I believe in real food. I take no greater pleasure than putting something on the dinner table that was basically in the ground this morning.
To some people, that means a lot; to me, it means the world. As an executive chef at four restaurants -- Terra in Thornhill, Sarpa in Richmond Hill, Francobollo in Toronto, and Rusty's in Collingwood -- the farm-to-table approach has come to define my menus. Not only does that mean unparalleled taste and healthier eating, it means well-deserved support for farmers and the local economy. It's a win, win -- especially for my customers' taste buds.
You truly can taste the difference. Sure, I know how to cook -- but my real secret is found in the products I'm using. I'm talking about local ingredients -- from my produce to my meats.
My restaurants get the majority of their seasonal produce from Roy'L Acres Farm, a 100-acre family farm in Grey Highlands, ON, surrounded by Mennonite farms. When he can't grow something, owner Roy Love commissions the nearby farmers to plant a crop and it's always delicious. In some cases, I turn to a specialist. My shitake mushrooms come from Blackshire Gardens in Maxwell, On.; the owner goes out in the morning and cuts them right off the log and into the box. When you taste them for the first time them, you say, "What the heck have I been eating?"
And then there's the health benefits. Many sources have discussed the nutritional decline of fruits and vegetables that come from our current industrial for system.
In addition, most people's taste buds have been affected by the growth hormones and chemicals in most of our grocery-store products. For example, many don't know what real chicken even looks like. You can't judge a book by its cover; with food, you can't judge taste by appearance. People are used to store chicken -- big, plump, white and pretty looking. But they don't grow that way naturally! My organic chickens are yellow and skinny. They're real. You aren't ingesting all kinds of garbage. And the flavour profiles are unreal -- it's almost like chicken injected with chicken flavour!
My tomatoes are heirloom variety, which means the seed has not been modified -- it's the exact same tomato today as it was 100 years ago. Commercial tomatoes may look appetizing but they have zero flavour profile. My tomatoes may not win a beauty contest, but they taste out of this world! They're so tasty that all you really need to do is put sea salt on top of a slice -- no olive oil, no anything. Try doing that with a commercial tomato and all your mouth is going to get out of the deal is wetness and a bit of texture.
Our meat is no different. At Rusty's, my barbecue joint, all our meat comes from local farms -- including pork shoulders, chicken, briskets and turkeys. The same goes for the higher-end cuts served at my city restaurants -- such as veal, veal loins, tender loins and strip loins.
For our steak or chicken, people will ask: what is your secret? At Rusty's, I typically just put on a little sea salt to bring out the flavour and let the flavour profile speak for itself. These animals have had a chance to grow and live and eat things properly -- instead of being force-fed chemicals and not even be able to stand like many commodity chickens.
Our veal, beef and pork all comes from local farmers. For example, our pork comes from Willogrove Hill Farms, a small, natural pork farm in Stratford that prides itself on not using antibiotics or growth hormones. We serve grass-fed beef that is nowhere near the slaughter size of regular commodity beef. Again, the flavour is just so intense!
Our turkeys for Rusty's used to be 20 to 30 pounds. Now I buy from Mennonites and they are 12 to 15 pounds, and incredibly succulent and delicious. Our chickens are also grass fed and natural. It takes 16 to 17 weeks to get them close to market size; for the chickens you see in the grocery store, it takes up to seven weeks thanks to growth hormones. Even with 10 more weeks to grow, my natural chickens are still much smaller. (Kind of frightening, isn't it?) By December, I'll be serving a new heritage breed of chicken from Owen Sound that is exclusive to our restaurants.
People should be asking what exactly they're putting in their mouths. If you stop by my kitchen, I can tell you in detail.
A Call to Canadians
I have the pleasure of meeting the people that put the food on my restaurant's plates -- the farmers that raised the livestock and planted the crops. Putting a face and a name to my products changed the way I looked at food. Every meat and vegetable has a story to it.
Mennonites raise things the same way they did at the turn of the century; I'm proud to serve a lot of items grown and raised by their hands. It's about returning to reality and going back to the basics in our diets -- instead of the genetically modified products that line many grocery store shelves and the fridges of many restaurants.
It's not only me. There is a growing public appetite for farm-to-table food. People are becoming enlightened. They're learning about these big commodity farms and companies -- and the terrible conditions the animals are raised in, or the chemicals being used on commercial vegetable crops.
For any non-believers, I challenge you to come to one of our restaurants. You'll lose your mind the flavours are so intense. Soon you'll be finding ways to take the same approach with your home cooking.
If it looks like real food and tastes real food, it's real food. Dig in, Canada. Once you go farm to table, you'll never go back. Your taste buds simply won't let you.
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