Friday, 20 March 2015

Chef Michael Stadtländer is an internationally renowned chef, whose Eigensinn Farm dinners are legendary among food lovers. A staunch supporter of the farm-to-fork movement, he was also the driving force behind 'Foodstock', one of Canada's largest culinary protest movements. In an earlier post on farmer John Schneider, I talked about the 'No Farms No Food' organization that mobilized the local agricultural movement against development, so when I heard about Foodstock, it felt like a sign, a theme, if I may call it that, of protest movements based on preserving food and agricultural traditions and making sure that food security continued to be an issue of paramount importance.

I was invited to a NAIT Culinary Arts Program lunch featuring the food of Chef Stadtländer, who is the current Hokanson Chef-In-Residence. But before that, I was lucky enough to get a interview with Chef himself, and I was curious to know more about the philosophy that drives his food and cooking style.

Chef Stadtländer came to Canada from Germany, where he grew up with food that was incredibly local. He recalls growing up on a small farm, and growing a lot of his food. Both his mother and grandmother cooked for the German border police and Chef Stadtländer credits them for his love of cooking with local ingredients (um, his womenfolk, that is, not the border police).

Local is lifeblood to Chef Stadtländer. When he moved to Canada, he worked and developed several unique concept restaurants, including the farm-to-fork 'Feast of the Fields' with his co-chef Jamie Kennedy, before following his dream and buying a hundred acre farm near Collingwood, Ontario. Eigensinn farm now provides 90% of the produce, meat and dairy that Chef Stadtländer uses in his cooking and his farm dinners.

I asked Chef Stadtländer how he felt about 'local' as a concept, now that it is a trendy buzzword in the culinary and gourmet scene. For Chef Stadtländer, local is not a trend. It is the way people have cooked and eaten for centuries before the growth of big agriculture. He espouses his philosophy of cooking local and he is proud of the fact that for most of the year, he is eating and cooking strictly from his farm and selected local producers. He makes an exception for his wheat, though, which comes from Western Canada, from organic growers.

The thing about Chef Stadtländer that strikes me as unusual is that he doesn't shy away from discussing hard topics around organic farming, sustainability and the way in which most of the population eat. As he puts it, organic is still niche and can be quite unaffordable to all but a certain income group of people. He doesn't dispute this, but he does believe that there could very easily be changes made to the way in which people eat and consume food. He agrees that it is not easy for everyone to eat organic - budget is an important part of people's lives - but he believes that as people start learning more about the way in which food affects health and lifestyle, things will slowly change. Local food has never been about being trendy for Chef Stadtländer, he sees it as a way of life and the way in which people have survived for a long time.

For Chef Stadtländer, health and nutrition are also as important as where food comes from. He believes that as more people understand the value of health, the more they will realise that knowing the pedigree of your food is an important part of everyday life. For him, a healthy, balanced society is Utopia, but one that is within reach for everyone, starting with teaching children about growing food and showing them how to cook it in the way that is best for them and for families.

At the same time, Chef Stadtländer believes that the health of the people and families is directly related to the way in which we look after the land, and the health of the land, the soil and water. Teaching kids early on in life will only lead to a generation that is mindful of what they do to the world around them, as they start equating their own health and taste with respect for the land where their food comes from.

I ask Chef Stadtländer how he feels about organic grocery stores. His answer is firm and unequivocal. Flying organic produce from around the world is not a solution, he states. Produce and food tastes best when it stays local, when there is that connection to the land, and when you are able to trace it's journey from farm to plate. Food is about celebrating seasons and building a healthy culture around it. As he puts it, the closer we are to our food, the better the flavours, the more we can relate to it, and the healthier the world stays.

He is passionate about farmland and insists that one of the best ways to provide food security in today's world is to make sure that agricultural land and small farms are protected. There will always be developers, he states, economics will always be an issue as population grows and the demand for land increases. He sounds frustrated when he tries to explain how he believes that the only way for Canadians to protect their food supply is to stand up for farmers and for their land. It is easy to destroy land, he says, but land, once taken over is lost. The ability of that same land to provide food becomes less and less, and the more people start relying on big agriculture and food.

