets, it is now assumed one is willing to pay a premium for certain items because they are local. I asked Spence if he thought this was true. He replied, “To an extent, local food needs to be affordable and accessible so that the masses can participate, and not just the upper social economic groups. That being said, we also need to re-educate consumers that the price of most, if not all foods, is completely misguided. My belief is farmers should be entrusted to set their own fair price so that they can have an income that reflects the level of work and commitment that goes into their products.”

However, in reality, one of the difficulties with traditional farming is that someone else tells you what your product is worth. The truth is that the mounting disparity between what small-scale farmers produce and what they earn continues to drive farmers off their land. Locally, farm-to-table restaurants, farmers’ markets and events like the London Training Centre’s successful annual Feastival and the C-K Table are the closest many consumers come to being in touch with the origins of their food. In the meantime, we need to encourage culinary farmers, support local procurement policies, and validate advocates of sustainable food strategies, like Spence and many others in our communities, who continue to make a difference.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Chef Eric Boyar's sixthirtynine: A Distinctive Taste of Oxford County


Travel the back roads and country trails and familiarize yourself with the proud Quaker settlements, Amish farmgates, rural hamlets and a variety of trails where you can see, touch and savour first-hand the many unique regional tastes distinctive to Oxford County. The small, historic town of Woodstock, population 38,000, is home to sixthirtynine, which is emerging as the embodiment of one of Ontario’s best destination farm-to-table restaurants.

By definition, a destination restaurant is usually one that has a compelling appeal to entice diners from beyond its region. Interestingly, the earliest concept of a destination restaurant originates in France with the Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants as to whether they merit a special visit or detour by motorists.

Newly refurbished to a higher standard of comfort, sixthirtynine is a tasteful 30-seat room offering menus that are tied to the rhythms of the growing season in Oxford County. After a decade its synthesis of gastronomy, service and comfort has matured into something substantial and remarkable.
A full wall in reclaimed lumber, ceiling beams and a new bar top in raw lumber with a natural edge has set the mood for the recent redesign by Kelly Oliver of Oliver Design in Woodstock. The renewed space introduces a crisp palette of navy, grey, and white, and natural brown tones in the floor, as well as a few strategic bio-ethanol fireplaces and solid comfortable dining chairs upholstered in platinum fabric.

Chef Eric Boyar’s culinary repertoire, rooted in classical French technique, was developed in such Toronto hotspots as Splendido, Mistura, Goldfish and the Metropolitan Hotel. Chef and his wife Jennifer returned to his Woodstock home in 2005, and opened sixthirtynine with his mother Pauline Bucek. Pauline and Jennifer are hands-on partners and both work the front of house, often spelling off one another.

Boyar and sous chef Wes Quehl deliver a homegrown Oxford County “from scratch” farm-to-table experience. They are among the leading-edge chefs showcasing the distinctive diversity of culinary regionalism that safeguards rural knowledge, its wisdom, as well as its traditions. Dedicated to building and nurturing strong personal relationships with farmers and producers, Boyar travels straight to the source to procure items for his Oxford County driven menus.

Chef Eric Boyar’s culinary repertoire, rooted in classical French technique, was developed in such Toronto hotspots as Splendido, Mistura, Goldfish and the Metropolitan Hotel. Chef and his wife Jennifer returned to his Woodstock home in 2005, and opened sixthirtynine with his mother Pauline Bucek. Pauline and Jennifer are hands-on partners and both work the front of house, often spelling off one another.

Boyar and sous chef Wes Quehl deliver a homegrown Oxford County “from scratch” farm-to-table experience. They are among the leading-edge chefs showcasing the distinctive diversity of culinary regionalism that safeguards rural knowledge, its wisdom, as well as its traditions. Dedicated to building and nurturing strong personal relationships with farmers and producers, Boyar travels straight to the source to procure items for his Oxford County driven menus.

The restaurant has always featured a culinary garden and Boyar is now working his own plot of land. The family, Boyar tells me, has always had ties to agriculture. The farm where they started growing a lot of the restaurant’s produce is located just outside of Woodstock near Princeton called Gobles which is where Boyar grew up. The 60-acre property was purchased by his brother and father two years ago. They cleared 30 acres for farmland and have dedicated two acres for cultivation for the restaurant, with plans to grow even larger.

Locally procured food has never been more intentional, as many chefs and restaurants have gone a step further and begun growing their own produce in community gardens, on rooftops and farming plots of land. Some of the payback comes in the form of specialized produce. Boyar tells me there is deep satisfaction in preparing and serving homegrown food to appreciative customers.
It seems to me that cooking with vegetables and herbs from your own plot of land is one of the best things you can do to deliver a great farm-to-table experience. However, there’s a trade-off in the form of the extra hours of work combined with already long days in the kitchen and, in the Boyars’ case, the fact that they have three young children.

sixthirtynine is a participant of the Feast ON certification program (which has similarities to the former Savour Ontario Dining program), which brings together diners and restaurants who share an interest in choosing and serving locally grown foods produced in Ontario. The program is a criteria-based designation system, designed to increase the profile and demand for local food by identifying restaurateurs and food service operators dedicated to procuring and serving Ontario foods and beverages and whose particular attributes qualify their commitment to local food. The Feast ON seal and designation is meant to assure consumers of an “authentic” taste of Ontario.

A former recipient of the Top 30 Under 30, the annual recognition program that celebrates young hospitality food services professionals from the Ontario Hostelry Institute, Boyar has also represented Oxford Fresh in the prestigious Ontario Premier’s tasting events at Queen’s Park.
I caught up with Chef Boyar earlier this year at the Wine & Food Show at the Western Fair Agriplex, and again this summer, when Ontario’s Southwest brought the region’s food, wine and beer to Toronto with its City Fare event at Wychwood Barns. Representing Oxford County, Boyar’s spring-fed trout crudo with horseradish cream, pine nuts, trout skin chicharrón and mustard sprouts, all but stole the show.

