Recently, Chef Jamie Kennedy spoke with Laura Alderson, Program Coordinator for the Greenbelt Farmers’ Markets Program for Greenbeltfresh.ca at his 160 acre working farm in Prince Edward County. In terms of the local food movement, Jamie Kennedy has always led by example. In less than two years, he expects to have two ventures completed - the restoration of an old mill that includes a 30 seat dining room serving a local menu that changes daily with the seasons, as well as a tavern that serves locally produced beer, wine and cider, and a kitchen somewhere in between.
Laura: How old were you when you actually showed an interest in food prep or cooking?
Jamie: I think probably around 12 years old - as a kid I was fascinated in the theatrical nature of restaurants.
Laura: What do you remember making and was it any good?
Jamie: I remember making an omelette for my mother and I think it was pretty good - at least she said it was.
Laura: So she encouraged you. Who were your mentors?
Jamie: As a kid, I watched a lot of The Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr - ½ hour shows back to back as well as Julia Child.
Laura: You went to George Brown - what advice do you have for anyone wanting to become a chef?
Jamie: I’d advise them to take up an apprenticeship and work with a good chef for the duration of their apprenticeship - it took me 3 years - the younger the better - I would encourage them do this after high school and before going to university. For me coming out of high school at age 17, I was too young to go to university - I wasn’t feeling it so I wouldn’t have given it its due. I was interested in cooking and I was also interested in getting a job because if I wasn’t going to go to university, my parents couldn’t afford just to have me lying around the house. What came up for me was an offer for an apprenticeship and I took it and I didn’t go back to university - I just kept right on in my trade because it kept offering me one interesting job after another. So I kept at it and haven’t ever stopped. It was a great move for me. It’s always something you’ve got in your back pocket. To be a certified cook - you’ve gone through your schooling, you’ve done your apprenticeship, you write your certificate of qualification with the Province of Ontario - you have a certificate that recognizes that you’re a cook - That’s the route I recommend people take whether you’re 17 years old or 30 years old because that really gives you a sense of the industry. Also, staying in one place for three years can be torture but so is working in a kitchen. Choose well, don’t choose a road house - choose a place where you can get some skills.
Laura: My son, Spencer, worked at Wendy’s and ended up working this summer at Mark McEwen’s restaurant ONE - one of the lucky ones, I guess.
Jamie: You laugh but you can still pick up some skills at a road house or Wendy’s - you learn to operate under pressure with some speed but you won’t learn any of the finer points of cooking - you will learn organizational skills, though.
Laura: Jamie, you’re probably best known for your emphasis on cooking with local food - why local?
Jamie: When you choose to buy local, you’re supporting the local economy. When you make a choice to buy fresh from your neighbours rather than someone you don’t know from the States or further, even, you’re making a conscious choice to support your community. Today, it makes a whole lot of sense - the food doesn’t need to travel as far so it’s fresher - there’s more diversity - the artisan production of food encourages more biodiversity in food production - you’re not using just one kind of tomato, you’ve suddenly got 50 to choose from so you’ve got more choice when you buy local - not just one kind of industrially-bred chicken and pigs - btw, these are Berkshire pigs - I’m about to build an outdoor pen for them. They’re getting too big to have in one pen.
Laura: What made you choose Prince Edward County to start farming?
Jamie: I chose the County because of the grapes first and foremost and this property was for sale - a lovely property right on the creek and it had that hill for the Pinot Noir grape vines and that was very attractive to me - it was just being discovered as a wine producing area. So, that was it!
Laura: What do you foresee happening in the County 10 years from now?
Jamie: I definitely think the wine industry is going to really take hold.
Laura: Is it set to explode?
Jamie: I don’t know about explode - I think that Niagara exploded - in Niagara there are still some artisan producers left but there’s a lot of industrial wine being produced there as well to keep up with the demand. Agricultural land is more expensive in Niagara - it’s a tougher place to start out. People that have started out here in the County - many of them, not all of them but many of them are more about small production. It’s a higher risk proposition being here - people aren’t as apt to plant out 40 acres to vines because they could lose their whole crop one year and then where are they? So, it’s more careful - I think what’s going to happen here is that the niche that Prince Edward County will find is more of a quality niche - so, it’s a higher priced wine - it’s unfortunate in some ways but there will be some less expensive wines available, too. But where they’ll really make their mark is in fine, quality wines because the earth here has a lot to offer in terms of a mineral driven complexity. So, I don’t think it will be explosive, like the Niagara Region, but I do think it will develop nicely in the next 10 years. That’s just one part of the economy - the wine. Many more people are moving here - they like the feel of this place - so that will drive the economy as well.