Canadians need to be forward thinking, according to Chef Stadtländer. He wants us, urges us, to use our democratic power to protect our land and to create a stronger food culture that is based around it. The blame goes both ways. We see the land as expendable, but we are being short-sighted when we do this. What are we leaving to the next generation? Do they not deserve a fair shot at knowing the joys of growing their own food and the unique flavours of local terroir?

It saddens Chef Stadtländer when farmers feel that they cannot leave land to their own children, because of reasons of uncertainty and economics. He feels that farms need to be reinvented, that more people need to start moving outwards, thinking about the future of food and agriculture. The more this happens, the better the food culture of Canada and the world.

He freely admits that Canada is harsh country to live in. We are seasonal, and growing seasons are short. Winters are hard and brutal, especially on farmers and people raising livestock. But as he points out, people don't need much to be happy. We live in a world where wealth is equated to money and the ability to consume. Unfortunately, it is the world we live in and greed is a big factor in the way it works. People have so much, yet they want more and more, destroying nature and life in the process. Chef Stadtländer deeply feels the need to create more community, to start giving back, to start being compassionate, kind and mindful of the world we live in. Wealth is not everything. Being connected to the land, being respectful of it, this is where the future lies.

Chef Stadtländer states that he would never ever move away from his land. He hopes to buy more, and continue to create his vision of a sustainable community of chefs and farmers working in harmony with each other. He has a vision of young, apprentice farmers working the land, and supplying chefs with the produce. He sees urban farming as one way forward, as it brings people together, teaches the younger generation about growing food, being respectful of the land and understanding their responsibilities to it.

For Chef Stadtländer, the local is indeed sacred.

I was lucky to have the opportunity to not only speak to Chef Stadtländer, but also to experience his cooking. The menu for NAIT's Chef-in-Residence Luncheon was steadfastly local, in keeping with his own ethos. I was also incredibly fortunate to get a recipe for the pan-fried Alberta whitefish, which I will be sharing here next week, so keep an eye out. I've managed to source everything locally for this incredible dish, so I am very proud of being able to recreate, to some extent, an amazing dish by an equally inspirational chef, and keeping it as local as can be.

Photo credits: The first photograph of Chef Michael Stadtländer supplied by NAIT. The rest of the images are my own.

Disclosure: I was offered an opportunity to interview Chef Michael Stadtländerby NAIT, and was invited to a complimentary luncheon hosted by them to celebrate Chef Stadtländer's food. All opinions are my own. I was not paid for this post.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Savoury, Spicy Indian-Style French Toast

Some of the best times in my life were at JNU or Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. I was a pretty sheltered kid for most of my life and lived at home when I first went to college. But by the time I'd graduated with my degree, I was ready for adventure, and in that spirit, I applied to go to what is arguably one of the best liberal arts universities in the country. Getting into JNU wasn't easy, as I was competing with the best of the best in a pretty stiff entrance exam. Luckily for me, I made it through and it was with giddy excitement that I headed off to university, leaving home for the first time. My mum and uncle came with me to Delhi to see me off, and get me settled in, and while there was a tinge of homesickness, the relaxed atmosphere of JNU made me feel at home and like I'd been there all my life.

JNU is like no other university in India. First off, it is a staunchly left-wing university, deeply political and very liberal in its outlook, compared to the rest of the universities in India. Classes were only held on Monday to Wednesday, and the rest of the time was all self-study. Let's just say for a fresh-out-of-the-'burbs nineteen year old, coming from a convent school and college environment, all the freedom certainly went straight to the head. I made friends easily, and before I knew it, I was comfortable ensconced in the JNU lifestyle.

