Even foodservice industry workers who work with ingredients firsthand don’t often get a glimpse into the fields where the rice or noodles originate from. This disconnect becomes even more distant for consumers. Sitting in a restaurant, far removed from the farms, it can be easy to forget about how the food sitting on your plate was created or where it came from.
This is why the Toronto Food Film Fest (TFFF) event is so important. The film festival (which took place in October 2019) exhibited stories about food and food culture through independent filmmaking; not only showcasing Canada’s diverse restaurant industry but the international foodservice scene. Films were accompanied by snack pairings, insightful panels, and hands-on workshops.
Being able to hear and see the stories and faces behind what’s on our plates helps us all (consumers and industry insiders alike) to connect to our food. The bridge between our personal reasons and the reality of the industry is not often showcased and as a result, independent movies and events like these were made to give us a reminder. These films are here to remind us not just of the reality of the industry, but also to remind us to celebrate the industry and those who make it so great.
Thinking about this, we took a look at a few of the films that were screened at this year’s festival to pull out some of the key learnings and ideas that affect our industry right now and to see how these topics can bridge that disconnect we experience.
Food connects us to our past and present
Food is a way to connect with our ancestors. When you take a bite of a traditional family meal, you are connecting with the past, whether you realize it or not. By eating the same dishes ancestors ate, you experience the same flavours they did many years ago.
Food also connects us to the present, encouraging to live in the moment. We share dishes, talk about our day, commiserate, and connect. Conversations with community members and families over a meal can build our identity and make us feel like part of something big.
The idea that food connects us to our past and present was exemplified on the third episode in the documentary series Red Chef Revival: Prince Rupert. This documentary series explores modern Indigenous cuisine through the eyes of chef Shane Chartrand.
Chef Shane Chartrand was adopted at seven years old. Growing up, he wondered what his biological family looked like. He knew he was First Nations but didn’t know exactly what geological region he was from. This disconnection led to confusion about who he was and his place in the world. For Chef Shane, food was how he found his way home. Whilst trying to connect with his own Metis/Cree identity, his journey led him to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Through cooking and talking with the local community he was able to learn the traditions of his ancestors and gain a better sense of identity.
The importance of introducing and showing Indigenous cuisine to the industry is crucial as respect to Canada’s cultural mosaic and its origins. Non-for-profit organizations such as the Culinary Tourism Alliance (CTA) are bridging the gap between the food and tourism industry through its culinary tours across Ontario. This showcases regional cuisines, as well as providing economic growth in rural communities through tourism. It is beneficial to Indigenous cuisine as a way to market various dishes and to keep traditions alive.
One of CTA’s mandates is to cultivate members and market their regional food stories, as well as developing strong relationships between growers, chefs, processors, restaurateurs, accommodation providers, distributors, government and industry organizations. Furthermore, the organization curates authentic content and experiences to tourists. They developed criteria-based accreditation for the foodservice industry through a membership platform. This is one way to show the marriage of all aspects of the food industry, whether it be foodservice, agriculture, viticulture, etc.
We already have the tools to fight climate change
Climate change is affecting everything, everyone and everywhere. Changing weather patterns affect plant yields, produce seasonality and food costs. Most individuals agree that climate change is real and is impacting their daily lives. The question is, what do these changes mean for the restaurant industry, and how can you adapt and take action to address this problem?
This exact question was addressed during the #Wastenot: Sustainability in the Food Industry panel during the film festival. The discussion was moderated by Robert Celik of LEAF Canada and consisted of panellists who combat climate change at every level of the food chain. Each panellist provided their own take on the question and spoke about what they are doing daily to take action
Gillian Files owner of The New Farm, a certified organic family farm spoke about the excessive amounts of packaging that restaurants receive during the shipping of ingredients. This packaging is unnecessary, especially when it comes to fresh produce. Files suggested that restaurants request that shipments be sent in reusable containers and if they choose not to do so than don’t order from them. The New Farm sends out fresh produce in reusable containers and collects them upon the next delivery of the produce. This idea can even extend to customers and allowing them to take home leftover meals in their own containers rather than those provided by the restaurant.
Restaurants too are taking action on climate change mainly by focusing on how they deal with the restaurant’s waste. Restaurant waste is generated from many places including leftover food, food packaging, takeout containers and used food.
360: The Restaurant at the CN Tower (a level 2 LEAF certified restaurant) is a leader in sustainability and shows that gradual change is what leads to success. Executive Chef John Morris spoke about simple changes such as moving to paper straws, sourcing ingredients from local sources and monitoring how much garbage you generate in a day. One large change, however, was the installation of an ORCA, an innovative waste system that uses microbial processes to break down foods into a safe liquid that be drained in the normal municipal sewage.
Restaurants seriously looking to divert waste from landfills can look to waste companies for added help. For example, Shane Harker the owner of ReThink Resource, a waste company and sponsor of the Toronto Food Festival helps restaurants find ways to divert products from landfills through recycling or composting. In one case Rethink Resource even helped a restaurant divert 87% of its total waste through actions such as setting up compost bins and using them to grow their own salad greens.
The real takeaway of the panel was that restaurants already have the tools to combat climate change. As seen with the actions of the 360: The Restaurant at the CN Tower change can be gradual and starting with something small is a great way to build momentum. Change cannot happen unless we take action.
