This column first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on 27 February 2008
Where do you eat out when you want to eat local food? I am frequently asked this question and, I am glad to say, the answer is getting easier. A growing number of restaurants in Saskatoon are tapping into the local food market so it is now possible to find fresh locally-produced ingredients on several menus.
One of the leaders in local cuisine is chef Rémi Cousyn of Calories Restaurant on Broadway Avenue. Rémi hails from the south of France where restaurants specialize in local foods—not just for the tourists that flock to the Cote d’Azur, but also for local diners who take pride in their regional cuisine. He brought this ethic to Saskatoon, creating a network of farmers and gardeners who supply his restaurant, changing the menu every month to take advantage of whatever has landed at his kitchen door.
I recently dined at Truffles Bistro, which has moved downtown, where all the local food suppliers are listed on the menu. If there is any concern that “local” and “gourmet” don’t go together, Truffles’ chefs Lee Helman and Jean-Francois Dionne put that sad misconception to rest. Then there’s Simon’s restaurant, run by chef Simon Reynolds, who hails from England, where local food has been popular for going on 15 years. At Simon’s, the flavours may be British but they’re made whenever possible with local ingredients. I was introduced to Simon at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market by another chef, Dan Walker, proprietor of Weczeria in the Broadway district. Dan is often spotted at the market clutching heavy sacks laden with fresh food.
When I’m in the mood for a drive, I visit the New Ground Café in Birch Hills where Jennifer Willems serves comfort food made almost entirely with local supplies. In fact, I saw all these chefs this past weekend at the first Farmer-Chef Connection conference in Saskatoon. As the name implies, a whole bunch of chefs sat down with a whole bunch of farmers and gardeners to talk about the possibilities for bringing more local food to their menus. So many people registered for the event it had to be moved to a bigger ballroom at the Bessborough Hotel.
The chef at the Bessborough, Ryan Marquis, served a fabulous lunch that included blue potato salad, roast chicken with chanterelle mushroom ragout, red fife bread, saskatoon berry pie and gelato topped with rose petal syrup. Other restaurants represented were Boffins, Los Palapas, Jerry’s, the university Faculty Club, Riverside Country Club, Saskatoon Club and the Yellow Fender in Christopher Lake. Perhaps Simon summed it up best when he looked around the room and said, “It’s a new food scene for Saskatoon.”
The keynote speaker was chef John Bishop of Vancouver who is a pioneer of the local food movement in Canada and author of the new cookbook Fresh: Seasonal Recipes Made with Local Foods. (And who, incidentally, is married to a gal from Wilke, Saskatchewan.) John talked about a shift in restaurant culture—at one time, fine dining meant exotic foods like lobster and other imported delicacies, but has now come to mean the freshest local ingredients served at their very best. Like most restaurants, he used to order all his food from one company (which also sold him toilet paper and cleaning supplies), delivered regularly in a big truck. Now, he has more than 30 individual farmers supplying food throughout the year. Of course, a chef in Vancouver has an advantage over a chef from Saskatchewan, where nothing grows outside for six months of the year. He advocates the “80-20” rule—or perhaps a “50-50” rule this time of year—using local ingredients when they are available, augmented with foods from away.
Just how wonderful this can be was proven Monday evening by the chefs at Calories, who served a four course local meal based on recipes from John’s new cookbook. We started with a velvety lentil soup, then trout in a creamy egg sauce, rabbit with potatoes parisiennes, berry mouse on honey pound cake and a sip of cassis made with local black currents. The chocolate liquor cup wasn’t local, but who’s complaining?
With possibilities like that, and with more farmer-chef connections, expect to see plenty more local foods on local menus. Perhaps it’s time for a window sticker so that tourists—and the rest of us—can enjoy the flavours of Saskatchewan more often.