A few years ago, I visited my friend who was working on a farm for the summer. In the evening, she made us dinner from the vegetables harvested earlier that day, and the next morning she walked me through the fields, explaining the intricacies of each plant and introducing me to the animals. Then we sat in the dirt and picked green beans and bell peppers — "only the ones that have turned from green to red," she instructed. "Wait, red peppers are green peppers?" I asked. That was when my connection to food started... And stopped three hours later when I returned to Toronto and washed away the soil from under my fingernails.
"Much of our food system depends on our not knowing much about it. And it's a short way from not knowing who's at the other end of your food chain to not caring," Michael Pollan, food journalist and activist, writes in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma.
We care a great deal about restaurants and their undeniable magic in Toronto. But we don't care about where the food comes from and who supplies it — until something goes wrong. When the supply chain breaks, when Mi'kmaq fisheries are attacked, when a multi-brand hospitality group owes thousands of dollars to suppliers, then we take to social media, swearing to boycott this, shop small that and sign the petition.
The pandemic alone has exposed the fragility and the disconnect within the restaurant industry's food chain to the point of near collapse, but amidst the damage, there are industry outliers working hard to rebuild. "We can't exist without suppliers, they are the backbone," says Rami Kaldas, head chef at Bandit Brewery in Roncesvalles.
Their close relationship with suppliers has taken the culinary program at Bandit from casual pub snacks to a hub for regional food of a calibre you would associate with fine dining — sans the high price tag. "We went from a place that was selling buttermilk-fried cauliflower to a place that was doing venison tenderloins rubbed in elderberry," says Kaldas.
From balsam-fir-candied walnuts with maple-roasted root vegetables to the fermented mushroom salt and spruce tip aioli that accompany their heavenly fries, Bandit's menu is shaping a Canadian food identity beyond BeaverTails.
"Marc's Mushrooms supplies us with all of our foraged products. We use spruce and balsam fir tips and make our own oils and syrups out of them. There are so many edible things around us and when you consult people like Marc's Mushrooms, the world opens up to new flavours and endless possibilities," says Kaldas.
If you think of your top five Toronto restaurants (Il Covo, Marben, Boehmer, Bar Isabel and Superpoint, if you're asking), chances are Marc's Mushrooms and Wild Harvest supplies products to all of them.
"Foraging was a hobby of mine and this one year I stumbled upon a lot of wild lobster mushrooms. I called up some friends in fine dining and very quickly I went from a hippie in the woods knocking on the back door of restaurants to having a steady year-round supply chain of wild mushrooms," says Marc Eber, the company's founder and owner.
Ten years later, Marc's Mushrooms has grown exclusively by word-of-mouth among chefs (they still don't have a website) into one of Toronto's most recognized and beloved suppliers, specializing not just in mushrooms but region-specific items like Ontario black garlic and sweet clover extract.
But the journey from hippie to coveted supplier hasn't always been a foraging fairy tale. Marc's Mushrooms is one of the many suppliers owed thousands — nearly $100,000 actually — from King Street Food Company (Buca, La Banane), who entered insolvency last November.
"That really hurt because I could use that money to weather the [COVID] storm, but to get through it we need to innovate. And we had to innovate because of the pandemic, not because of Buca," says Eber.
To adapt, Marc's Mushrooms has started a direct-to-home delivery service called Grow, Gather & Co., which introduces products from small-scale farmers and producers to consumers. They also take it one step further, using their knowledge of distribution networks to sell meal kits and pantry items from restaurants — and they pay upfront.
"I love introducing people to new products, flavours and farmers in the area. Walking into the back of a restaurant and having chefs like Rami [Kaldas] who get wide-eyed and excited about trying anything new — it's really fun bringing things to him," says Eber.
"Walking into the back of a restaurant and having chefs like Rami [Kaldas] who get wide-eyed and excited about trying anything new — it's really fun"
This mutual respect and passion for small-scale growers and producers is instrumental in strengthening the relationship between supplier and buyer, and the food chain as a whole. Where there is connection, there is less room for cracks in the system.
"I think the fragility of the supply chain can be genuinely mitigated, so long as you have a good relationship with the people who are supplying the items you need," says Kaldas.
Someone who knows the importance of fostering relationships is industry veteran Adam Colquhoun of Oyster Boy, who holds a unique position as restaurant owner, wholesale supplier and caterer.
"I've been in the game since 1987. When I started, people used to make faces when they saw oysters. No one would eat them," says Colquhoun.
At one point he was the second-largest oyster distributor in Canada and has remained a dedicated representative of sustainable Canadian east and west coast oysters and their growers — referring to many of them as good friends.
