Upon entering the new Growing Chefs! Ontario headquarters, located in the former L’Auberge du Petit Prince on King Street, it’s clear the building has taken on new life.
Employees and volunteers are buzzing about, taking phone calls from local partners and organizing the many functional spaces within the facility. This includes several small garden plots that will supply fresh produce during the spring and summer, a working professional kitchen, and a dining room for hosting community engagement events.
Young children can gather around counters to inspect fresh produce and kitchen equipment during the organization’s youth programming.
The dining public can enjoy unique preparations of great ingredients by visiting chefs.
All this on a ‘quiet day,’ according to Andrew Fleet, founder and executive director of Growing Chefs Ontario. The organization has become a central part of London’s food literacy movement.
Filling a void
As practical programs like Home Economics disappear from Ontario schools, and fast-casual dining becomes the norm, public understanding around food production, preparation, and consumption has suffered tremendously.
It was from this context that Growing Chefs emerged, founded by pastry chef Merri Schwartz in Vancouver in 2006. Fleet was involved in that program, and brought the organization’s mission back to his hometown as the second chapter of Growing Chefs.
Surprisingly, Fleet did not always have a close relationship to food.
“I was definitely very far from being engaged with my food, or even excited about food,” he said. “I was definitely one of those kids that was like, ‘give me a pill so I never have to eat.’”
It was his experience in the food service industry that provided crucial insight into the process of food production. Working in some of Vancouver’s finest restaurants – first in the kitchen, then in front of house management – demonstrated the true value of sourcing high-quality, sustainably-harvested ingredients, Fleet said.
During his time with the lauded Kambolis Restaurant Group, Fleet witnessed Canada’s shift toward sustainable seafood firsthand. Chef Robert Clark became the first major culinary figure to embrace Ocean Wise products throughout his menus.
This experience, combined with a desire to secure a prosperous future for young children, set Fleet on a path that he has followed to this day – to re-establish people’s connection to the things they eat, and where they come from.
For Fleet, this means starting early.
Growing Chefs Ontario teaches young children not only how to cook, but how the ingredients they use are produced. This is especially important at a time when processed and packaged foods make up a significant part of the average North American child’s diet.
“I think that we’ve got to a point with society where lots of people will tell you that they value their time more than they value the food that they eat,” Fleet said. “And that is what Growing Chefs is trying to [communicate]… not that time isn’t valuable, but that food really is.”
To get this message across, Fleet and the Growing Chefs team prefer hands-on cooking to traditional classroom instruction. Rather than reading a textbook, the students who take part in Growing Chefs get a chance to apply the knowledge they gather at school in the kitchen.
“What it is that kids latch onto more than anything else is the math, or the science, or the geography, or the literacy, or the history, or the science in cooking,” Fleet said. “And it took us a while to figure out that that’s the best way to teach it, to help the kids have these moments.”
Not only has this approach made kids excited about food, Fleet says it has had positive effects on other aspects of their education.
“We started seeing reporting from teachers, from kids, and from their parents saying this was really effective. The kids were really into it,” he said. “We had teachers come in to us and go, ‘Wow, [measuring ingredients] really helped them understand that lesson on fractions the next time we came back to it.’”
But it’s not just cooking that brings students together. The act of sharing food is as good for the body and mind as the nutrients it contains.
“When you look at cultures across the world that value food and value the time that is spent sourcing, preparing, sharing and consuming that food, again and again you will notice that those cultures… have less health implications than we do,” Fleet said. “They spend less money on health care and spend less money on social services.”
One of the theories, he explained, is that there is stronger family and community ties. A lot of that starts in the kitchen and around the dining room table.
That attitude makes Growing Chefs stand out. Fleet and his team are not simply trying to sell kids on broccoli and Brussels sprouts – they are demonstrating just how interesting, engaging, and healthy the whole process can be.
As Fleet puts it, they are simply trying to give children a “lightbulb moment.”
Recently, the organization began to offer events for adults in the community as well. On January 26, Growing Chefs will host Chef Thompson Tran for a dinner showcasing organic, sustainably-farmed sturgeon.
Tran and Fleet were co-workers at Nu in Vancouver. Together they are providing an opportunity for people to learn the value of sharing good food, and coming together to support food education for other kids.
This event is a culinary coup for London – the Whole Sturgeon Dinner is the first of its kind to be hosted in Ontario.
What’s more, Fleet and Tran have done their best to make the dinner accessible to Londoners. Tickets for the Vancouver edition ran in the hundreds of dollars, but tickets for Growing Chefs’ meal will be available for $75.
“It’s not very often that the London, Ontario restaurant scene gets to do something before Toronto’s already done it,” Fleet said. “And that’s pretty exciting to me.”
All about the food
With all of these projects on the go, Fleet’s focus and clarity of vision is remarkable. Growing Chefs Ontario has come to embody an adaptability and dynamism that was missing from practical programs in public education, and has even found opportunities to bring the broader dining public into the fold.
When asked if Fleet sees his work as a form of activism, he hearkens back to Chef Clark, who considers it more of a sustainable business model than a political statement.
In other words, Growing Chefs Ontario was not built for the sole purpose of advocacy or starting a public conversation about food, but to ensure that cooking and eating remain a powerful part of our lives.
“Our goal at the end of it is not to have a sustainable business model. Our end goal is to say we don’t need to be here anymore. And that’s ultimately what we’re moving towards.”
Growing Chefs Ontario is hosting their Whole Sturgeon Dinner this Saturday, January 27, 2018, at 460 King Street, London, Ontario. Tickets are available online.
Photos via Facebook / @growingchefsontario