Chris Locke is one chef who was thinking about the local economy long before the pandemic hit. Despite his British roots, the executive chef at Marben and The Cloak Bar (check out their french 75 recipe) since 2017 has long established his commitment to Ontario's scene of growers with one of the best farm-to-table menus in the city.

Whether hosting Farmer's Appreciation dinners; filling Marben's pantry with cheese, milk and meat from local suppliers; or, closest to home, growing produce in their gardens (which is often pickled and preserved to use later), Locke has been flying the Canadian flag and making Torontonians fall in love with homegrown.

We sat down with the chef to find out how Marben switched their seasonal-focused sit-down restaurant to a local marketplace at the onset of COVID, managing to recreate restaurant-quality dishes for their customers at home, and the ingenuity of other Ontario makers who have made it easier than ever to eat local. 

On the state of play in February 2020

The team and I were eagerly developing our spring menu as we usually do; dreaming of what the warmer weather would bring, chatting with farmers and plotting flavour combinations. Dishes with radishes, fiddleheads, ramps and the first strawberries of the season scattered our notebooks.

At Marben we have always been highly selective of the ingredients we use, ensuring that they are local and seasonal; we believe you can’t have one without the other. The menus are built around this philosophy and it is at the core of all we do. We had a foraging trip arranged for the whole team in June, focusing our gaze even more on Indigenous ingredients and connecting with the land. We gave little thought to the events that were about to change our plans.

On recreating Marben at home

At the restaurant, every dish has a story. Each ingredient is there for a reason; it’s on the plate with intention and has a tale to tell. One of the biggest challenges we have had, since the start of the pandemic, is how we communicate the value of those ingredients through a delivery app, over social media or when a takeout container is opened in somebody’s home. Sourcing high-quality local ingredients is not cheap. It has always been possible to buy from local farms who are doing great things because we are able to justify the value in a restaurant setting. It is much harder to do that when the food is packed into a box.

For this reason, while a lot of restaurants clamoured to be active on delivery apps, we shifted our focus to setting up a market. Our intention was to serve our community, offering the same top-notch food and drink, that’s synonymous with the restaurant, and providing it for people to enjoy at home.

Now, the market at Marben has transformed into a fully formed store, with an intuitive online platform, making it simple for guests to shop quality products from a trusted source. This approach has allowed us to still use the same local and seasonal ingredients and support our exceptional farmers and suppliers all the way through.

On producers pivoting

The systems that surround restaurants are an interconnected web with restaurants at the top, sustaining the structure. For every dollar of revenue, 40 to 50 cents will go to suppliers, with a large chunk going to farmers and food suppliers.

The creative nature of the industry has meant that we have seen these local producers and middlemen shift their operations to serve the public, making it easier to access these wonderful ingredients. Ohme Farm, in Niagara, shifted their restaurant supply to providing weekly produce boxes for the surrounding residents. Sheldon Creek Dairy, in Loretto, ON, set up From the Farmer, an array of farm-sourced items for delivery all over southern Ontario.

The same is true for 100km Foods. Pre-pandemic, they bridged the gap between farmer and restaurant to bring incredible local products into Toronto. Their online market is now open to the public, making it easier to shop from local sources.

On our delicate food system

The pandemic has revealed the fragility of our food systems and the importance of cherishing the abundance of local ingredients on our doorstep. Good restaurants were the guiding light for many years in highlighting sequestered farms and inaccessible ingredients. It is now easier than ever for would-be diners to do their own product sourcing to make good choices about where their food comes from.