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On chef Karen Vaz, from the National Post

Sunday, April 01, 2012

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"For the chefs of the Brewers Plate, eating local is a delicious duty" by Mike Doherty

Chefs Atikian, Vaz, Robertson and Kennedy extol the virtues, beauty and simplicity of eating — and crafting brews — locally.

“I think I’m going to plant some hop vines on my farm this year, for fun,” announces Jamie Kennedy, as three fellow chefs perk up their ears. Karen Vaz of the Rebel House, John Robertson of The Big Carrot and Av Atikian of Jam Café — locavores all, after Kennedy’s own heart — have joined him around a table at his own Gilead Café, and they’re intrigued.

Kennedy isn’t proposing anything new — as he notes, Prince Edward County had “huge beer production” during the “Barley Days” of the late 19th century. When the U.S. export market dried up, local demand wasn’t sufficient; soon drinkers were buying brews from farther afield.

“Sometimes,” Robertson says, “you have to do the wrong thing to know what the right thing is.” For these chefs, an example of “the right thing” would be the fifth annual Brewers Plate on April 18, which will find them (and eight other chefs) teaming with southern Ontario brewers to pair craft beer and local food.

Kennedy is the event’s patron. In between preparing plates for Gilead’s lunchtime diners, including the chefs (“It feels weird to have another chef cook for you,” notes Robertson, but he’s not complaining about his whitefish éclair sandwich), he offers a historical take on local food and drink.

Pointing to the wall of colourful preserves on shelves behind him, he says, “All of this is part of the southern Ontario story, over 100 years old. I’m just attaching a renewed importance to it — you buy things in quantity when they’re cheap and beautiful, and you preserve them.”

It’s always tempting for restaurants to buy cheaper ingredients from farther afield, especially out of season; the same goes for heavily marketed industrial beer brewed with inexpensive, flavour-reducing adjuncts. Vaz notes that at the Rebel House, where she has cooked for 10 years, big-company representatives are continually “trying to get us to stray from the path that we’re on.” Over a bottle of Mill Street Organic lager, she says straying has never been an issue: Her Kenyan-immigrant parents in Etobicoke raised her to shun anything, in her life and her career, that smacks of processed food.

Few chefs can claim such a pedigree — Atikian spent his first 20-odd years cooking mainly in “big places that don’t give a damn about anything except profit,” before an “epiphany” 10 years ago reconnected him to memories of his parents’ garden in Scarborough. Now he serves local food at the cozy Jam, with a growing craft beer list. Robertson had his own epiphany — or “mushroom moment,” smirks Vaz — a dozen years back after deciding morels he’d cooked on a friend’s farm were “probably the best thing I’ve ever eaten.”

Together, the chefs hope to introduce younger people to the joys of local food — the Brewers Plate’s proceeds go to the charity Green Thumbs Growing Kids, which encourages students to grow and harvest edible gardens in school. Adults attending the event will be encouraged to discover new tastes — with wide eyes, Atikian describes the Nickel Brook beers he’s cooking with as “very intense!”

Kennedy, though softer-spoken, is convincingly evangelical. The Brewers Plate, he says, is a “microcosm” of the city’s local food and beer movements, which are “largely influential for the rest of the country. You look to Toronto for what’s hip, but this is exploring a new model. It’s far-reaching; it’s not just trendy.”

Posted April 14, 2012, original National Post