It’s the final stretch of Culinary School at George Brown College. I’ve just finished one of my classes and was asked by my chef to speak with him in the hall along with a friend of mine. We met him with anxiety, thinking we had failed an assignment or erred in some way. Instead, it was an incredible offer, though mysterious at the time. All I knew was that it was an event in May that would involve numerous high-profile culinary guests and hosts, and was a huge opportunity for networking (We had just finished talking about networking in our class). The date didn’t work for my friend, who was returning to Australia long before then. I, on the other hand, had a completely open summer.
A few weeks later came the emails, and I learned that I, along with several other George Brown students, had been gifted entry into the Terroir Symposium.
Terroir is a day long event where culinary minds and chefs get together to share ideas, philosophy, and of course food and drink. It’s like a massive brain-storming session, intended to leave you satiated both in taste and mind.
It was nothing I had planned to attend before. Tickets running a high price, it would normally be beyond my budget, and beyond most others in the industry as well. So, to plan for the day and to absorb as much as possible, I planned ahead. I got my camera gear selected and set up, I picked the smallest notebook I could find to fit into my purse, and scanned through the scheduled talks for that day. The choices were hard to make, but I went in with a game plan (albeit a loose one) and excitement.
The morning of, we were to begin arriving at 7 am for registration. Wine shops were being offered as well, and required pre-registration, however I would not attend these (being pregnant and all, it was far too cruel for me as it was to see the numerous VQA vintners and their wines without being able to touch them). I would attend a talk on Bread; on writing in the industry; on Acadian french flavours; and a final talk on new Canadians. Preceding and following these sessions were plenary speeches, held for the first and final two hours of the day, and each featuring different general themes. The first would be based on Indigenous culture in Canadian Cuisine, and the last would be based on the industry’s future.
Having all this in mind, I stepped into the Art Gallery of Ontario (which has been virtually completely reserved for this event) with anticipation. Almost immediately, however, I felt awkward.
Several other George Brown students would be attending that day, but I only knew one of them. She was already there that morning, speaking with a few people (“Wow, she works fast!” I had thought), while the rest of the slowly growing crowd only filled itself with strange faces.
I didn’t know any of these people, but there were so many! Every time I wandered off somewhere and returned to the main lobby, there were more strange faces and a growing hum of discussion.
I wandered the outskirts a little bit, adjusting my camera settings for the room, and finally dived in to the breakfast options (Mini pancakes, sausage rolls, scones, and plenty more I’m sure I missed) and the already available cheese for tasting by Upper Canada Cheese Company.
Eventually, I made contact with one of my fellow GBC students. We found ourselves at a table with a few other young people and our MC for the day: Matty Matheson. He was scrolling through the pictures on his iPhone, showing us the various foods items he had just finished eating in the popup version of Noma.
Eventually, the crowd had grown substantially in size, and just in time for us all to be guided to the elevators and brought up to Baille court for the opening sessions.
The opening session immediately inspired me and touched on my personal feelings for Canadian culinary. I was eagerly writing down notes and names, trying to get shots of each speaker as they came up, trying to remember the ideas and emotions their words inspired within me, while also taking note of the crowd and the displays around. In this room, too, was more food and drink, which would rotate throughout the day as I returned here for another two sessions.
From this point on, it was a racing match. We all had planned our days out, with many attending the sessions (some attendants seemed to choose mingling around the food and drink, catching up with others and networking) that had been set up immediately one after another. My first session was on Bread, specifically the industry’s changing trends in whole grain and gluten-free baking. There were questions asked moderator Pay Chen (a media personality in Toronto), and after 45 minutes of these, a few more fired by the audience until it was time to vacate and make room for the next panel to take place.
The day was spent rushing, with only a few moments to pause and take some time to notice there was more food out to be eaten. The second session would begin just after an hour long lunch. I’ve learned, as I get older, that time passes much more quickly than we think. An hour to go around tasting everything that’s available, trying to connect with more people (which, thankfully, I began to warm up to more easily, helped by the fact that everyone was trying to find a perch to eat their morsels, and often those perches were shared with strangers!), is not enough time! I am fairly certain I got to taste just about everything, only avoiding certain things (like Tuna, which I avoid for Mercury concerns).
Lunch was an opportunity to see some well known chefs and restaurants display their fares and talents. It was a chance to eat too much. And it was a moment to breath before beginning the next rush of three-in-a-row sessions.
Many had notebooks, just as I did. All were listening intently, laughing at jokes, nodding along. It was pure interest, mixed delicately with some whispers (but all seemed related to the discussion at hand, at least when I overheard them). Some were finally meeting others they had long wanted to meet and speak with. Some were being reunited after a long break.
