Breakfast with Robert Clark

This morning’s Canadian Chef’s Conference (CCFCC) breakfast featured Chef Robert Clark, Executive Chef of C Restaurant. Similar in theme to Monday’s session with Rob Feenie, Clark used different points to drive home the sustainability message. He admitted to being nervous, but the humour injected as a result was often priceless and made for an entertaining and interactive breakfast session and Q&A.

Breakfast with Robert Clark

Members of the Chef’s Table Society attended the event in support of Chef Clark. Formed six years ago, this organization has been instrumental in making collective changes in local purchasing power for chefs in Vancouver and beyond. The organization takes various approaches in accomplishing goals, whether it’s early education in the classroom, culinary education at chef’s schools, or elevating the quality of products that chefs work with.

A big issue surrounding sustainability is that we don’t pay the real cost of food in North America. Somebody, somewhere in the world pays for what we consume. When we buy local, we’re paying a realistic cost to a farmer or fisherman since it’s part of our community and there’s no hidden prices.

“As chefs we get a joy out of working with quality products. We’re trained to find the best we can find.”

BC spot prawns

BC Spot prawns are a perfect example. We’ve achieved something as a community with OceanWise, and have a responsibility to move all aspects of sustainability forward with regard to food. The reason shrimp produced in other countries is available so cheaply is because other people in the world are going hungry so that we can have cheap shrimp.

Where did this food come from?
Clark often asked this question to suppliers in the early 90’s, and many either didn’t know the answer to the question, or didn’t want to answer it.

As much as Chef Clark enjoys talking about sustainable seafood, he instead started to discuss sustainability of the profession. The current generation doesn’t have the opportunity to work with food, due to changes in the way food is produced. Butchers and bakers have experienced this; next in line will be chefs. “We are losing a lot of our skill set.” The next generation will be our hope. Teaching our youth remains the most important aspect of sustainability, even in diverse ethnic communities.

Candied salmon

Back in the day, you knew everything about the food at the restaurant where you apprenticed. What students today are exposed to poses a huge problem as compared to the older generation of chefs. We are bound by government legislation in how we purchase our food. There’s limitation to what’s offered in the marketplace. With seafood, OceanWise has made small changes in the way chefs talk to suppliers. “They want to service you, but you have to demand something more than what’s commonplace.”

Breakfast with Robert Clark

Clark went on to make several more points:

– We’ve always had quality seafood, but not always had accessibility to it. When chefs drive down the price on products, it in turn lowers the quality available, even though we’re in business to make money.

– We need to get away from demanding cheaper food. We need to pay more for our food, increase the quality of the food, create real food, and serve real food.

– It makes no sense to spend money on petroleum and to burn carbon to harvest seafood that’s going to be ground up and be delivered to fish farms to feed the fish. Salmon can feed themselves just fine. “They’re very organized. They leave and return each year-or every few years-and we know where they’ll return. There’s no need to babysit them, nor should there be carbon or energy expended to fence or feed them. We can take what’s close to home and eliminate wasted carbon.”

– No, you shouldn’t be eating shark fin soup at your daughter’s wedding.

– We can buy pineapples as they’re not grown locally, but we shouldn’t be bringing in apples, cherries, and blueberries. The reason we have to is partly due to government legislation, and partly because we’ve lost the infrastructure to produce them ourselves. We can produce blueberries, but we don’t have the capacity to can them. Those industries need our support the most.

– This is the first time in history where our government continuously brings in policy making it harder for us to feed ourselves. We create policy that allows for other countries to feed us. At some point they’re going to stop feeding us, whether through war or depletion. At that point, if our farmland is covered by condos and mini malls, we’ll be facing a huge crisis (or in Chef Clark’s words, “The shit will hit the fan”).

– The lower the price, the more we consume. We don’t need to consume anymore; we already consume too much as is. At some point, we won’t be able to sustain ourselves.

– As chefs, we’ll be the last generation that will have the opportunity to cook food if we don’t take measures. We will be like blacksmiths and candlemakers. There won’t be real food to produce or work with. It will all be manufactured.

The take-away message brought all the points back home: As chefs, we consume products. It takes the desire and will of our profession to have a very fundamental impact on how food is produced, purchased, distributed and consumed.

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