"As chefs and farmers, more than anybody else, we really have a unique opportunity in that, through restaurants, we can educate people."
- Ed Walker, president, Thompson-Shuswap Chef Farmer Collaborative
ON THE MENU
* Some of the Best of B.C., the theme of the annual TRU Foundation Gala, Feb. 5 in the Grand Hall.
* B.C. spot prawns
* Quadra Island scallops
* Vegetables from Thistle and Nacho Organics
* Dairy from Blackwell Dairy
* Peaches from the Okanagan
* Crannog organic beer from Sorrento
* Locally made mead
Long the boast of restaurant menus and the toast of diners, imported foods are beginning to lose some of their consumer cachet to fresher alternatives.
The rise of the local took a big step forward last year with the formation of the Thompson-Shuswap Chef Farmer Collaborative, a network that works directly and indirectly to educate the public's palate.
When guests are seated Feb. 5 at the TRU Foundation Gala - always one of the most elegant and stylish events in town - they will find, not Russian caviar, New Zealand lamb or Chilean sea bass, but the best of B.C.
The gala has sailed the seven seas in terms of themes. Last year it visited the Forbidden City for a Chinese accent. This year it drops anchor in a home port.
"The TRU Foundation told me last year that this would be a B.C. theme, so obviously I was very excited about that," said Ed Walker, culinary arts instructor at TRU and president of the collaborative.
Walker met in the summer with local grower Dieter Dudy of Thistle Farms to begin planning for the gala menu. That told the Westsyde grower what he needed to stock his root cellar in fall.
"So that in February, I'm able to offer fresh local vegetables," Dudy said.
Locally grown foods, as championed by the 100 Mile Diet (brainchild of B.C. authors Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who grew up in Kamloops), are not new to restaurants. David Tombs, executive chef at Delta Sun Peaks, has been putting the concept into practice for years, Dudy noted. The simple but not so conventional wisdom is that locally grown food is fresh and therefore offers superior flavour and nutritive value.
That makes it a natural preference for any quality-conscious chef, but fresh also bears economic, social and environmental benefits.
"I've been putting it into practice with Accolades for a while," Walker added.
When it came to founding a collaborative here, Walker and others looked to the Vancouver island Chef Collaborative
"They've been going for probably 12 to 15 years and have made a huge success of it. We're kind of modelling it on theirs."
At the first meeting we expected half a dozen and there were 20 people sitting around the table." At the most recent meeting, no fewer than 40 chefs and farmers turned out. The contacts alone make the network worthwhile, Dudy said.
"This is a direct connection to the chef," Walker said. Once chefs are on board, they soon discover they can serve local foods economically "Indirectly, the consumer benefits from this, too."
And it has had unexpected benefits as well. His Thistle Farm organic produce operation suffered a setback last fall when a pilot light blew out as the temperature plunged to -18 C. That rendered his cellared crop of gem squash unmarketable, though not unusable. Walker came to the rescue with his students helping to salvage the squash and prepare 400 servings of squash soup for the Salvation Army.
Walker looks at restaurant not merely in a food service capacity but as houses of gastronomic learning, where diners are exposed to foods they might not include in their weekly shopping carts. He's watched the trend to local food preferences grow over the past five years.
"Luckily it's a trend that won't go away … People are totally buying into this. They're going to get what's fresh and what's local.
"As chefs and farmers, more than anybody else, we really have a unique opportunity in that, through restaurants, we can educate people," he added.
"It's definitely changed the way I look at growing, particularly when ordering seeds," Dudy said. "It's also changing the way I'm looking at the whole farm." Given the market impetus, he's planning to start the season earlier and extend it by using "rowhouses," which are like greenhouses without heat. "It's something we need to investigate.
"We're always in a state of change, trying to incorporate new ways of doing things," such as double plantings, producing two crops in one season.
Next month the collaborative holds its first "grow opp," which stands for growing opportunities.
"What that's going to be is basically a new trade show." The event will also help growers determine their seed purchases in preparation for spring plantings.
SIDEBAR: Gala projects pride, supports students in need
As impressive as the TRU Foundation Gala can be, Christopher Seguin is sure to hear one complaint: How come I can't get tickets?
Predictably, the Feb. 5 event was completely sold out well in advance.
When Seguin, the university's vice-president of advancement, was put in charge of the gala a few years ago, he wasn't sure what to expect. He'd arrived from SFU, where there is no such celebration.
"But every year I just get wrapped up in the enthusiasm of the volunteer committee," he said. "When people come from Vancouver, they're blown away. I love making that impression."
Volunteers and sponsorship have made the gala one of the highlights of the city's social calendar since its inception 18 years ago. They produce an event that is fun, spectacular and supporting a good cause: Bursaries for students in financial need who might otherwise fall through the cracks.
"The gala is meant to inspire people and make them feel good about B.C., the university and Kamloops, and to learn about what we do," he said. "Not many universities do this kind of thing."
The challenge is to make each gala more impressive than the last. The Best of B.C. offers not only a homegrown menu but a celebration of collective identity.
"Often we kind of forget about the fact that we live in the best place on the planet."
In terms of decor, the rotunda of the Campus Activity Centre will greet guests with a B.C. winter theme while summer overtakes the Grand Hall. Special guests will include Minister of Science and Universities Ida Chong and philanthropist Ike Barbour, who gifted $1.5 million to the new TRU House of Learning. As TRU president Allan Shaver hosts his first foundation gala, another major gift to the new TRU law school will be announced.
In keeping with the theme, all of the entertainers will be local musicians. The newly formed Kamloops Glee Club, led by alumnus Shalen Curle, opens the evening lineup. A KSO chamber group comes next, followed by vocalist Cathi Marshall and guitarist Mike Turner with smooth jazz. Swing Cat Bounce will later set the dance floor afire with swing blues.
The event raises about $70,000 each year despite the recent recession.
"We have been able to hold our own just through sponsorships and support."