Chef extols benefits of sustainable food

Chef Justin Cournoyer at work in his kitchen in his Toronto restaurant.  |  Arash Moallemi photo

TORONTO — An animated Justin Cournoyer readily answered questions following his food demonstration at the SIAL international food show.

This show, held last spring, along with others like the Trashed and Wasted food event in Toronto gives the chef and restaurateur the forum to share his views on living and eating in harmony with the seasons.

“We should be growing more food sustainably and supporting the farmers,” he said in an interview.

“Talking to farmers, this is the way we used to farm years ago when there were no fertilizers or pesticides.”

His early years were spent near Actinolite, Ont., where he keeps a cottage and after which he named the Toronto restaurant where he, his wife, Claudia Bianchi, and their two children work and live.

“When I talk about connecting to farmers, it’s about supporting them to support their communities,” said Cournoyer, who noted the decline of his hometown as youth have moved away to find employment.

He said food is undervalued.

“When a farmer grows a butternut squash for $5, it should be $10.”

Early in his career, he questioned the conventional ways of going to a food terminal and buying carrots from California in March and steered his operation in a different direction.

He initially followed what he was taught instead of taking advantage of the season’s bounty.

Cournoyer started by finding organic farmers and biodiverse farms that maintain a range of species to help to minimize disease more naturally. He re-connected with the wild plants that surrounded him in rural Ontario and found he could create a pantry of flavours from them.

In addition, he could reduce food waste by using what was normally thrown away. He cited his success using fish guts to make fish sauce or tuna, meat scraps, beef or pork hearts to enhance his menu.

“It was a byproduct I would have put in the garbage before but I’m tapping into it as a seasoning,” he said.

“We don’t see the Apple store throwing Mac Books and chargers into the dumpsters, but in the grocery store, they do that,” he said of massive waste in the food industry.

“What if we just buy better food and don’t waste it?” he said.

He keeps food waste in check with appropriate portion sizes on his plates.

Cournoyer also tries to conserve energy by drying herbs on the radiator overnight to minimize use of the restaurant dehydrator and watering his gardens with waste water from washing produce.

He stressed teaching people to cook with what’s available each week.

“The biggest thing is knowing what grows in your region and get to know your farmer and eat from him and follow him throughout the year. It changed the way I cooked,” said Cournoyer.

“I didn’t have to manipulate as it was so much better tasting.”

As examples, he cited chefs’ common use of butter or wine as unnecessary to enhance food flavours.

For him, these changes meant regrouping and changing his restaurant menus despite solid reviews on his food.

“I lost all my customers,” he said. “I just did it because it was right. I didn’t think about the effect of what the changes brought.”

His current customers are like-minded, care about sustainability in agriculture and are seeking a connection with their food and where it came from.

“It’s just as important as the food,” Cournoyer said.

“We have to question the way we live. Food is the seed to a more sustainable way of living,”

Cournoyer believes better food means improved health and wellness for the long term.

His taste experiments have included foraged edible flowers, wild mushrooms, herbs, greens, lichens and birch leaves and cultural food practices to create a uniquely Canadian cuisine. He calls it regional Canadian food.

“I was questioning who I am, where I came from and what is a Canadian,” he said.

He objects to forcing growth in greenhouses through winter and feels more food should be organically grown. He proposed governments subsidize organic operations to grow food and offer it in season for more nutritious and better tasting school meal programs.

“Every kid should have porridge and apples at this time of year,” he said, interviewed in the late fall.

He said that would open a door to educating youth about food production, citing his desire to see every child be able to bake a loaf of bread, and prepare crudités and soup.

“If we eat like this, we will be supporting the small communities that are the heart of the country,” he said.

Cournoyer noted how his own children have learned to crave and appreciate the tastiness of a pear in season over what is mass marketed.

He would like to create a food guide by region to capitalize on what’s available locally to cook with and recommends extending the season by preserving for winter.

“It’s my responsibility as a chef to share how we should eat as Canadians as opposed to just caring about everything in my restaurant only.

“We need to adjust your priorities. Make more time for meaningful things.”

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