One of the best things about JNU was its huge collection of street eateries, called 'dhabas'. Almost every hostel, where students lived, had a dhaba in front of it, and they served food pretty much twenty four hours a day. The JNU late nights are famous, and before long, I was in the habit of attending my afternoon classes, then hanging out with my friends late into the night, drinking copious amounts of chai and black coffee, and eating anda paratha (egg layered rotis), spicy bread omelette, freshly made, piping hot pakoras, samosas and meat tikkas. We rarely made it into bed before five in the morning, and it was not unusual for us to have breakfast before heading to bed. Ah, the joys of being young and sleepless. 

Savoury, Spicy Indian-Style French Toast

One of the best known events in JNU was its student election. One of the largest university political spectacles, it is a crazy time. Each political party in India has a student arm, and the competition was fierce. The student election commission would convene in early October, and the rules were set. Unlike other universities, JNU had a strict code of conduct. No outside money or influence was allowed, and so we spent hours painting posters in cramped hostel rooms, surviving on chai and pakoras.

So, that is something about me that you might not have known. I am a deeply political person, and I had (hold) very strong opinions about issues. Some of these ideals have changed over the course of my life, but I still passionately believe in the democratic process and its aftermath. Part of my induction into political life happened at JNU, and it is a time I can never forget.

There were some key points during the election, and the presidential debate was one of them. All the political parties in JNU fielded a candidate and the debate was held late at night. The atmosphere was electric, the slogans were loud and mocking, the nigth was buzzing. Passions ran high, as each candidate was offered a chance to make his or her case, while groups of their supporters cheered and jeered. The video below will give you an idea of the intensity of the moments, and the day of the election is a long one. Counting of the votes goes late into the night, with the results usually declared at around four or five in the morning. Everyone is sleepless and it is hard not to get caught up in the passion of the moment. The air is electric with anticipation. We were all wrapped up warm in our wool shawls, sprawled across dusty dhurries (woven rugs) and every so often, an activist would jump up and whip the crowds up into a frenzy. When the results were declared the winners would go on another massive rally, cheering, and screaming slogans all through the huge campus. Like I said earlier, a spectacle, one that keeps alive democracy at its best.

This recipe came about when I started craving a late night spicy snack. Late nights back in JNU would normally be around 2 AM in the morning, but let's just say my late night was about 8 PM, when an early dinner was done and I was in that in-between stage of wanting to eat something savoury, but not wanting to go to too much trouble. I had just made some fresh bread, and inspiration struck. I whisked together a mix of eggs and milk for French toast, and then added spices, onions and green chilies to the mix. The result was amazing, and I knew that this was a recipe that was going to make its way on to the website.

It reminds me of the spicy bread omelettes I used to live on when I lived in JNU, and the rush of memories was enough to send me scurrying to my computer to write everything down. This spicy French toast needs to be served with copious amounts of ketchup and chilli sauce, just like our spicy omelettes were, and it will totally transport you to the streets of India. It would also make a unique, interesting twist to a lazy weekend brunch too. I hope you'll like it as much as I did.

Savoury, Spicy Indian-Style French Toast

(Printable Recipe)

2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 small onion, finely diced (about 2 tablespoons)
1 - 2 green chillis, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
4 thick slices of good bread
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
1 - 2 tablespoons neutral oil
Small handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped


Whisk together the eggs and milk in a bowl, and add the onion, chilli, spices and some salt and pepper to taste.

Soak the bread slices in this mixture until well coated.

Heat the butter and oil, on a medium heat, in a heavy based frying pan. When the oil is hot, fry the bread slices, until golden brown on both sides. The onion usually slides off the bread, so take a teaspoon and press some bits of onion mixture on the bread as it is cooking.

Remove to a warm plate, and keep warm until the rest of the slices are cooked. Sprinkle over the fresh cilantro to garnish. Serve with tomato ketchup and hot chilli sauce (if desired)

Monday, 2 March 2015

Fish Market in Mangalore

My father and I don’t share a lot in common, but what we do share is a love of good food, and a keen eye for a bargain. As a child, I normally accompanied him on his trips to the fishing docks, holding my nose and gripping the back of his shirt, observing as he bargained hard for the best fish, vegetables and meat.

