Plot to Plate: Q&A with Carl Heinrich on his obsession with vegetable farming

Suresh Doss sits down with acclaimed Toronto chef Carl Heinrich to discuss how working on a rural farm added a veg chapter to his nose-to-tail-cooking.

There was a time not too long ago in the city, where farm-to-table was the bragworthy movement, and the city’s culinary landscape was suffused with raconteur chefs that scoured all corners of Ontario’s farmland for ingredients they can list in detail on their menus. The locavore movement may have waned over the last few years, but to chef Carl Heinrich, the concept of provenance is more important than ever.

His five-year-old restaurant, Richmond Station, doesn’t preach local cuisine, it celebrates it. Now, the chef behind one of the city’s best nose-to-tail eateries has a new obsession: vegetable farming. I sat down with Heinrich to chat about completing the picture.

Tell me about the first memorable interaction with a local producer.

It was when I was working at Cowbell Restaurant. This was sometime in 2010. I met the owners of New Farm, Gillian Flies and Brent Preston. Brent had written a memoir about how he started the New Farm. It was a tale of two “city-iots” that decided to be farmers. Brent had never planted food. They read all the books and wanted to make a go at it. At first, they were very unsuccessful. Farming is crazy hard work. They partnered up with a company called 100km Foods, which started around the same time, and started to approach chefs in Toronto with their produce. When I met them, they were just really excited.

So they were bringing produce straight to the restaurant's door?

Yes, it worked beautifully and organically. The basis of the food was always quality food that chefs wanted to buy. If anything, they had a hard time keeping up with chefs that wanted to feature their ingredients. When they started, they had 80 varieties of food. Soon they narrowed it down to a half-a-dozen key ingredients, everything you need for salad greens. They figured that in order for the farm to be sustainable, they needed to focus on specific crops.

From what I understand, Brent and Gill were also encouraging chefs to visit the farm at the early stages.

Their ethos was that they wanted the chefs to get as close to the growing process as possible. Back then they were raising pigs. So my butcher Ryan [Donovan] and I would head up there to help slaughter animals and process the meat. Once a year, we would go up and bring more cooks with us. It blossomed into a growing relationship with Ryan and me as we moved from Cowbell to Marben, and then we opened Richmond Station. They would host us three to four times a year; we started to spend a lot of time on the farm.

Most chefs, after spending five years in a restaurant, they move onto a gig at a new restaurant.

It’s the greatest job in the world, but I needed something else. I also needed to give my chef Hayden Johnston a chance to spread his wings and take on a bigger role in the restaurant. At the same time, we have always been known as a meat-heavy restaurant. It’s not necessarily because we only serve meat, or that we buy more meat, I think it’s because we buy whole animals. We don’t buy steaks, bone, fat. We don’t buy breasts or bacon. We buy pigs, steer, whole trout, ducks. We only buy directly from the person that grows it. We are probably more farm-to-table than anybody who runs a restaurant of this size.

What was missing is the same kind of relationship with vegetables?

Yes, but deeper. Ten years ago, knowing the name of the farm was good enough. It’s still fine today, but for me, that wasn’t good enough. I wanted to know more about farming. What are the proper soil and climate conditions for growing small to medium sized tomatoes? How about sunchokes? There was a part of our restaurant culture that was missing. We don’t buy meat unless we go to that farm first. I can tell you in great detail about the meat that we buy. I couldn’t necessarily tell you that about our vegetables. I was missing something in my education. My wife and manager here at Richmond Station, Julia (Ayearst), decided that we wanted to move to Creemore last year.

I can tell you in great detail about the meat that we buy. I couldn’t necessarily tell you that about our vegetables.

To work at the New Farm?

We first approached our staff, and they were fully supportive. Julia and I then approached Brent and Gill. I was expecting to be cutting greens and cleaning potatoes with the labourers that work their farm. But what they had in mind was that we would grow a separate garden. Their vision was for me to take full advantage of the chef’s garden.

Chefs have this idyllic dream of becoming a farmer, but in reality its back-breaking work. You’re not a farmer. You’re a chef. What was going through your head?

At first, I thought what an incredible opportunity. Selfishly, it doesn’t get better than that. You’re right; I’m not a farmer. A farmer relies on crops to produce an income. A gardener doesn’t. So, I was a gardener. I didn’t know anything when it came to sowing seeds. Do you put fertilizer [in with them]? Do you germinate? It took the whole summer to learn. I worked on the farm five days a week on a garden about an acre and a half in size. My team would come up [for] an event, or to help out and pick and weed.

There must have been some challenges with your first season as a gardener?

