Guest Column: Jamie Kennedy's Missive from the Farm

The Toronto celebrity chef tells us why farms and restaurants need to rekindle their relationship.

It seems to me that the food connection between Toronto and its nearby farming communities was much stronger in earlier times. As a young cook making his way in the world in the 1970s, I always had that connection on my mind.

I remember at my aunt’s house there were always jars of preserves on the dining table. In her basement, wooden shelves displayed the fruits of her labour in capturing Ontario’s seasonal bounty in a jar.

I started to believe that food culture evolves in response to parameters dictated by nature.

In the 20th century, we as a society in North America abandoned the seasonal approach to food in favour of global purchasing, with no consideration of the season.

We were fascinated by advancements in transportation technologies, and were caught up in the mass production of cheap food from anywhere in the world.

The side effects of the industrialization of food production are well known. Unique places lose their identity. There is diminished importance on maintaining locally based food economies. Food culture becomes homogenous, indistinguishable from coast to coast.

Over the years I developed a keen interest in re-establishing the connection to where we live.

Over the years I developed a keen interest in re-establishing the connection to where we live. I felt that if we approached our food supply from a local perspective here in Ontario, it would lead us toward a food culture unique to this region.

This interest led to the formation of an alliance between Toronto-based chefs and growers near the city. In 1989 Michael Stadtländer and I formed Knives and Forks. Its mandate was to increase demand for local produce and livestock. We started a farmers’ market, and we created an annual event to celebrate the bounty of southern Ontario.

One year in the late 1990s I met Geoff Heinricks. He told me that he had recently moved from Toronto to Prince Edward County to start a vineyard and a new chapter in his life.

I was fascinated by his story. I had heard that the county held promise as a new viticultural area. I also wanted to learn more about growing vines and making wine. In 2001 I purchased a farm next to his. In 2002 I planted a small vineyard.

The vineyard, it seems, mirrors my own successes and failures in life, sometimes yielding fruit, sometimes not. Nevertheless, the farm has represented a natural antidote to the pressures of urban life for me.

I was in the middle of my career when I bought the farm. I raised cattle, contributing four animals per year to my restaurants. There was a garden that yielded onions, garlic and potatoes for three to four months of the year.

My mum was an artist. Her body of work spanned five decades and yet she had never exhibited her work. My siblings and I were determined to help her mount a show. There is an annex to the main barn called the loafing barn – what a great spot to hold an exhibition. We set a date in 2012 and invited the whole county.

The vineyard, it seems, mirrors my own successes and failures in life, sometimes yielding fruit, sometimes not.

Many people came and my mum was so pleased. Among the guests was Georgs Kolesnikovs, who had launched an annual festival of Canadian cheese in Picton, Ont. He thought the gallery would be an ideal spot to hold a dinner as an adjunct to his festival.

I agreed to give it a try, and the next year we launched Gastronomy on the Farm. Now in its fifth year, the dinner has become a feature of the weekend festival.

In March 2015, I closed Gilead Café and Wine Bar, my last restaurant in Toronto. I had always been interested in making the farm relevant as a farm, in addition to it being a retreat from the city. But I knew that it would never be viable as an enterprise selling tomatoes by the pound.

In June of this year, I launched JK Farm Summer Dinner Series. It has been held on Saturday evenings throughout the summer. The series is a showcase for local growers and winemakers to exhibit their work for guests each week.

The first summer has been an unqualified success. Already plans are underway for next year. The goal is to always increase integration of what is grown and raised on the farm with the dining experience and to speak gently, through delicious gastronomy, about our evolving food culture in southern Ontario.

Words by Jamie Kennedy