TORONTO — Like settlers of old, Toronto chefs and diners are looking forward to spring as a respite from rutabaga and butternut squash.
“Winter is challenging,” said Michael Hunter, chef de cuisine of Toronto’s 125-seat outpost of Scarpetta restaurant in the Thompson Hotel.
“There’s only so much squash, potatoes and turnips you can feed people.”
Hunter and other Toronto chefs rely on foodservice distributor 100Km Foods Inc., which sources and buys food directly from farmers and delivers it to their back door. The roots and spinach are often caked in mud, he said, a far cry from the pre-washed vegetables from California.
“I think we’re all on trend to try and keep it local,” said Hunter, who forages for morels in spring and takes his children to farmers markets in the summer.
“I like to support local farmers and put money back into the economy, and I think the carbon footprint issue is important,” he said.
At the Fairmont Royal York hotel, where chefs grow more than 40 vegetables on the roof in summer and jar honey from rooftop hives, chef de cuisine Tim Palmer can tell you the provenance of every ingredient on his menu at Epic, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant.
The hotel’s potatoes are all locally sourced, he said, which adds up to thousands of pounds a year.
“We source as much as we possibly can locally,” he said.
“If we can’t find an ingredient in Ontario, then we broaden our search across Canada, then look to the U.S.”
Potatoes and hardier beets, sunchokes, red turnips and onions are stored in the root cellar of his supplier Cookstown Greens, where they should last until May, he said. Lettuce, tomatoes and colorful peppers are harvested in southern Ontario greenhouses almost year-round.
Palmer said the Fairmont’s business and Bay Street clientele appreciate fresh, healthy options, so he’s been increasing the amount of vegetables on the plate and reducing starches and carbohydrates.
Instead of the rich butter sauces of the past, he lightly tosses cooked vegetables with a little olive oil and seasoning. He cooks unpeeled beets sous vide — under a vacuum — at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes with a little olive oil, thyme and salt.
“They come out beautifully sweet and vibrant in color,” he said.
“When you start with a great product, you don’t have to do a lot to it.”
When spring arrives, he’ll celebrate by serving asparagus on every plate. He also buys extra, pureeing the stalks and pickling the tips to decorate charcuterie plates next winter.
“It takes a lot of extra work to make connections with all the different producers, and tomatoes available today may not be available tomorrow, but it’s a commitment and it’s something we all love, so it makes it a little easier for us,” he said.
Arron Carley, executive sous chef at Volos Estiatorio downtown, is one of the few Toronto chefs who visit the Ontario Food Terminal occasionally to find out what’s new in produce and what’s coming next.
“In the summer our supplier tries to get us Ontario as much as he can, not only because he believes in it but it’s generally a better price,” Carley said.
His Greek menu uses five kinds of tomatoes, a riot of bell peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, fennel and herbs in colorful raw side salads and grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil.
“We get produce in six days a week, and it’s all got to be fresh,” he said.