There is a first course of seared scallops served with apple celery root purée, duck confit and aged cheddar ravioli with red wine gastric on the current menu, and another first course of steamed PEI mussels with Railway City copper ale, double smoked bacon, house mustard and heavy cream. A representative dinner entrée is roasted Berkshire pork loin with edamame, pearl barley risotto, confit of garlic, hen of the woods mushrooms and smoked chili oil. Another item on offer is the apple smoked duck breast with buttered white navy beans, pioppino mushrooms, spiced red cabbage purée, duck confit croquette and quince butter with a cider reduction.

Boyar tells me it has taken years to develop the staff so that he is able to comfortably participate in events like City Fare and more recently as a judge at the Blackbox Food Fight festivities at the Arts and Cookery Bank in July.

Consistent with the cuisine, the wine list offers many Ontario VQA’s with an assortment of old and new world wines. The bar list features a well-conceived selection of Ontario craft beers and seasonal brews. Tasting menus are available by request with optional wine pairings. There is a small and intimate patio for al fresco dining. A highlight for patrons is the Chef’s Table — four seats that position diners right in front of the kitchen, allowing them an interactive experience.


639 Peel Street, Woodstock


LUNCH: Wednesday–Friday 11 am–2 pm
DINNER: Wednesday-Saturday 5 pm–10 pm,
Sunday 5 pm–8:30 pm

The Art of Greenwashing …and the Lexicon for Faux Environmental Responsibility

The term greenwashing has been around long before expressions like “locally-sourced,” “farm fresh,” “artisanal,” “organic,” “small-batch” and “heirloom” conferred unwarranted credibility on menus of some restaurants that are less than forthright about their food purchasing practices. Many restaurant professionals of my acquaintance joke that the rule of thumb is that the number of adjectives in a restaurant’s menu is inversely relative to the quality of food.

There is also the issue of “farmwashing” and the hypocrisy of calling your cuisine locally-sourced or farm-to-table when using out-of-province produce or ingredients. “Farm-to-table cuisine” is a term now so common that it has inspired its own irritating abbreviation, F2T,” states veteran food journalist, Corby Kummer, in a recent Vanity Fair article called, “Is it Time to Table Farm-to-Table?”

One of the most frequent oversights that businesses make, even unintentionally, is greenwashing — making an ambiguous statement about something that is perceived to be “green” when in reality the claim is motivated sheerly by profit rather than in the spirit of improving the environment. The term greenwashing relates to the practice in which hype and propaganda are employed to encourage the false perception that a business or organization’s products and policies are eco-friendly, or that environmental responsibility is a core business ethic, when in fact it is lacking. Greenwashing has become a commonplace ruse in our modern world to sell just about everything.

A lot of greenwashing is actually intentional, a strategy that has businesses cloaking themselves in the environmental movement in hopes of showcasing a superior moral character, while pretending to speak to your principles. This type of marketing is based on how consumers want to be perceived by others or want to feel about their own choices.

Imagine my scepticism after I discovered that an “artisan” cheese which I had praised at one of my favourite farm-to-table restaurants, and then touted, turned out not to be a handcrafted farmstead cheese and the very essence of Quebec’s terroir, but a mass-produced cheese made with inferior ingredients instead of fresh milk. The “artisan” farmer featured on the bucolic packaging was nothing more than an invention of some marketing agency.

It seems to me that the logic goes something like this: If consumers value the environment for its beauty and biodiversity, and if a product’s messaging and aesthetic reflect those principles, consumers are quite likely to align themselves with that eco-friendly ethos. Positioning a brand is about showing the clients that your products share their principles and are in sync with the consumer’s identity.

Being green not only has a certain rarified status, it is politically correct and valued by both eco-friendly and non-green consumers alike. Yet green and sustainable must be two of the most overused and confusing words in the lexicon for faux environmental responsibility. Marketers and advertising agencies toss around deliberately ambiguous words like “pure”, “non-toxic”, “chemical-free”, “environmentally-friendly”, “energy efficient” and “natural”, or ascribe hollow eco-certifications to greenwash their products.

Marketing studies have established that prompting emotions like guilt, greed, fear, and admiration from consumers has a motivating effect on their attitudes and behaviour. The term greenwashing was actually created by environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay concerning the hotel industry’s habit of placing placards in rooms to promote the reuse of towels, in order to conserve resources and seemingly to “save the environment.” Westervelt discovered that, in most situations, little or no effort toward reducing energy waste was being made. Westervelt then stated that the actual objective of this “green campaign” on the part of many hoteliers was, in fact, motivated by increased profitability. Westervelt labelled this and other superficial environmentally conscientious acts with the underlying purpose of profiteering as greenwashing.

The term “going green” refers to the pursuit of knowledge and holistic practices that lead to more environment-friendly and ecologically responsible choices and lifestyles. The expectation is that it helps to protect the earth’s assets and sustain its natural resources for future generations. When you combine those initiatives with energy efficiency measures that safeguard the ecology, you ideally make your business more resource efficient, and decrease costs.

Sustainability is based on the principle that everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which the human race and nature can co-exist.

In the dog-eat-dog world of factory-farming and giant multinationals guilt is frequently utilized by marketers in designing advertising appeals. One of the most powerful motivators in marketing is exploiting consumers’ fears about the health and welfare of the planet and whether it will be healthy enough for people in the future to meet their needs. It seems that some of the most profitable corporate brands in the world have mastered how to successfully transform our fears into their fortunes.

Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.