I shared this picture on the Elgin Harvest facebook page last week after finding a stash of photos in a Julia Child biography. This was taken in early 2001 at the end of a pastry class while I was in chefs school. (As an aside: I went out for ice cream with a friend last night and he thought this was recent. I'd like to think I've changed somewhat but I'm okay if someone thinks I look 23.)
I make it no secret I'm not sure what direction to move in when the fall arrives. I have been back in the Elgin area off and on for the past 9 years and in that time I've done what I can to alter the perception and knowledge regarding high quality cuisine. Has it changed at all for the better?
I have no desire to be a line cook in a place that serves Caesar salad with Kraft salad dressings. I think french fried chips should be reserved for food trucks and diners and not served as a side option to every meal in the county. I refuse to purchase or use frozen pastry that came off a Sisco truck. Meat does not have to hold the largest piece of real estate on the dinner plate, nor does it have to come from industrial farm factories. I think some people spend too little money on food because they have been taught that food should be cheap. They have two cars in the driveway less than 3 years old, each have Iphones for themselves and children, 4 tv's in the house with cable and Netflix, go on vacations to Disneyland yearly, use the dryer during the daytime, buy soda pop, go clothes shopping once a month, but complain their food bills are too high. This map published yesterday outlines just how much - or little - each country spends on food each year and it's staggering to note the differences.
I do my best to support local producers whenever I can, much of it organic and sustainably produced. That often means I pay 50-400% more for some items than what you would pay in the grocery store or what a restaurant would pay for things ordered from a food distributor. My costs are higher, which means the prices for my goods should be higher, but it's an uphill battle when only a small percentage of the population (but an incredibly loyal & hungry percentage!) knows the difference between Pillsbury or not, including many of the area chefs - and price becomes the determining factor. "Such and such place is cheaper, I'm going to buy from them. It's what I know. It's what I'm willing to spend." Some people simply don't care either.
Well, why am I here if I am unable to find work where my skills are required and get paid a living wage?
Because of Elgin County farms like HOPE Eco Farms, Dancey Family Farm, and Our Little Farm.
Chris & Wil Dancey on the Dancey Family Farm raise laying hens (aka the Lovely Laying Ladies), pastured beef, and some vegetables on their certified organic farm east of Aylmer. The ladies and their poultry palace are moved frequently around the property to help increase the soil quality. On this day the fence included territory for the ladies to visit their very own pond and pick for bugs in the grass. These are the happiest chickens I have ever seen. Oh, the fence is electric zzzzt.
We live in an incredibly rich and diverse agricultural area. I can get on my bicycle and visit many farmgate markets or farms and I can see not only how their products are produced, I can also ask questions to the farmers' about taste, pesticides, prices, or breeds. I can also talk and listen about cooking qualities but most important of all, the money I pay these farmers goes directly into their pockets which can directly contribute to them being able to afford non-gmo feed, pay farmhands to weed and move fences, and put food on their own tables.
Grain Storage and Efficient Use of Energy
1. Franz uses a diesel engine to power his mill. Although he can process 500 pounds of wheat in an hour, the engine gives off a lot of heat so it is kept in an adjacent room and he has modified the output to harness the excess energy though a series of wide tubing.
2. The tubes run from the engine room and are connected to the bottom of a large wall.
3. In the wall are several compartments with doors which can be filled with grains for storage.
4. In the bottom of each compartment are more tubes that connect with the ones coming from the output of the engine. These tubes transfer heat under the grains which keeps them at the property dryness.
5. The excess heat moves through the grains and exits at the top of each compartment though a vent.
6. Emmer wheat kernels dried to the correct moisture level to be milled.
Three conditions must be met for GREAT CUISINE to exist:
The Stratford Chefs School began in a tourist town with fine restaurants there to serve the guests of the Shakespearean Stratford Festival. It was a seasonal town, which meant it was bustling throughout the summer while the festival took place but in the winter the tourist spots would shut down and the town would become somewhat dormant (except for it's manufacturing sector).
Two local restauranteurs, James Morris, of Rundles, and Eleanor Kane, of The Old Prune, frequently found it was difficult to find trained staff for their restaurants each year once the festival season began again because each fall the staff would leave to find new work for the winter. Sometimes they would come back in the spring but more often than not they would find a permanent home someplace else with year-round employment and would not return.
In 1984, Jim & Eleanor put their ideas together and founded the Stratford Chefs School. The school would train students during the winter months, with the idea the students would then be able to find work in busy Stratford during the tourist season, including in their restaurants. Students would be coursed in the both practical and theoretical studies of wine and viticulture, serving, cooking, food costing, menu planning, gastronomy, nutrition, food styling, and pastry all taught under the eyes and knives of working, professional chefs. Another thing that makes Stratford stand out from other culinary schools is it is geared towards gastronomes who want to own their own small restaurants.
Edification - edible education - is thoroughly needed if the restaurant standards in our area are ever to improve. Cheaper is not always better, cooking is an art and valuable skill, dining and eating is an important rite of reflection and sharing, and just because it's a local business doesn't mean it's good.
Our greatest culinary assets - the food - is shipped away because there isn't a demand for it locally. With the food goes the talent and knowledge of preparing it.
Eating. Drinking. Sharing.