By Mia Maloney
The new Elmdale Tavern remains nearly the same as it once was: long and narrow and lit only by a slit of windows at the front of the bar. Even the sign outside remains virtually untouched. But owners Joshua Bishop and Peter McCallum have given the tavern a new life. Tucked into the freshly varnished wood of the bar that runs the length of the room, one of the Elmdale’s chefs, Eric Bimm and I are chatting over a few craft beers and some freshly shucked oysters. While the tavern itself hasn’t been dramatically overhauled, a big change has taken place in their kitchen. It’s the reason Eric says he works for these guys — something that started years ago in smaller joints not unlike this one, but today, has grown so much, it’s been adopted by food giants like Sobeys and President’s Choice. The change is that restaurants, suppliers and grocery stores are sourcing their foods primarily from local farms and making that a transparent selling feature. Foods come not only from a close radius, but consumers can know about the farmer and what they farm.
Eric and I agree that this movement represents positive change. Getting away from the mass produced or genetically modified foods as the only choice will affect the food system at all levels. But while the local farmer might be cashing in, diners might be losing out. Despite our love of local, we like to branch out now and then as well, and we suspect other diners do too.
Both Eric and I are lifelong locavores (consumers of local food and product), a route chosen by proximity rather than by trend. For Eric, becoming a chef was a birthright. Despite his best efforts to branch off, at 16 he began his career in the dish pit of his grandmother’s patisserie, Le Faisan Gourmand, in Wakefield, Quebec. There, Eric trained beneath his mother and grandmother in the art of French cuisine, an internship any classically trained French cook would die to have. But what he gained more than inherited knowledge was a passion for locally sourced, quality foods. It’s no accident that Eric has over the years worked for a number of restaurants, including the Elmdale, that share his passion for not only locally sourced foods, but foods that adhere to rigorous ecological standards.
My introduction to local foods came a little differently. I was raised in Lanark County, Ontario where I can remember one evening our family piled into our butter-coloured Dodge Caravan and drove to a farmhouse not five minutes from my dad’s garage. We’d been invited to dinner by a friendly older couple, and along with the modest serving of mashed potatoes and meat, there was a non-stop flow of fresh, cold milk. When we left dinner, bellies full, they handed us a few litres of their farm’s milk. The milk was great, maybe even the best I’ve ever had, but what really stayed with me was that it came from a real, local farm. My dad worked in a garage fixing and selling farm equipment, so he relied on the farmer’s business for his own. It is an important cycle; without the farmer, there’s no need for a farm equipment mechanic, and with no one to repair the farm equipment, fields are left unplowed and grains are left unsold. The food we bring to the table not only feeds us, but it can feed our communities as well.
The transparent choice sometimes goes by a few different names: locavore, local food systems, the 100-mile diet. But for world-renowned chef Jamie Oliver, “naked” best serves the movement. When I was 14, The Naked Chef appeared on our Bell Satellite guide. Both intrigued and terrified that I might wind up tuning in to see a naked man cooking bacon or a naked man cooking bacon, I tuned in anyway. As it turned out, The Naked Chef was neither naked nor cooking bacon. The “naked” referred to a cooking style that involved “stripping down” recipes sourcing fresh, seasonal and readily available ingredients. Oliver even went so far as to serve his food directly off his butcher-block table, giving his guests only a fork and a bon appetit to eat with. The show lasted only three seasons, but Jamie Oliver became a household name and his “naked” approach spoke to my already burgeoning interest in the culinary arts. I eventually found my way into culinary school, worked as a chef, started a small catering business, and a recipe blog. My love of food, cooking and the “local” mantra even propelled me into becoming a writer. But while Eric and I look into the mugs of our rapidly disappearing Carling Avenue beer, we begin discussing the other side of this trend.
Local food systems do present a positive change in the way we approach our food. They promote human rights, animal welfare, sustainability, environmental impacts, and health and food safety. Buying from a source as close as an urban garden can even influence the way global foods are transported, or the way farmers globally manage the fair-trade market. However, local foods may not always represent the highest quality, most sustainable or even the most nutritious choice: “local” does not necessarily encompass all of these things. The argument for GMOs is science and standardization, and the argument for global, is: Who are we to deprive the Ugandan farmer of his right to prosperity? Just because a menu reads like a wonderful list of happy local suppliers doesn’t mean you, the consumer, are getting the best bang for your buck. In fact, some restaurateurs have capitalized on the marketability of the term “local.”
Eating out one night, after reading a menu that appeared to be a brag-list of suppliers: O’Brien Farms' beef, Le Coprin mushrooms, and Upper Canada Cranberries, things not only became convoluted — I’ll have the steak and mushrooms with cranberry jam — they became disappointing. As I looked down at the three meagre — but local! — ingredients on my $35 plate, I thought “this stripped-down approach has gone too far.” While I was happy to support the local farms from which my ingredients were procured, I felt ripped off by what wasn’t on my plate. The reality is that your run-of-the-mill GMO foods would have filled my belly, and at a fraction of the cost.
However, this doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t choose my dad’s garden tomatoes that pack so much punch you barely miss the bacon in his bacon-less BLTs, or that Eric wouldn’t prefer his grandmother’s perfect crumbly-crust pie, with its mounds of thinly sliced, local orchard apples, over a store-bought one any day. What it does mean is that being a knowledgeable consumer is key. “Knowing where something came from,” Eric says, “how it is grown, is nothing but beneficial for the consumer.”
There can be a comfortable medium between local and global; it’s just a matter of finding the right ingredients. It’s where places like the Elmdale Tavern arrive at happy terms. While Eric says they source all they can from local suppliers, their primarily seafood menu must come from a little farther. That doesn’t mean that Eric or owners Joshua Bishop and Peter McCallum will compromise on their ethics. The ocean-wise seafood they source is only chosen because of its high standards; the same standards they demand from the local items that accompany them. You will never see them source Albacore tuna just because Albacore tuna is sustainable, nor will they only sell carp because it’s a protein available in the Rideau Canal.
I can say, finishing up the last of my beer that was brewed down the road and the oysters that have travelled from Prince Edward Island, that I'm happy places like the Elmdale give me choice. I can have local and global and feel good about both.