Spring has settled over the country, and with it comes the first fruits and vegetables of the season. For restaurants with a seasonal menu, the reserves are running out, and the menu builders have been looking forward to their fresh spring produce with eager anticipation. The spring yield means a new menu, with quality local ingredients. Canada has vast and varied growing regions, and all yield a plethora of succulent gifts. What’s coming up fresh depends on where you find yourself. MENU magazine caught up with insiders from three seasonal-based menus restaurants from across the country to talk seasonal menu building—how it works, and what it takes to make it happen. David Gunawan is the owner and executive chef at Farmer’s Apprentice in Vancouver; Dan Sanders has been the executive chef at Globe Bistro in Toronto for over six years; and Cory Urquhart is the co-owner and operator of enVie, a vegan kitchen in Halifax.
First of all, what are the benefits of offering a menu that changes with the seasons?
Dan (Globe Bistro): This is the first restaurant I’ve worked in that is solely driven by seasonal product, so it’s the first time that the local foods that we have in Ontario have steered the direction of the menu. I love that. It’s not only supporting local but if it’s grown seasonally, it’s going to be at the height of its taste, really.
Cory (enVie): From a cooking perspective, our chefs love it. It gives them a better relationship with the food, as well as the people who grow it. From a consumer standpoint, people just like knowing where their food comes from.
David (Farmer’s Apprentice): I think the big picture is about food security and food sovereignty. Where you get your food from affects policy-making and things like that. Plus, it’s about being more politically engaged and active in that part of the social contract. I think that’s the most important aspect.
Are there any big challenges that come with this territory?
Cory: It’s like any menu—they all have challenges—but it definitely is a little easier in the warmer months for things like greens, and stuff you go through in bigger quantities. We are super lucky to have a local tofu company as well as a local mushroom guy, which takes care of a few of our more popular items year round.
David: We’ve been doing it for so long, it’s become habit. The challenge for sure is the dedication and the commitment to sourcing ingredients—you’re building a relationship with 20 different farmers instead of calling one big supplier.
We can’t talk about seasonal menus in Canada without addressing wintertime. What do you do to keep plates full in the winter?
Dan: The winter menu is more challenging for us. It pushes us to be more creative. That includes preserved fruits and vegetables, some we do ourselves, some we get from suppliers that do local preserving. Every spring we go wild leek picking and we ethically forage them. We pickle them all and I have them year-round. So in the wintertime I still have local product, but you have to look ahead and prepare for the winter.
David: In the winter, our menu changes less, based on availability. We do a lot of carrots, beets, squash, rutabagas. In the summertime, there’s an abundance of products, so we change the menu day to day.
Are there any outstanding products unique to your growing region that you like to feature?
Cory: For us the biggest thing is tofu. As cliche as it may sound for a vegan place, we use it for so many things and in so many different ways. We have great mushrooms, and smaller things like edible flowers, sprouts, and things like mint, and basil. All that stuff is readily available. We obviously don’t use seafood, meat, or dairy, and that eliminates an incredible amount of local options.
David: The variety of salmon that we have is quite unique. The fruit is really good from the Okanagan, and we have a lot of mushrooms for sure, and they’re unique to this region.
Dan: Talking really local, a couple of years ago we started this program with a guy who’s trying to bring bees back to the city, and he put a couple of beehives on our roof. Over time, our owner got really interested in the bees and started helping out and eventually took over the program. We have four beehives and we get a year’s supply of local honey right from our own rooftop.
How does seasonal menu building connect you with local producers?
David: When we select the farmers we work with, we look at quality first of all, and second of all, methodology. Those things are kind of hand-in-hand. If you have a product that’s high-quality, naturally it’s grown with care and certain intention, and the methodology has to be sustainable. We go to their farm, we build a relationship, and we go from there.
Dan: We deal with a lot of independent, small suppliers. I just phone them up, I say, “We’re changing the menu in a couple of weeks, what do you have?” I make the rounds, and the seasonal products that we have to work with based on our farmers and suppliers are what drive the menu.
Cory: We are a very small restaurant with not a lot of storage, so we are seeing these people four or five times a week. We are getting the freshest stuff, and also getting feedback on what these farmers and producers have available. There’s always something new and its pretty easy to stay in touch and build relationships.
David: It’s a commitment. You can’t do it without understanding the impact of it. Committing to the cause, then building those relationships, going to farmers markets, knowing the farmers, really.
Dan: Find your local market, get to know the farmers, build a relationship, and they’ll tell you what they’ve got coming up. Even if you’re just a home cook, you can start planning. There’s a great movement of farmer’s markets all over the city. There’s probably one close to everybody. The fun thing about it is getting to know the people who are growing your food. Get out there and meet them. Skip the supermarket. Support local.
With May upon us and June around the corner, menus are going to be changing to include the spring produce. For Vancouver-based Farmer’s Apprentice, that means peas, morel mushrooms, asparagus, and early berries. In Toronto’s Globe Bistro, the menu should soon feature fiddle heads, wild leeks, and the first harvest of asparagus, and in Halifax, enVie is gearing up for fresh greens and blueberries. For businesses like these, where the menu is a showcase of what is fresh and local, every new season brings a new adventure in food, and their customers keep coming back for more.