It was Foodstock!
I was at the very first Canadian Chefs’ Congress last month. Its creator, Michael Stadtländer, is a chef, farmer, artist and dreamer; when he gets a yearning, he acts on it and creates. So when he wanted to know what chefs were cooking along the coasts and in the mountains and prairies, he found out by inviting them to his farm and calling it a congress. But it was bigger and more significant than that. It was not just about food and cooking. It was about protection and awareness; it was about how chefs must now be creative and aggressive about keeping things local, organic and sustainable; it was about protecting small farms and artisanal producers; and it was about taking a stand against cooking with harmful genetically modified ingredients. It was art.
The Congress included 400 chefs, farmers, wine- and cheesemakers, all roaming around the sun-filled fields eating cod cheeks and herrings, suckling pig and bison pierogies, drinking chardonnay and pinot. The event was kicked off by a peaceful, happy aboriginal leader named White Eagle who cleansed the crowd with smoke and made everybody raise their hands in the air and lower them and say “Mîcwêc” three times—that’s “thank you” in Cree. It was a connection to the land, and to each other, that everybody (young, old, big, famous and unknown) got to experience.
There were cool-looking old country dudes with moustaches and hats showing off their great wine; young, inspired artisanal cheesemakers talking enthusiastically about the movement in Ontario; new farmers talking organics; and crazy-passionate oyster guys shucking. And then chefs representing all the Canadian provinces cooked on open fires all over the field, with big, steaming, broth-filled cauldrons, hot smoking grills built into old wagons and other ancient farming equipment. There was lobster risotto, beef tongues and midnight kitchens. There were lectures on buying the right fish, finding wild stuff in the forest, organic farming, slow food, oysters and cooking local. At the centre of it all was a sobering lecture about the harmful effects of cooking with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). There are no specific labelling regulations for GMOs, and the people who are calling them safe are the people who are creating them. It was a big, beautiful step in the right direction for the good guys—the passionate ones who love and believe in what they are doing and are working hard to keep things sustainable, natural and healthy.
It was inspiring for me and reaffirmed that the road I choose with Union is an important one. I spoke to Stadtländer briefly, like everyone else, with thankful awe. He had a big smile on his face the whole time, like a director watching his play performed for the first time. It was truly an amazing event. Everybody seems to be hitting their stride together, and it’s exciting to be a part of something that is growing, even with all the challenges that are to come. It was a beautiful two days topped by the biggest bonfire I’ve ever seen: imagine the biggest one you can, then multiply it by 40. It was 50 feet high, and it lit up the sky. I walked away full of good food, with a sunburn and a bundle of cheese to smoke, feeling wiser and stronger and more determined to get this restaurant going.
I finished back at my family’s farm with an old chef friend from Calgary who I have not seen in about six years. We stayed up late with the wood fire going, still kind of high off the whole affair. Inspired by the day, we talked and re-connected about everything we’ve been cooking and doing and where we’re heading.