Life / Food

Canadian chefs eager to restore millennials' confidence in food system

"Why is a banana cheaper than an apple? An apple comes from my backyard and a banana doesn’t."

Chef Chuck Hughes visited a Saskatchewan canola farm to learn more about where food comes from.


Chef Chuck Hughes visited a Saskatchewan canola farm to learn more about where food comes from.

Even professional chefs are sometimes baffled by our food production and distribution system.

“Why is a banana cheaper than an apple?” wonders Chuck Hughes, owner of Garde Manger and Le Bremner restaurants in Old Montreal, in an interview about his visit to a family-run canola farm in Saskatchewan this summer.

“An apple comes from my backyard and a banana doesn’t. There’s all these questions I don’t necessarily have the answers for,” adds Hughes, who this year has focused on sustainability through side projects like running a kitchen at Osheaga music festival where the theme was “buy less, waste less” and rock stars were served food in compostable containers.  

Home cooks pushing a cart through aisles of their local grocery store can likely relate to Hughes’ confusion, as despite having more information than ever about our nutrition and the eco-footprint of the food system, it’s also more difficult to cut through the crap.

A study this past spring by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity found 22 per cent of millennials said they thought the Canadian food system was headed down the “wrong track” when it comes to food safety, nutrition, the environment and animal welfare.

This cohort had the highest distrust of the food industry compared to other demographics.

An Ipsos poll from January declared a new breed of decision-makers was emerging, the “young educated millennial moms”  who have more spending power and want to buy fewer processed foods. One in four Canadians was motivated to buy a food or beverage with simpler and fewer ingredients, double that of a year ago, according to the poll.

Hughes suggests consumers take brands to task if they aren’t following sustainability or nutritional guidelines in their ingredients list by writing to the companies and voting with their wallet. He also recommends taking an occasional trip to a farm, like he did with Hellmann’s to a canola field with “yellow flowers as far as the eye can see.”

Those flowers are edible, as are their seeds (similar to mustard seeds), he learned, while playing a seed matching game with local children.
“We got to really see the whole process,” he says.

A back-to-basics theme is also evident in Real Food, Real Good, a book by Chopped Canada judge Michael Smith released last month. He says the topic has been a long time coming. “It really dates back 14 years when my son was born and I had a real epiphany about my true understanding of food,” he says. “I find myself at a point in my life where I’ve just lost patience. I’ve lost tolerance for beating around the bush. We have a flawed food system.”

The cookbook outlines ingredients to avoid, calling out marketing buzzwords like “natural” and “free-range,” and warns shoppers to be aware of “fabricated flavours” such as that of sugary breakfast cereals, margarine and bacon bits, for example.

Smith says his aim with the book is twofold: Show amateur cooks who now have a bit of momentum that great cooking doesn’t have to be complicated, and to call out what he refers to as “Big Food Inc.” for promoting unhealthy eating habits.

“Big Food Inc. is this horrendously pervasive idea that we have in this culture that processed food is actually an OK option, whether it’s now and  then or every single day. It’s not OK,” he says.

To really hear Smith’s passion come through, just mention cauliflower.

Last year the vegetable made front-page news (including in this newspaper) when prices rose to $8 a head thanks to a low dollar and a drought in California that affected supply.

“It shouldn’t have been covered,” shouts Smith. “It’s ridiculous bull—. It wasn’t a story. Big freakin’ deal, cauliflower is expensive in the middle of winter. Really? What, is it a slow news week?”

What is upsetting to him is the promotion of the idea that healthy food is expensive.

“Food is less expensive now than ever before in the history of mankind. We spend less money on food than any culture in the history of the world, and yet we have food media and mainstream media that allows this pervasive belief that food is expensive. They are doing a disservice to Canadians.”