Laura: Tell me about some of the work you’re doing here.
Jamie: Well, for one thing, the barn you’re in has been completely restored - it wasn’t like this at all - there was really just the frame. I have a retired neighbour, a local farmer, he comes and knocks away and does this stuff - it’s an opportunity for him to stay involved. He’s learned so many things over the years that he’s applied to the design of this barn.
Laura: I’m going to put on my Greenbelt hat now - why do think the establishment of the Greenbelt was important?
Jamie: It was necessary to control the urban sprawl that was happening. We all know that some of the best agricultural land in the province is under pavement now, so to stop that is a great idea because it’s all in support of being able to provide ourselves with our own food supply instead of relying on the U.S. As we go further into the future, the sustainable model is that communities need to be able to supply their own food.
Laura: When you hear about the recent scares surrounding E. coli on spinach and salmonella on Roma tomatoes - serious food safety issues - it makes you think twice about buying mass produced, imported food.
Jamie: We’ll, we’ve gone way too far into the industrial model and the marketing boards haven’t really helped that. It’s better that farmers adopt more of an entrepreneurial spirit and deal directly with end users at farmers’ markets and establish their own price in a sense rather than depend on marketing boards all the time - that’s not going to be true for every farmer but certainly in the local context, in and around the GTA I’d like to see a lot more of that and the Greenbelt can help support that because of the proximity.
Laura: So you’re very supportive of farmers’ markets?
Jamie: Farmers’ markets - absolutely. Right now we’re working on an initiative for a wholesale farmers’ market for chefs down at the Brick Works that would favour higher volume and a different price structure. So again, it’s about getting growers to think a little differently. The market is definitely there on the restauranteurs side but it’s not there in the market when they go there looking for it. The point is that a farmer faced with spending hours and hours at a farmers’ market to sell ten - 6 quart baskets is one thing and it’s nice and kinda fuzzy and feel good - it’s necessary for the consumer at large, but for the industry, for restaurants, hotels, it doesn’t exactly work. It’s shifting the farmer’s thinking to, “okay, if I can establish a flow of apples, I don’t need the marketing board AND I’m going to get more money for my work.” Then it becomes a model of local agriculture that hasn’t really been explored all that well and needs to and I’m excited about it - I think it’s a recipe for success.
Laura: Some farmers can do very well at markets, though.
Jamie: Yes, but you have to remember that for the most part, it’s only a certain number of days per year that they can do that - when you have wholesale situation, you’re moving a lot more product and you’re competing head to head with the status quo which is basically buying it from marketing boards and being marketed through the Ontario Food Terminal and in most cases, being marketed through the terminal because it’s being brokered in from the U.S.
Laura: One last question - if you weren’t a Chef or restauranteur, what would you have done?
Jamie: There was definitely a fork in the road for me - I was either going to go into the arts - well cooking is the arts, too, but I was going to pursue a fine arts degree - that was my path if I were to go to university - but the job that I would have got after high school that would have pushed me in that direction, I didn’t get, but I did get a job in a kitchen.
Laura: So, it was fate.
Jamie: It was fate.
Laura: So, a fine arts degree - what would that have lead to? Did you want to be a painter?
Jamie: No, I would have probably become a photographer but long before the digital age, so I probably would have questioned the use of chemicals.
Laura: I was waiting for you to say you would have been a farmer.
Jamie: Well, the work I pursued - the surface part of it is the restaurants - that’s the economic model that has allowed me to do this kind of stuff. But the bigger picture for me is this - right here - it’s the working in a community and being part of a community - it’s not grandiose, it’s really rather humble. It’s also about defining gastronomy in a local sense that is very exciting - that’s the art form. So while you’re doing all this work, engaging in local based economics, you’re also getting closer to developing a uniqueness in gastronomy because you’re limiting yourself to things that are grown very close to you. So, that natural marriage that takes place between food and wine that’s grown in proximity that you experience when you go to a small village in Europe - why can’t we do that here?
Laura: Well, we can, but this country was founded on doing something completely different than what Europe was doing but we’re coming back around - starting to get out of our cars, we’re shopping more at farmers’ markets and creating a walkable city with a vibrant cafe culture.
Jamie: Yes, I’ve really noticed a shift in North American society in the last 30 years I’ve been at this game - we’ve theorized about things like this for over 20 years but I really do think the time is now.
Laura: Jamie, thank you for your time this afternoon - I’ll be sure to come back soon for some of that Pinot Noir!