A year ago, I was back in India for a visit with my family, and I felt like I needed to revisit the docks with dad. Dad was reluctant to take me. With my Westernized ways, I was likely to drive up the price of fish. ‘Come on, dad’, I pleaded, and he grumpily agreed. We were up at the crack of dawn, and I precariously balanced myself, side saddle, on his rickety motorbike, and we rode off to the market. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon, but the dusty haze was rising, and the day promised to be hot. The spicy-sweet smells of cooking and wood fires were in the air and the sounds of the city awakening were loud and strident. There was a time when riding with dad like this was commonplace, but on that day, I clutched at his shirt and the back of the bike, trying not to wince as he recklessly bounced over potholes, all the time trying to balance my notebook and camera.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Steamed Nutmeg Flan
I am always endlessly fascinated by the synchronicity of food and culture. Take a simple mixture of eggs, milk/ cream and sugar, for example. From Mexico to England to France to Vietnam, there is a version of this dish that takes in the best of what the culture has to offer and turns it into a classic. Whether it is the Mexican or Vietnamese flan, the humble English custard, the fancier creme anglaise, or creme caramel or creme brulee, this simple, comforting dessert transcends borders and cultures.

A lot of the cuisine I've grown up with is an amalgamation of this cultural absorption. Having grown up on the edge of Portuguese ruled Goa and with a strong 'Western' influence on food, a lot of what we ate was the Indianised version of Portuguese, British or French cuisine. Vindalho, for example or jhalfrezi.

There were, and are, some dishes though that were a unique combination of the person making them, and traditional European classics. This nutmeg flan - a specialty of my mom's - is one of them. When I first decided to make it myself, I remember asking my mom where she got the recipe. She shrugged and said, nowhere. It was one of those recipes which she probably ate at a friends' place, and then recreated it at home, using her own memories of the dish.

This is an interesting aspect of cooking, for me. I grew up with instinctive cooking, yet over the years I have learned to follow recipes and techniques to come up with perfect dishes. Not to say that my cooking isn't good, but I must admit that sometimes I miss the instinctiveness of food, where you grab a glance inside the refrigerator and make a dish based on what you find there. The way my mom usually cooks. The best part about this kind of cooking is the modifications that individual cooks make to their own cooking. My Aunt Helen, for example, uses milk soaked bread in this same pudding - mimicking a classic bread and butter pudding, whereas my mum keeps it very simple with just milk, eggs, sugar and nutmeg, which is more reminiscent of a Mexican or a Vietnamese style of flan.

For me, this dish is the essence of my childhood. Despite its simplicity, Mum only made this for special occasions - or when she had some time off school.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Is local the new 'sacred'? This is the provocative question asked by sociologist Mervyn Horgan in his thoughtful analysis of the movement against development and to protect agricultural land in Nova Scotia. Horgan’s article focuses on the story of four farmers in rural Nova Scotia who submitted an application to rezone their land for commercial development. This led to an outcry – with the intention of keeping the farmland rural – led by the group, No Farms, No Food who worked collectively and overturned the rezoning of the land. Horgan argues that by invoking the ‘sacred’ aspect of local, No Farms, No Food successfully mounted a campaign that not just reverses political decisions, but also “turns the world around.”

A similar protest occurred in northeast Edmonton, when agricultural land was rezoned for low-density housing. In this case, however, the project went ahead. While sympathetic to the agricultural cause, the mayor of Edmonton did not, however, see the economics working out in favour of keeping the farmland intact. These articles spurred me to write this piece on local farmer John Schneider of Gold Forest Grains. John’s story is familiar – local, organic farmer tries to make a living by standing by his principles and hoping that we do the same.

There is no doubting that the words ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are trendy. But what does this mean for the people who farm organically? I wanted to talk to a person who has made being local and organic part of his life in an unassuming way – not because it is cool or popular or ‘what we should be doing’ – but because of his longstanding belief that we need to look after the land for future generations.