As consumers as well as food professionals we need to push for more eco-conscious actions to occur. Money is a strong indicator of what consumers want so if you do not agree with the practices of a company do not purchase from there. If enough people perform the same actions it will force changes to occur because places who do not follow the market can not succeed.
Restaurants are lenses into the soul
Customers come to a restaurant not just for the food, but for an experience as well. If the front of the house staff is well-trained and sociable, they make everything look effortless. The back of the house could be incomplete shambles but if a customer’s food is made correctly, they don’t think twice about how much effort was put into the meal. However, the disconnect between seeing what is in front of you and not seeing the back of the house leads can lead to an underappreciation for the amount of effort and care that went into making the meal.
It is important for customers to see the chefs and staff in the kitchen – unfiltered. The film is the perfect way for customers to grab a glimpse of all the hard work that goes into cooking. At TFFF, two films provided the very different perspectives on what it is like to work in the back of the house: Hiro’s table and Stage: The Culinary Internship.
Hiro’s table is a documentary portrait of master chef Hiroji Obayashi and his wife Yasuyo over a sixteen-year span. In their intimate “Mom and Pop” restaurant Hirozen Gourmet they were able to create a lively, warm environment that made their patrons feel as though they were family. The authenticity of the restaurant makes it feel like you are transported to Japan, as well as the occasional fusion dishes that Hiroji had created. Situated in a small strip mall, the restaurant focuses more on fresh and good quality ingredients, with as far as Hiroji going to the farmers market to get the freshest ingredients. This comes to show that in a world of people constantly on the go, the level of commitment and passion for food, as well as upholding tradition is still going strong.
Stage: The Culinary Internship depicted a completely different environment. The documentary follows a group of hopeful apprentices during their stage at Mugaritz; a two-Michelin star restaurant near Errenteria, Spain. Like many cooks and chefs in the industry, this could be our make or break of working in our dream restaurants. The intensity, constant pressure the apprentices had endured may hit close to home as many of us had experienced a stage. Upholding our dreams with some realizing that this is not for them and a better opportunity will come later on is the cycle of any industry, particularly with this one.
Compare the two documentaries, this shows two dynamic sides of the foodservice industry: a restaurant that is run by many generations of a single-family and one that is constantly changing, pumping out new hopefuls and introducing some to the world of high-end cuisine. However, there are some similarities. For instance, both strive for the best; whether it be traditional dishes or an avant-garde dish, both restaurants want to uphold their reputation.
The concept of using independent filmmaking to share these stories helps bridge the gap within the industry because every restaurant, bar, and employee has a story. By doing so, this creates a better understanding of what each restaurant or bar has to offer. Furthermore, this gives exposure to both the establishment and the filmmakers. Following the trends of social media, everyone seems to follow at least one; if not multiple restaurants and food-related accounts. Many food media outlets show the aesthetic side of food (or food porn) to a general audience (ie. consumers) but at the same time, we don’t often see behind the scenes of the finished dish. We have all experienced it throughout our careers in various ways, but to see what we actually go through and relay it through the media may not look glamorous. And yet, when filmmakers shoot a video of a real kitchen during a rush, you see not just chaos theory in action, but also a symphony.
Food for Thought: What about processed foods? What about the manufacturing side of the industry?
Most foods consumed today are processed in some sort of way. Whether it is the cup of coffee you drank in the morning or the frozen dinner you ate last night you must acknowledge that in today’s fast-paced world we rely on processed foods to some degree. The issue with the food processing industry is that it isn’t always depicted in the right way. Looking at canned tuna doesn’t exactly conjure up images of passionate people are behind it. Within the walls and noises of facilities, know there are passionate people who have a smile on their faces.
With that said the representation of the food manufacturing industry in the festival was non-existent. As a result, there is a huge opportunity for filmmakers to create films that show this passionate side of the processing industry. It may not look “pretty” to film as facilities are primarily machines but focus could be placed on the people who are operating these machines, developing innovative products or the food safety professionals inspecting the establishments. Every person there has their own stories and need to have their voices heard.
Focusing on the stories of these individuals I believe would benefit consumers because it would help to dispel the stigmatism against manufactured goods being “unnatural.” The film is a great medium to put a face to the processed food and give you a better appreciation for the number of people involved. The foodservice side would also benefit because restaurants could extend this story through the storytelling of their own. It’s crucial to talk about food in all aspects; bringing the marriage between the manufacturing and foodservice industries because without one or the other, consumers would not have a great experience. Everyone should be celebrated for their work behind the scenes in both industries because they help feed the world.
This year, RC Show 2020 will be collaborating with TFFF for two special film screenings: Red Chef Revival – Episode 1 – Osoyoos and Funke. These films go in-depth to complement this year’s event theme – Diversify & Thrive. As we consider how we can make changes, explore new profit avenues, and met the demands of shifting demographics, these films delve into stories of how two different chefs carved out their paths, discovered new ingredients and cooking methods, and took chances on something new and unexpected.
About the Author(s):
Veronica Hislop is a master’s student in Molecular Science at Ryerson University and a career partner with FoodGrads. She is passionate about bringing awareness to young people about the amazing opportunities available in the food and beverage industry.
Jennie Vallangca is in her final year of the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program at Niagara College. When she is not in the kitchen creating the next innovative product, she is either in fencing practice or cooking up a storm as a member of the Canadian Armed Forces as an army reserves cook. Recently, she placed runner up at Eat North’s 2019 Rising Awards Scholarship Competition.