Last October, in solidarity with Indigenous fisheries, Oyster Boy boycotted Nova Scotia lobster until the Mi'kmaq have joint-ownership of Clearwater Seafoods.
"I respect the growers, I pay them. Restaurants have to be prepared to start paying cash on delivery, otherwise the supply chain is going to go bust. I hope there's good restaurateurs. No more fuckups — people who just think they can open a restaurant because they can cook a plate of spaghetti. People have to be serious about this industry and make sure everyone gets paid. You have to work, you have to be there," says Colquhoun.
Toronto's restaurant scene is hyper-competitive and in order for many suppliers to survive, they extend terms to restaurants who use their products in dishes, (maybe) turn a profit, then pay suppliers back later… Or never. It's a messy game that leaves suppliers vulnerable.
Mix in a global pandemic that greatly reduces consumer demand for restaurants and the unsteady foundation crumbles. In order for the industry to survive, things need to change.
"If I don't have money, I will not buy," says Martine Bauer, head chef and part-owner of Pompette, which opened last spring on College Street. Before Bauer builds her menus, she contacts local organic farmers like Tamarack Farms and Kendal Hills Farm to see what's available.
"For me it's about working with whatever you have on hand. There are few things that I hate, but when I see a strawberry cake on a menu right now — that's not seasonal," says Bauer.
Pompette may be a French restaurant, but their dishes are grounded in seasonal Ontario items like natural heritage chickens from Kendal Hills, and a wide array of heirloom vegetables and lamb from Tamarack — both mixed-use farms that practice exceptional animal welfare and regenerative agriculture (farming and livestock grazing principles that enhance and replenish our ecosystem's resources rather than depleting them).
"We only work with 15 chefs, our relationship is with a human, not a building," says Nancy Self who owns and operates Tamarack Farms with her husband Richard.
"We only work with 15 chefs. Our relationship is with a human, not a building"
Tamarack Farms works collaboratively with a handful of chefs (Anthony Walsh, Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality; Ian Robinson, Skippa; Laura Maxwell, Le Sélect Bistro), many of whom have spent time working on the farm, getting to know its products.
"Chefs come here when they have days off and they'll meet the lambs before they're butchered. I think that creates a very different perspective on food waste. Because we don't sell legs of lamb, we sell lamb. So you're working with chefs that understand the importance of using the whole animal," says Self.
The collaboration process is woven through every aspect of Tamarack's 400 acres, from their participation in a global pilot creating a regenerative farming criteria, to their chef's garden where they work with chefs like Martine Bauer to grow specific produce that's more commonly found in France.
"Working with local farmers and being close to them is very important for us. At the beginning, people didn't know anything about Pompette. We were new and some would say 'Oh, your dish is expensive.' And I don't want to justify myself, but I have my farmer who will drive two hours from their farm — how do you want me to bargain the price? They need to survive," says Bauer.
Profit margins are tight for both restaurants and farmers, so setting prices for a supplier's products and a restaurant's menu items which accurately reflect the quality and all of the hard labour that goes into it is absolutely necessary.
"Small-scale farming is a lot of work. You don't get into farming to make a ton of money, it's more of a lifestyle choice," says Dave Kranenburg who runs Kendal Hills Farm with his partner Emily Tufts. "From water lines breaking to global pandemics, the challenges are far too many to name and there are times when you want to break down and cry, but at the end of the day, farmers are resilient," he continues.
"You don't get into farming to make a ton of money, it's more of a lifestyle choice"
To help the small-scale farming community, Kranenburg and Tufts created The Virtual Farmers Market at the beginning of the pandemic, and it has flourished.
"The beauty of farmers markets is the connection and the conversation between the people growing and the people eating that doesn't happen with faceless home delivery. I was worried this would become the Amazon of local food — I wanted it to be about building relationships. Thankfully, that's happening," he says.
With shared sales among farmers and shared distribution to homes and pickup points in Toronto, The Virtual Farmers Market not only combats the loss from diminished restaurant orders and the closure of farmers markets, but also makes small-scale farming more efficient by getting smaller farms to work together in harmony.
Kranenburg is hopeful about what lies ahead: "The future of food is small. It's about small-scale producers working together to support the small restaurants and the small grocers. Coordinating our efforts is going to be the piece that unlocks the power and potential of local food to feed one of the largest cities in North America."
Mending the gaps within our food chain isn't easy and defaulting to disconnection or disinterest is a lot less work, especially for consumers who think they don't have any skin or say in the game. But if there's one thing these unprecedented times have taught us, it's that we're all connected and anyone, no matter how small, can make an impact.