Tag Archives: organics

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)

There and back again- from inquisitive cook to “green” chef – part 1

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in food and cooking. We travelled quite a bit as kids, living in Africa when I was very young, back to northern BC, then off to Ontario, back to BC, off to England, then back to BC for good in 1977. I was 8, and settling in West Point Grey was a good place to be a kid. We spent a lot of time in the endowment lands and at Jericho Beach, exploring our surroundings as we always had. We lived in a big house on 13th, and between my older brother and I (who are only a year a part, so had the same circle of acquaintances) there was always a good sized group of boys around the house. One Sunday morning there was a fair group that had spent the night and we were poking around in the kitchen figuring out what to eat. Catholic school had taught us well, as Shrove Tuesday had just passed and the grade 6 class had learned in their discussions of the traditions of Mardi Gras how to make crepes. A crude batter was prepared in the blender, cooked in a couple of cast iron frying pans, and the group was satisfied, not just with the offerings, but the satisfaction of cooking for ourselves.

Every year, we had a family tradition of a pre-school year meeting in which the daily chores would be decided and assigned to my brothers and I. That September, (1979 I guess), I decided that I would like to relinquish my duties as garbageman, and would take on the responsibility of preparing breakfast for the family on a daily basis. Armed with my well worn copy of “the Joy Of Cooking,” I set out to liberate the Green boys of years of porridge for breakfast. Pancakes, omelettes, different egg preparations all became part of the repertoire, and I held my post for the rest of my time at home.

My parents had always been interested in social and environmental issues, so in 1980, following skyrocketing interest rates and house prices, my parents decided that my Dad had had enough of corporate life, and my Mom would work instead, taking a position with the Development agency of the Catholic Church. This meant a fairly substantial income drop, so we moved to South Vancouver, and spent the remainder of my youth living on the East Side.

The 80’s were pretty tumultuous times for those involved in social justice and global awareness, so we became very aware of socio-economic issues, the reality of the global food supply, and the like. In 1985, my parents packed the family up in a 1969 Volkswagen van and drove to Nicaragua, so that they could work with a group of priests who had been working with the Mayan people in Guatemala, and were now in exile in San Juan Del Sur, a beautiful beach town near the Costa Rican border. What a place to be 16! As the revolution was merely 6 years old, the youth were the future and as such were treated like adults. It was common for the high school classes to encompass a demographic of 15-30, and the atmosphere was of excitement and exhilaration. We were there for half the year, during which time we were able to discover exciting new flavours, and really learned an appreciation for ingredients. There was a trade embargo from the US because of the socialist regime, and we learned to cherish the fresh produce and seafood at the market, the fresh pork that was available, and most importantly, we learned like most of the world how to make beans and rice the backbone of the diet. Returning to Vancouver 8 months later, to say we had a new appreciation for the standard of living afforded the average Canadian would be an understatement to say the least.

A couple of years later, as I was finishing High School, I started looking at finding a part time job. A local restaurant near my high school had placed an ad in the morning announcements for part time kitchen help, and I figure since I loved to cook it might be a good thing to try out for a while. I stopped by the Avenue Grill on my way home from school one day, had a brief talk with the Sous Chef, and left my name and number. I got a call from the Chef a few days later and met with her, and started doing prep and making toast on Easter weekend, 1987.

I worked Friday nights and Sunday mornings for the rest of the school year, and learned the basics. The Grill was at that time doing a real California Cuisine thing, all the food was prepared in house, fresh baked muffins and scones, fresh creative salads and sandwiches, and a small dinner menu with pasta and casual but well prepared entrees. Sunday brunch was one of the busiest in town, where it wasn’t uncommon to do 120-150 covers in 4 hours, OUT OF 38 SEATS!! By the time the school year ended, I had been offered full time work for the summer, which I accepted gladly. (At that time I was certain that I was destined to be a rock star, so I just had to make a few bucks to get me through in the meantime).

A few months after I started full time, an apprenticeship became available and was offered, provided I could commit to sticking around for a couple of years to learn the trade. Again, I gladly accepted, and went from prep to sandwiches and salads, to working dinner service within the first year. By the end of my first full year, I was cooking Sunday brunch every week as well as 2 nights on the stove and 2 on the salad station. By the time the second year rolled around, the Sous Chef had left, and it became my responsibility to cook dinner four nights a week and Sunday Brunch. I was happy to accept the challenge, and excited to be able to write specials, learn new techniques, and grow into a larger role. In the fall of 1989, the Chef decided to leave, and at that time, the responsibility to take over the kitchen fell on my shoulders.

The fall of 1989 and spring of 1990 brought great change for me. I had just gotten married the summer before, I had taken on the responsibility of running a small restaurant kitchen, and we had decided to buy our first house. The housing market had gone through the roof, and the only place we could afford was to move to the Fraser Valley. We started looking in Delta and Surrey, and as we looked, prices kept getting higher and higher, pushing us farther and farther east, until we finally bought a small home in Aldergrove, a good hour’s drive from work, in February, 1990. Within a few weeks of the house purchase, Jim, the owner of the restaurant came to me and said he had an idea to do something no one else in town was doing. He really wanted to get into organic food and embracing the natural food movement that had been going on in California. I was sent out to buy a few books and do some research (pre-internet, it meant the library) and picked up a copy of Chez Panisse Cooking, written by then Chef Paul Bertolli. I was fascinated by the story and the concept, and inspired to accept that thought process as the only way to cook. Between my own personal social background and a new move to start a family in the middle of farm country, everything seemed to make sense to go in a real down to earth, “connected with the land” direction. I had a copy of the Canadian Organic Food directory that had been picked up at Kits Natural Foods, and thumbed through it to see who was active in British Columbia. I only knew one organic farmer, Herb Barbolet from Glorious Garnish, and decided to ask him how I could get in touch with other farms, and the BCARA, the local organic farmer’s association. His response was, “You’re in touch. I’m the president. You should come to our meetings in Cloverdale once a month and meet some great people.” I agreed, and in the meantime, he gave me the number of a family in Surrey who had been farming there for a half dozen years.

End part 1. Next: part 2, meeting the Kings