But I do admit, once, I broke session early. Finding myself a little lost in the discussion on French Flavour (and just not finding enough inspiration from it) and in need of a drink, I found many others had remained in the lobby. Looking around at the crowd, it was quintessential networking at it’s best. Many were standing in groups of discussion, almost all of them holding a drink. A few smaller crowds made their way around the now rotating food vendors, sampling everything and breaking down the flavours, the ideas, really talking to one another. I found a couple I knew (they own a catering business around the corner from me, and are pretty awesome folks) and finally took a moment to socialize with them. It was my little breather from the activity and stimulation, but I just had to see what the other half was up to while us note-takers were in sessions. Frankly, it’s a toss-up between which would be better to spend the day. I’d say if the sessions weren’t interesting you enough, socializing and networking sure isn’t a bad choice either! Either way, the discussions were almost largely about food, so it was a win-win scenario.
The final session featured five discussions (with the usual intermissions and introductions by our fairly hilarious and “real” host Matheson): Kevin Kossowan discussed trying to find what quintessential “Canadian Food” really was; Pulse Canada spoke about the rising trend of pulse consumption in the country and it’s favour over meat by many Canadians now; writer Michael Ableman spoke about responsible farming and feeding, and shared wonderful photographs and stories of his life creating various farming initiatives within cities; a panel discussion on Mentorship in the food industry and young chefs (presented by San Pellegrino), and a final panel of various high-profile chefs on what it means to be Canadian in the food industry (and the ever asked question: Why don’t we have any Michelin Stars in the country? I can certainly think of a few restaurants deserving of such fame.). This panel included Matty Matheson (taking a break from his MC duties), Lynn Crawford, Dufflet Rosenberg, and Susur Lee.
When this panel broke, we had a final thanks and farewell from one of the masterminds behind the event, Arlene Stein (with whom I had been emailing a little before the day). And, after it all ended, we were guided for the last time to the elevators down to the main floor to exit, the food vendors now all packed up and gone, and the room much quieter than before. You would hardly know anything had happened.
Many were heading to the after party at the Shangri La. I, however, had a mind too full for any more, and could not stand to be around so much food and drink anymore when I couldn’t partake (Really, this event isn’t made for pregnant women. I already miss wine, I don’t need to be offered free glasses for 12 hours straight, and then some more into the evening!).
What did I walk away with?
For one, it made me miss being submerged in the industry. I work in the industry now, a small role in a nearby bakery. There are many things I haven’t done: I haven’t worked the hot line, nor worked in a space with a designated hierarchy of chefs and sous chefs. What this event did help instil in me was my true passion in it all. I find myself drawn towards the theory of food, the ideas and skill behind creating it, growing it, distributing it, and it’s health (for ourselves and the environment). It also reminded me that I need to be proactive in remaining current with the food world and taking part in it (An ultimate test, as I approach parenthood).
It grounded my interests again, and reminded me that my day-to-day work is only the tiniest portion of this massive world. It’s one that touches on so many aspects of our lives, we are largely unaware of it, until we gather at such events.
There is a history to food that far exceeds the reach of the restaurant industry. It is within our cultures, our families, and our bodies. It helps us function, it can stimulate us, it can comfort us, and it can cause wars.
The discussion on Bread first thing in the morning got me excited all over again to try new loaves of sourdough bread (stay tuned for posts on that!). The panel following on writing cookbooks in this new age of social media reminded me of the importance of remaining interactive with others (even if it is online), and to keep exercising my skills in the most public way.
But perhaps the largest theme of all was that of our culture. The morning talks really spoke to our indigenous roots in Canada (Again, stay tuned for posts in the future), and trying to find it’s rightful place in the culinary world. But it wasn’t limited to indigenous culture, either. In the afternoon, I attended a panel on Newcomers to Canada, and what immigrants brought to the food industry. A wonderful example was given by Ann Hui, and the “Chinese Food” of Canada being a far cry from authentic Chinese. It wasn’t meant in a negative way, however. Instead, it was a reflection on the Canadian landscape. Chinese food, as we largely know it across the country and in small-medium towns, has been reworked to accommodate the ingredients of this land. It’s a homage to both worlds, and a truly funny and beautiful thing to see how it’s varied across the country as such (Her great words on the topic can be found here).
And even more can be said about immigrant food culture by Suresh Doss, who leads various tours (in his spare time) to the suburbs of Toronto- Not the epicentre of food culture in the city, at least not on the cutting edge of it. Instead, it’s the place to go for authenticity and true home-made foods by the various cultures in the ‘burbs. He explained that immigrants living near the airport (we can imagine many reasons why they would remain so close) often stay out of the downtown core as a means to avoid the speed and confusion of it (And boy, I don’t blame them!). For this reason, these suburbs are more likely to have markets that supply their favoured ingredients from home- the ones they are familiar with in cooking- thus, allowing them to continue their traditional meals and to preserve their food culture from (as much) influence (as the downtown core).
Truly, I have been stimulated. I have been inspired to investigate more into the fleeting thoughts I had throughout my culinary education. And ultimately, I am left asking:
What is “Canadian” culinary? And what does it mean to be Canadian?