Meeting the Kings-from inquisitive cook to “green” chef, part 2

(continued from part 1, September 8, 2007)

It was the spring of 1990, and as we prepared for a move to the country, a new direction in cooking and thinking about food for myself, and having just been married the summer previous had led me to a certain place and time. As I discussed with Herb the need to find farmers to supply me with “regular” produce, he gave me a number and said, “Call Gary King” I immediately picked up the phone, and made an introduction, told Gary of my direction and what I was looking for, and we had a conversation, one that would define how I would conduct business for the remainder of my career, as it would turn out.

Everything I had been taught about designing a menu for a restaurant and finding suppliers relied on a few main principles: Decide what you want to put on your menu, find the ingredients, and get the best price you can on everything. Pick the best products from each of your suppliers, and always shop around for a better deal.

As it would turn out, my conversation with Gary placed the relationship between supplier (farmer) and chef in a whole different context. It went something like this:

DG: I’m looking for a supplier of organic vegetables for my small restaurant and was given your name by Herb Barbolet as someone who might be able to supply me. What do you have?

GK: Let me tell you about our farm. My wife Naty and I have been farming here in the Hazelmere Valley since 1984. We have 10 acres which grow a large variety of crops: root vegetables, potatoes, herbs, shallots, tomatoes, greens, beans, corn, and the best strawberries in the Fraser Valley. We supply a number of restaurants, of which our biggest clients are the William Tell and the Raintree. Being our biggest supporters, they always have first dibs on things we have in limited supply, and when we supply someone new we have two rules: Our relationship and farming philosophy relies on you purchasing a variety of products, not picking and choosing a few select items here and there, and I won’t consider selling to you unless you come and visit the farm. Phone Lars Jorgensen and Rebecca Dawson if you like (chefs at William Tell and Raintree, respectively) and they will be happy to share information with you about us and other organic farms.

DG: I’ll be there this afternoon

Once I finished my brunch service, I hopped in my little Honda and drove the 45 minutes out to the farm to see what it was all about. Gary met me at the barn and for an hour we walked the fields, looking at plants, tasting, talking about farming and organics and companion planting. Seeing the strawberry patch, I expressed interest, and Gary continued on the morning’s train of thought: “If you buy my potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, herbs, beans, corn and squash all year, I’ll consider selling you some of our strawberries. They are unbelievable, and therefore are reserved for those customers who support us fully year round. I’m not interested in dealing with chefs who only buy based on price, and aren’t willing to come to the farm and see what we do here first. Organic farming is about diversity, and in order for the farm to remain healthy, a large variety of crops must be grown and rotated in order to keep the nutrients in the soil in balance naturally.”

I took a few vegetables, picked fresh from the ground and the next day called the two chefs Gary had suggested and followed up on the conversations we had. Both of them said the same thing and really helped me understand the alternative train of thought. In order for small farmers to survive, chefs had to be open to buying everything they grew, and finding creative ways to incorporate those into the menu allowed both the farmer to maintain diversity and the chef to think about food from an ingredient first point of view. Yes, you could find products cheaper, but the freshness of “picked that morning” produce meant far better flavour, shelf life, and yield, and therefore the cost difference was much less than you would think. Also, the relationship with the farmer on a year round basis meant paying the same price all the time, rather than fluctuating seasonal prices in the market place. Once something was gone for the year, it came off the menu, and you would move to something else, again helping to develop seasonal creativity. They also both stressed the need of more chefs to subscribe to the philosophy and put their money where their mouth was, if we were ever going to have the kind of network of small farmers and regional suppliers that was present in Europe and California.

Having been newly indoctrinated into the organic, seasonal, local food movement, I embraced this new approach with open arms. My drive to work, once we moved to Aldergrove, started to mean regular side trips down country roads looking for farm stands and signs of product for sale. My attendance at the BCARA meetings became a regular monthly occurrence, and every farmer I met led me to meet another. By that summer, I had met a supplier for free range eggs, chicken, naturally raised pork, a custom sausage maker dedicated to old fashioned practices and natural ingredients, other farms which supplied ingredients that the Kings didn’t have, organic beef from the Chilcotin, fruit from the Similkameen, as well as sources for organic staples like grains, flour, and cheese. (at that point there were no locally made small cheese producers), but it was certainly apparent that this local movement would only continue to grow, it was only a matter of time before it went mainstream.

Hand in hand with that came the approach to seafood that I would adopt as the only sensible option: local species, in season, no farmed salmon, and FRESH FRESH FRESH. I was lucky to have a great supplier in Deluxe Seafood who understood the need to go out of their way to supply a small restaurant with certain products, like picking through 100 pounds of fresh sole to find me 10 lb of thick fillets, and it too was the start of a long relationship that would last me 20 years in small restaurants. In those days, openings for things like halibut and fresh spot prawns were sporadic, and knowing that I did the menu twice a week and ran a daily special, the 7 am phone call from Dave became a regular occurrence, saying the halibut boats were coming in or the prawn fisherman was about to land. Again, it became the fisherman who decided the menu, not the chef, and learning to wait and see what you would get to cook became a philosophy as well as develop skills that would serve me well for years to come.

My days became adventure before cooking, an exploration and a farm visit in the country to discover the menu, then off to the restaurant to cook it. Weekly excursions to Edenvale (then the largest organic farm in the valley) Hazelmere, Glorious Garnish, as well as the egg ladies (I had two, and would bring extra in for my Avalon milkman and his customers), P&G sausage, and more provided a year of inspiration and direction. A few praises in the press, as well as a few misses, chalked up to youth and inexperience, and I really thought we were on the verge of a real breakthrough in Vancouver. In those days there were few places to by natural foods and organic ingredients, Capers in West Van, a few co-ops, Kits Natural, and Sweet Cherubim were about it, but you could sense that there was a real market for wholesome ingredients, as the boomers began to turn 40.

Then came recession, and with it change.

We went through an ownership change, and although the status quo was left for a while, it was quite apparent that the vision my previous boss had shared with me was not shared, and by the spring of the following year, It was decided that a different direction would be taken. Since that direction involved getting rid of all of the “expensive” ingredients for a better bottom line, something I was not willing to do, I was sent on my way. Ideals still intact, I retreated home to contemplate.

(end part two. Next, from kings to bishops with a stop in between)

One thought on “Meeting the Kings-from inquisitive cook to “green” chef, part 2”

  1. Great article Dennis. Very Inspiring. Would love to do an article on what you’ve been up to after Bishop’s for my web-site, if you don’t mind.

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