Most things worked, some things didn’t. Last year was an incredibly wet summer which had its difficulties but also had its benefits. 2016 was very dry and hot. Even irrigation was a huge thing. I didn’t have to water the garden once. So things that worked really well were herbs – the herb garden was insane. We grew 20 different varieties of herbs, and five varieties of edible flowers. The food we serve here is very herb-focused. To cook it up there and be inspired by the garden, was insane. [We grew] things like Mexican marigolds, milkweed pods and nasturtiums. [We were] inspired by walking in the garden. On the other hand, after all the rain was done, every tomato plant I planted was destroyed by blight. It was fast and it was furious. We had 100 plants out there, and it was so much work. Blight is moving further north with climate change. Our tomatoes didn’t work at all. But it was mostly highlights.

What were some of the biggest highlights?

The entire process had its highlights. For anyone that hasn’t done it before, [sowing] a seed and waiting for it to grow into something edible, was the biggest highlight. For me, learning how to use the whole plant was also a new step in my career, from seed pods in radishes to leaves from carrot plants.

It sounds like you approached gardening with the same nose-to-tail ethos that you apply to preparing meat.

vegetable at the right point. Understanding when it was appropriate to pick something became key. Sometimes, when creating a menu at the farm, we would consciously harvest a plant at a key point in the growing season to get the flavour profile we wanted. Beans change daily. It was some of the best food I have cooked in my entire life. Most of it was vegan. You didn’t need butter; you don’t need meat. You slice up cherry tomatoes, sweat out some onions, add some oil and boil it for three minutes. You get this beautiful shiny sauce. It blew my mind. You had to pick the tomatoes right then; you had to pick it and serve it right then.

You mentioned that a lot of produce was heading back to the restaurant. What was the response like with your staff?

We were bringing back height-of-the-season [produce], 200 lbs of vegetables a week. The crew was overwhelmed, to say the least because our storage at the Toronto restaurant isn’t great. We had so much Swiss chard, carrots, tomatoes, squash, radishes and cabbage. We would pick that morning, and it would be at the restaurant that afternoon. The cooks were experiencing the same euphoria. I kept hearing: “I don’t have to do anything it, already tastes so good.”

That’s a level of connectedness to the source that most chefs don’t experience.

To think that most times when chefs order vegetables they were grown by someone you don’t know; picked somewhere you’ve never been; picked when super under-ripe; packaged however dirty or clean; thrown onto a refrigerator truck; onto another refrigerator truck; on a plane. It has switched hands four or five times. Then you pick a case and you don’t know how old it is and how far it’s been, or for sure what it has been sprayed with. Maybe people are getting sick now because of all the chemicals that go into growing our food.

Was that something you had considered before your New Farm experience?

I was aware, but I was on the fence. I couldn’t tell you whether organic or non-organic tastes better. Farming practices are better, but I couldn’t tell. But the pesticides, that was eye-opening. Learning about systemic pesticides and how seeds are produced with fungicides and pesticides already in them. So that when they grow, another spray comes over top and kills everything on the field except for the thing that is inside the seed. And then we eat that, what does it do to our guts? Our brains? And our kids? I can’t prove that, and maybe the proof is out there. Organic farming is the fastest growing sector in a long time. Same with local. What you’re going to see in the next decade [is] people are going to prove that if you don’t eat organic food you’re in serious trouble. onna see in the next decade people are gonna prove that if you don’t eat organic food you’re in serious trouble.

Learning about pesticides was eye-opening. What does it do to our guts? Our brains? And our kids?

Is this the solution? That every restaurant should have a garden somewhere?

I’m behind. I’m learning from other chefs. The best chefs have already done that, knowing the exact provenance of where your food comes from. For us, understanding where the veg comes from was huge. But, we wouldn’t come close to being sustainable with just one acre. We would need 100 acres on full tilt. Here at the restaurant, we are serving 300 people on a daily basis, almost 2,000 a week. We couldn’t come close to providing the restaurant with all the food that it needs. I’m not a farmer; I don’t want to do 100 acres. But what staging at New Farm has allowed me to do is learn about my vegetables and what they look like. The education of understanding that when I buy stuff, I have a deeper understanding of what things taste like and what seed was used to get it to this shape.

Is this what your events are trying to share?

Brent and Gill created a kitchen on the farm. It sprouted from hosting chefs and restaurants up there. The idea evolved to hosting events where diners have a direct understanding of where the food comes from when you’re up there. You’re eating ingredients that were picked 50 feet away. We launched an event series last year to bring up guest chefs, and we’re continuing this year. Some are for fun; some are for charity.

Are you heading back to the farm this year?

The restaurant will have a garden again at the New Farm. We’ve learned from our mistakes last year and we’re coming at it with a focus. The goal is to get to a point where we will be featuring as much as possible from the farm when the growing season starts. There are a lot of vegetable-focused restaurants in Toronto now, and that’s a beautiful thing. I think we are at a disadvantage for vegan culture. The ground is frozen four months of the year. To do a fully local vegan menu here would be really tough. But, as a restaurant we need to know more about vegetables.